Vendee Globe: Alex’s Dilemma

With the failure of a second keel in the Vendee Globe, that of Virbac-Paprec skippered by JP Dick, Yogi Berra’s old adage is never more to the fore.

Dick is closing in on the finish with less distance to sail (c 1800 miles at 1400 eastern) than an O.S.T.A.R,. A couple of days ago, third place JP Dick reported that his keel had fallen off. After he stabilized the boat he did the ET thing and phoned home via satellite phone to report the loss. Personally the fact that over oh, 15 years or so, these IMOCA 60’s have evolved to the point where they can sail, close to up wind, WITHOUT a keel, at 10-11 knots yet, is mind-boggling in the first place. And then (surviving) to call the race organizers to tell them the keel fell off has the air of calling your credit card company to report a lost or stolen card.  Although it is also probably worth contemplating that his design is the “same” as the first boat to lose its keel, Safran, skippered by Marc Guillemot whose keel fell of inside the first 50 miles of the race back in early November.

(One cannot but help being reminded of the late Mike Plant).

Apparently Dick has not (yet)withdrawn and as of Wednesday 23 Jan at the 0907 (Paris time) report Dick appears to be continuing on towards the finish and, sans keel, is still doing 11 knots…..

It is perfectly possible for Dick to be balancing his previous 6th place finish in the 2005/6 race with an ABD in this one. Given the preposterously huge amount of work this race now takes, the 47 year old sailor must be doing some serious soul seeking.

The phrase “Alex’s Dilemma” was the subject line of about 15 of my morning emails. The gist of the traffic is interesting and in a larger way is a commentary on the state of the world: Doing the “right thing” versus acting solely for ones’ self interest.

The discussion seems to have been initiated by Jerry Freeman, O.S.T.A.R. vet, prominent solo/DH sailing advocate and voice of the solo/DH community in the south of the UK, the Solo Ocean Racing Club.

In short, the question of “Alex’s Dilemma” revolves around RRS rule one-helping other competitors in distress-Should Alex Thompson (presently having his best showing in a Vendee Globe- in a strong 4th place) close in on Dick to render assistance- versus pressing on and (presumably) finishing in third. As of the 1400 (Paris Time) tracking fix, Thompson is about 130 miles south of JP Dick and a bit to the west.

Comments in the Petite Bateau Forum, from whence the emails come, run the gamut from: JP Dick has neither retired nor requested assistance, nor (it appears after sailing without his keel for more than 24 hours so far) does he seem to be in any tearing hurry to do so, thus Thompson ought to press on. The opposite extreme is that Thompson ought to stand by while Dick gets to safe harbor which as of about 1100 EST Wednesday morning is the Azores roughly 750 miles to the NE. As of the 1900 Paris time report on the VG site, Dick is in communication with his team and the boat’s designers to figure out a solution which I guess has two answers: Sail on OR abandon to the Azores. Apparently the weather is going to deteriorate as Dick heads further north with the leader presently expected to finish in 30-35 knots and 5 meter seas.

Two comments are firmly in the “Alex should go on” side of the ledger- “It is a race, not a cruise!” One other concurred and added that Dick might easily be collected by another vessel and added the idea that JP Dick ought to be protested since the boat now longer complies with the IMOCA rules for stability……

In the “stand by to help” column were three succinct comments: “seamanship trumps silver every time”

Thompson was quoted on Tuesday in the British paper the Daily Telegraph as hectoring the IMOCA leadership for allowing the design of keels that cannot survive the life of the boat. So some comments in the email exchange suggest Thompson does not have a choice, being so safety conscience, other than to sail over to Dick and offer assistance.

The fence sitters propose:

That Thompson offer assistance, have it refused and then press on for a third and so receive adoration on both counts. A top three finish AND helping a distressed seaman. A third would be Thompson’s best finish, in fact his only in three attempts, so he is pretty keen too. It is further observed that Thompson will be in the vicinity of Dick for a couple or three days as he sails by him by which time Dick will be pretty close to the Azores and so presumably safe(er). The speed difference Wednesday afternoon, Newport RI time, has JP Dick sailing at about 10 knots to Thompson’s 14-15Kts.

Some propose Alex offer a version of stand-by, then ask for redress and so presumably place third and possible be still credited with a sub 80-day voyage. This comment opines that if he merely goes to JP’s aid without a request, then the redress hearing might be “muddy”.

