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Hidden Dangers from Floating Objects

Published on February 22nd, 2017

By Ross Tibbits, Sailing World Magazine
In the Vendee Globe, 21,638 miles of ocean sailing presents hidden dangers for the sailors and their boats. Seven of 29 starting Vendee Globe skippers reported collisions with unidentified floating objects, forcing six skippers to retire or lose valuable time and performance by conducting repairs on the fly. The threat of collision is compounded by the ever-increasing amount of debris in the ocean and the remarkable speeds at which competitors are sailing.

A 2014 survey by the World Shipping Council found that for each of the years 2011, 2012 and 2013, “approximately 733 containers were lost at sea.” When “catastrophic losses” are added to the tally, during violent storms, for instance, the average number of containers jumps to “approximately 2,683” in the same period. That rounds out to more than 233 containers falling overboard each month.

Yet there are hazards beyond containers: whales and large fish, flotsam, ocean debris, trash of varying sizes, even weather buoys. For oceangoing racers today, there is a sense of when, not if, a UFO strike will happen. Here’s how six Vendee Skippers describe their moment of impact.

Alex Thompson, 11.16.16; Location: South Atlantic; Damage: Sheared foil; continued racing
“I was averaging 24 knots when I heard an almighty bang, and the boat stopped and turned to starboard 20 degrees. I went on deck, eased the main sheet, and realized I must have hit something. I eased the boat downwind and went to take a look. The starboard foil had been damaged and there were some scrapes on the starboard side of the boat. I didn’t see anything in the water, but it felt like the boat had wrapped itself around something and it had caused some pretty significant damage. I was instructed to carry out an internal inspection of the boat, and there didn’t not appear to be any structural damage to the hull that I could see.”

Thomas Ruyant, 12.19.16; Location: Tasman Sea; Damage: Cracked hull; Retired
“The shock was exceptionally violent. It gives me the shivers just thinking about it. I was at 17 or 18 knots and I came to a sudden standstill, hitting what was probably a container, seeing the damage it has done to the hull. The whole of the forward section exploded and folded up. Luckily, the boat was not dismasted. It was really very violent. I was sleeping on my beanbag and, fortunately, I had my head down in that, as I ended up hitting the mast bulkhead. I found things that were stowed in the stern right up against the forward bulkhead, thrown 10 meters forward. I wasn’t not far from the coast, and I think I must’ve been close to a shipping lane. There were probably several containers in the water. I think that was what I hit, given the violence of the crash.”

Sebastien Josse, 12.5.16; Location: Southern Ocean; Damage: Broken foil; Retired
“While surfing along, the boat reached 30 knots before slowing right down to 10 knots as she dug in. It lasted for only a few seconds. When the boat got going again, I felt that something wasn’t right, and I soon saw that there was a problem with the port foil. Full Story.

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