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Time to pump the brakes on the Ultim Class?

Time to pump the brakes on the Ultim Class?

The breakdown in varying degrees of four of the five Ultim maxi-trimarans racing in the Route du Rhum has raised questions over the reliability of the high-tech multihulls and called into question the viability of the Brest Oceans Race – a non-stop single handed round the world event planned to start in December 2019.

Francis Joyon on the non-foiling IDEC emerged as the winner of the transatlantic race this weekend after overhauling Francois Gabart’s severely compromised MACIF which had lost a foil and a rudder from either side of his boat. Remarkably this damage happened within 72-hours of the start but Gabart pushed on regardless and his team kept the breakdowns a secret.

“Francois has had more problems in six days in this race than when he sailed to round the world to his 42-day record,” a MACIF team statement read.

The other three Ultim teams were forced to withdraw or suspend racing in stormy conditions during the opening few days of the race.

Sebastien Josse on Gitana Team/Edmond de Rothschild and Thomas Coville on Sodebo both limped into La Coruna in northern Spain within 48 hours of the start from St. Malo, while Armel Le Cléac’h on Banque Populaire was even less fortunate – suffering a capsize and having to be rescued from his upturned boat.

Although Coville and Gabart have both raced successfully non-stop around the world in the last two years the incapacitating damage the Ultim fleet suffered in the north Atlantic may well cause the pair to review the design and construction plans on the new two boats they respectively have in-build.

Vincent Lauriot-Prévost of the French naval architects VPLP who designed both the MACIF and Banque Populaire trimarans cautioned that it would be unwise to jump to the conclusion that the boats were inherently unreliable.

In an interview with the Ouest France website Lauriot-Prévost pointed to Coville and Gabart’s solo round the world voyages which he said proved the designs were capable of taking on the toughest weather conditions.

“They were designed in the same way – they were made for that,” he said. “And until now there have been no known structural problems.”

There is no denying though that the breakdown of one of the outrigger pontoons on Banque Populaire – which is widely suspected to be the cause of the capsize (the second one since the boat’s launch – gives grave cause for concern for the Ultim concept.

In the Ouest France interview Lauriot-Prévost speculates whether Banque Populaire’s previous capsize and retrieval around a year ago might have contributed to the recent structural failure that triggered this latest capsize.

“It would be a shortcut to say that there are structural defects on these boats,” he said.

“I am very sorry of course what happened. But the causes can be multiple. The life of Armel Le Cléac’h’s boat was tumultuous. It capsized, was towed, was righted. Did all that contribute? I do not know.

“All tests on Banque Populaire were conclusive and we had no question about the reliability of the boat. Before he left we made sure that the structure of the boat was not compromised.”

Meanwhile French ocean racing guru Michel Desjoyeaux believes the failures were the inevitable result of the Ultim class’ speedy development over the last few years.

“In one or two years these boats have accelerated by 20 to 30 per cent,” Desjoyeaux said in a separate interview with Ouest France’s website.

“It’s as if you had a Formula 1 car and you add a turbo you drive over the same speed bumps. The car of course can break.

“I believe that you have to go through this sort of setback,” Desjoyeaux said.

“We do not have a choice. We are in a world of competition pushed to the extreme in a hostile environment that we do not control. We do not have a crash test, or a test car. So we have to go through regression phases to move forward.

Desjoyeaux thinks the Ultim skippers and their design and build teams will have to work out how to better manage the trade-off between performance and reliability.

“It’s important to understand two things,” he said. “That it is necessary either to raise the foot in these conditions and to keep a very light boat, or to accept a heavier boat that it is a little stronger.

“You have to find a balance but it is very difficult to gauge and it’s up to the sailors – who know what really happens at sea – to help the engineers and designers with this task.”

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