The only former winner lining up at the start of the next Vendée Globe, Vincent Riou has decided not to fit foils on his PRB. This decision is wise, yet risky, but in no way excludes his ability to do it again aboard a tried and tested boat that he knows like the back of his hand. He openly tells us what he thinks.

Your PRB has just been put back in the water (15th March), and you have been out training in stormy conditions. Is it important for you to face such rough weather beforehand?

Vincent Riou: “Yes, to get to know your boat well and manage to set up everything just right, it is vital to experience all sorts of conditions, including the most difficult. After a period in the yard, sailing in strong winds and heavy seas allowed us to test the boat, get back into the swing of things and at the same time get some fantastic library footage. We are now out of the yard work, which lasted for two and a half months. We’re moving into sailing mode and that means a different phase. We’re going to have to sort things out quickly to compete in The Transat (between Plymouth and New York, start on 2nd May, editor’s note) then the New York-Vendée (which begins on 29th May).”

What happened to your 60-foot boat during this winter refit?
“There were no fundamental upheavals. But we worked on a lot of details to make progress. The idea is to get that extra tenth of a knot here and there. For example, we fitted new rudders, fine-tuned the daggerboards and extended the protective cover to offer better protection…”

“Foils are not the magical solution”

Unlike Jérémie Beyou , you haven’t chosen to equip your older generation boat with foils. Can you tell us why?
“Quite simply, because according to our studies, we wouldn’t have any greater likelihood of winning the Vendée Globe with foils than without. In certain cases, foilers may perform better than the traditional floating boats. But the difference is not enough to justify changing everything on PRB. When a study reveals that you have an advantage 60 % of the time with straight daggerboards and 40 % with foils, I can’t understand why it is worth carrying out any major work or spending huge sums of money.”

You really know your boat in her present configuration. Maybe you didn’t want to take the risk of losing that advantage you have in terms of handling her?
“Exactly. I’m lucky to have a 60-foot boat on which I have explored all that is possible within class rules. PRB is today the reference boat in the fleet, the best all-rounder. When you have the best boat in the fleet, you are bound to ask yourself why change things… On top of that I know how to handle her well. With foils, I would have had to start all over again and the timing is very tight. With her straight daggerboards, PRB has the potential to win the Vendée Globe. We had every reason not to go for foils. But I respect those that have taken that route and are fitting foils. If I was building a new boat, I would have gone for foils without any hesitation. When ocean racing, just as in the building sector, it is often harder to renovate and more costly than to build from scratch. The work itself is very complicated and not very pleasant for the shore teams.”

How much would it have cost to fit foils on PRB?
“At least 500,000 euros. We would have had to make a pair of foils, build new housing for them, fit the appendages and then reinforce the hull structure to allow it to withstand the new strains. All of that together, comes to 300,000 euros. The mast on PRB is in fact suited to a traditional boat. It would not have withstood the extra strains and we would have had to build a new mast, which represents an investment of at least 200,000 euros. The overall budget thus comes to half a million and could rise quickly to 600,000… without giving me any greater chance of winning the Vendée Globe.”

IMOCA 60′ PRB – Skipper : Vincent RIOU – Vendée Globe 2016-17 – Port La Forêt 28/03/2016 –  © Benoît Stichelbaut / PRB

But people say that you get 80% of downwind sailing in the Vendée Globe, which is a point of sail, where the foilers do well…
“You need to be cautious about some of the figures being banded about or at least examine them more closely. What VPLP-Verdier have done is great and the technology is fascinating. The designers grabbed an opportunity to push IMOCAs into a new era, but you should not believe that there is anything magical about this. It’s not black or white. A foiler does not always sail faster than a traditional IMOCA downwind. A foiling IMOCA is never faster when sailing at under fourteen knots, which is what happens 20 to 25 % of the time during the round the world voyage. When you are sailing at 110, 120, 130 or even 140° to the wind in stronger conditions, it is true that they are faster. But when it is all about VMG in the wind, foils are not as efficient as straight daggerboards. The concept of the foils that we see today does not enable you to have a good all-round IMOCA. Designers and teams are busy correcting that problem with new foil shapes. Things are moving in the right direction, but there are a lot of problems to deal with, starting with the anti-drift aspect. Upwind, you really are faster with straight daggerboards. The foilers are more powerful and lighter in some conditions. But there are so many other conditions, which do not favour them…”

Will the weather be the deciding factor?
“Yes, partly. It will be about the timing. If the fronts come one after another, if the weather turns out to be favourable, I won’t be able to keep up with the foilers. But if we have to deal with tricky transitions, I’ll have the advantage. For example, during the climb back up the Atlantic, statistics show that you have a 25 to 30 % chance of facing a high which blocks you between the Equator and Europe. Then, you have no other choice but to head upwind practically all the way to Les Sables d’Olonne.”

It’s totally unusual to see new generation boats threatened by an older IMOCA…
“It is indeed the first time that new IMOCAs won’t always be faster than the older ones. I’ve been launching new boats for some time now, stretching back to 2000. Each time there were new boats, we watched them and said, “Wow, that’s fast.” This time, we have seen that in some conditions, they can be fast, but in other conditions, we had a good laugh!”

“The winner of the Vendée Globe will be the one that is most skilful out on the water”

Do you think we’re talking too much about the technology and not enough about the men?
“Yes. Technological innovations are in the news today, but in seven months from now, when the race has begun, it is the men that will make the difference, not the machines. We should not hide the fact that we are setting off alone and non-stop around the world, without assistance, and that you need to finish. The sailors need to be good, be intelligent, know where to place the cursor between safety and performance. These boats, whether they have foils or not, require a certain skill. The experience and intelligence of the sailor is key here. The winner of the Vendée Globe will be the one, who is most skilful out on the water.”

How do you feel about the line-up for the next Vendée Globe. It seems to offer a lot of variety…
“In general, you could say there are about ten of us as contenders aiming solely to race, which means around a third of the fleet. For the others, so the majority, it is more about having a story to tell. This adventure aspect is an integral part of the Vendée Globe. I’m really pleased for the youngsters taking part in the Vendée Globe, who are here to gain experience. But we have to pay attention in my opinion to the way things are moving. I’m not convinced we are going in the right direction. For me, the Vendée is a competition of a very high standard with the best sailors on the most demanding race course. It is not about getting around the world slowly in 110 days. It is not something that should be seen as commonplace. The Vendée Globe is an incredible adventure, and should remain so. The day when there are only people, who want to have a story to tell, it is not certain that there will be the excitement that we have seen over the past 25 years for those that follow the race so passionately. It is the race itself that makes this event so exceptional.”

By Olivier Bourbon / Mer and Media Agency @http://www.sail-world.com/