What does one raised in the old school do about all this-What is one to make of the situation and comments? Why might a redress request based on complying with the (most basic) RRS (1.1) be “Muddy”? How might a “muddy” ruling in this case effect a dinghy skipper not assisting a fellow sailor since the distressed sailor did not ask for help? Is it to be so ruled merely in the fact the boats are out of sight and asking for help is required since it is not obvious to the competitors that a boat needs help?

There are the Rules of the Sea, ancient and unwritten and the recent and formalized version covered in the RRS.  As a practical matter all the skippers of these boats are “Professional Mariners” and RRS aside (maybe) they might be questioned by a skilled lawyer as to why they did not render any and all assistance to a vessel in distress.-This issue was raised in one comment: If Thompson “ignores” offering assistance and Dick dies, might Thompson be brought before a court for his involvement or lack of? Might the interested parties of JP Dick bring civil suit against Thompson for neglect?

Ocean racing in general and the Vendee Globe in particular has seen more than its fair share of  commercial and military ships involved in the recovery of solo sailors in all manner of conditions admittedly mostly all after a call for help. The competitors have also gone to the rescue of other competitors too. This incident though seems to be a bit outside the range of normal since Dick is demonstrably at a disadvantage sailing his boat without a keel, yet he is still sailing upright, and pretty fast for now. As of this writing neither from his team or the VG administration does there seem to be any indication of which course he will take.

Nowhere, in any race or regatta in the world, is this basic requirement of assistance more required than in the Vendee Globe. In a sense all sailors rely on each other for support but alone in the grey trackless wastes of the Southern Ocean is this not merely a “Rule” but must, still surely, must it not, be a basic act of humanity? OK the warmer part of the North Atlantic 750 miles away from the Azores is not the Southern ocean, and Dick is a supremely skilled, experienced and talented seaman, but sailing is governed, more than most, or any, sport by precedent and actions of the competitors.

Do we really want to participate in a sporting activity (Or has professional environment changed the form of sailing that much?) where it is possible to ignore a “wounded competitor”  Unlike say an Ironman, where there are helpers and medics following and spread out on the track, sailing, the VG  in particular, demands a camaraderie unseen elsewhere.

As for the idea of protesting Dick for anything related to this incident- Some refer to the DSQ handed to Swill sailor Bernard Stamm based on his activities in southern NZL fixing stuff. Rules are Rules and so stability is a rule and absent it, a DSQ is appropriate goes this theme. But Mike Golding was apparently protested in this fashion for the same reason-finishing sans keel and the protest was tossed out, so Dick might be protected in some way by this precedent.

What will be the outcome? Might Dick be criticized in the event he decides to press on, past the refuge of The Azores? The latest update on the VG site says Dick will postpone any retirement decision until after the Azores. A day north of the Azores, he is still two days to the Spanish/Portuguese coast, if the winds remain favourable. What if he finishes, a fourth is most likely-the 5th boat is 1700 miles astern as of this writing- this works out to five and a half days at 300 miles a day averaging 12.5 knots. Will JP Dick be seen as a national hero (in France) or a hazard to good, and bad example of, sound seamanship? What happens if he presses on past the Azores, and crashes? His team and sponsor must have contingency plans in place, or perhaps this point is part of the dialogue now burning up satellite bandwidth today. What happens if he crashes and dies? Sailing is still the last arena where the individuals rely almost totally on their decisions and the implications of such decisions. Will people (family & friends) really let Dick’s decision to carry on past Safe Harbor and then die, be the end of the discussion?

Regardless of the outcome of the race proper, this edition of the Vendee Globe will set the bench mark for a nail-biting finish, with performance that was barely 20 years ago the sole domain of the 80-120’ Cats with full crews. And that does not even include the (Likely-Do not spook the herd yet) victory of a photogenic and youthful first timer in the guise of Francoise Gabart. I reckon there is at least one insurance company in the world today very happy with at least one of their recent decisions. A discussion for a different post is, what does Gabart do now or next? Take on the solo Fastest Around The Blue Marble time in a 120 foot Tri?

Perhaps the alternative to this entire event is the reprise of the Golden Globe, the original solo circumnavigation race-Back down here on earth.

And just in case all this great racing gets you inspired to try your hand at solo/Double handed sailing, read my latest column in WindCheck Magazine on the subject here.