Interview – Results

THE RIDE ON THE RAZOR BLADE – WHY MR WINDPILOT RESTRAINED FROM GGR

Momentum is beginning to build behind the Golden Globe Race 2022/23, which will once again follow the route of Robin Knox-Johnston’s first ever single-handed non-stop circumnavigation in 1968/69. There are already at least 21 entrants busy preparing for the event. This time, assures organiser Don McIntyre, things will be very different from the catastrophic 2018/19 edition, which saw no fewer than seven boats rolled in the Southern Ocean, some more than once, resulting in five dismastings. Just five of the 17 starters made it to the finish. Windvane self-steering systems play a vital role in the GGR, so it came as a big surprise to hear Windpilot manufacturer Peter Foerthmann announce he would not be involved in the next race. It seems likely that his system will be on the start line again in 2022 nevertheless, as the entry list already includes some sailors who use a Windpilot and others are interested. Hans-Harald Schack spoke with Peter Foerthmann about his support for solo racers and the challenges they can expect to face with the Golden Globe.

The Golden Globe Race 2022 already has 21 skippers signed up. You, the market leader for windvane self-steering systems, have stated that you will not be involved this time. Why? Surely the Golden Globe is the best possible way to promote a windvane steering system.

That was my conclusion too, which is why I committed to support the five Windpilot-equipped sailors in the 2018 edition and made sure they had spare parts and a complete replacement system each just in case. None of these spare systems ended up being needed and all came back unused apart from Abhilash Tomy’s unit, which is presumably resting somewhere at the bottom of the Indian Ocean along with his boat.

Abhilash’s boat was rolled four times, losing the mizzen, the boom and eventually the mainmast. He fell from the rigging and injured his hand and back before being rescued.

Abhilash’s Windpilot survived the ordeal intact. The Golden Globe provided an opportunity for me to demonstrate the advantages of a modern servo-pendulum system over traditional predecessors under the toughest conditions.

All of which makes it even more difficult to understand why you now want to step back from the race. When we asked the Race Manager, he said that no ban has been imposed on any windvane self-steering manufacturer and the Windpilot is one of the event’s “approved systems”, meaning that anyone who wants to use one is free to do so.

The organiser responded to the events of the GGR 2018 by introducing his own personal seal of approval, the “approved systems” tag, with Aries, Hydrovane, Monitor and Windpilot apparently the manufacturers currently endorsed. The Monitor had its “approved” status withdrawn after the awful events that befell Are Wiig and Susie Goodall, so it was effectively banned. It has apparently regained its “approved” status now though after the manufacturer committed to beef up the system. The Beaufort has been unable to regain “approved” status after all three systems in the 2018 race failed. This amounts to the same thing as a ban I think. Sailors intending to use other windvane self-steering systems have to present a case to the organiser explaining why he should approve the system concerned.

I have heard that this can pose something of a problem given that GGR boss Don MacIntyre has Hydrovane as a sponsor…

Surely not! I would never have believed that an event organiser’s personal preferences could get in the way of his neutrality when delivering a race, but events on my second day in Les Sables helping the sailors with their preparations, when I was ordered – with the cameras rolling – to remove the WINDPILOT branding from my windvanes, forcefully set me straight on that count.

Was that the start or the peak of the animosity between you and Don McIntyre?

I first contacted Don about the GGR in 2016. He wrote to me that he had an exclusive partnership with Hydrovane and therefore could not take any more partners on board. He wished me all the best and said he hoped I would enjoy following the race… It was only once a number of press releases damaging to my company’s reputation appeared that I felt compelled to start reporting regularly on the event. I needed to put the real facts out there to protect my brand.

“Puffin” skipper Istvan Kopar claimed that his Windpilot system cost him the race – a claim that was repeated by the GGR team.

Istvan’s boat had a steering arrangement that was not at all suitable for the race and the way he linked it up to our windvane self-steering system was also far from ideal – and yet Puffin and our unit both survived the GGR. It was when these negative stories started to emerge that I realised just how damaging one-sided press releases could be.

Do you feel race management treated you unfairly?

The Windpilot sailors were asked to provide video evidence that they could install the SOS emergency rudder at sea and that it worked properly…

It’s hard to object to the idea of wanting proof that an emergency rudder actually works.

Opinions vary as to the value of an emergency rudder on a long-keeler. The main point though is that this requirement was not imposed on participants using other systems. Why that should be is a question I have not heard satisfactorily answered.

Why did you not recommend your Pacific Plus for use in the GGR? Wouldn’t its combination of servo-pendulum rudder and separate spade rudder have been a perfect solution for the emergency rudder rule?

I strongly advised against this actually, because auxiliary rudder systems face hazards in the Southern Ocean – broaches, knockdowns and pitchpoling – that would hardly ever be met sailing in normal latitudes. An auxiliary rudder and its shear pin down close to the waterline at the stern can be difficult or even impossible to reach from deck level, making replacement or repair a nightmare. Jean Luc Van den Heede replaced the shear pin on his Hydrovane with a solid bolt before the race as well as shortening the rudder blade to reduce the load under extreme conditions. And his shear bolt still broke! Had he not had the remarkable foresight to take a small inflatable tender with him, he would have been extremely hard pressed indeed to replace the sheared bolt and reinstate his system at sea. It’s worth noting too that the manufacturer recommends replacing this shear pin regularly.

Your “Windvane Report” investigates why windvane self-steering systems are not entirely suitable for use in Southern Ocean conditions.

It’s not that they can’t or shouldn’t be used in the Southern Ocean, I just highlighted the limits to which they are subject and pointed out the importance of shear pins and lateral overload protection. And the fact that auxiliary rudders don’t have much protection against flotsam. A broken shear pin means an unavoidable repair job, as we saw with Jean Luc Van Den Heede.

Why is a regular Windpilot Pacific, whose pendulum rudder acts on the boat’s main rudder, more suitable for use in the Golden Globe Race?

Because the Pacific design allows the pendulum rudder to swing through an arc of 270 degrees, as compared with 60 to 70 degrees for a traditional servo-pendulum system, and the movement of the pendulum rudder in a broach or knockdown is not limited by lateral end stops. It encounters no resistance and no leverage, so there is no need for designated failure points. Events in the GGR confirmed this to be the case.

A wave 100 metres long moves at over 40 knots – and breaking waves on this scale are very much on the agenda in the Southern Ocean. Is it even sensible to take relatively slow long-keelers, which hardly ever exceed their hull speed even in surfing conditions, into this part of the world?

Of course! Now though we know that when sailing in the Southern Ocean, some self-steering system designs are much better able to withstand knockdowns than others.

Holding together is one thing, being actively useful quite another. At what point do windvane self-steering systems cease to be effective at the helm?

Windvane self-steering systems can’t see breaking waves approaching, so they can’t avoid them. Only a person can do that. The skipper also needs to make the right decisions in order to survive dangerous situations. Robin Knox-Johnston analyses the hazards and the lessons learned in his investigation of storm tactics in the GGR. Heaving to, setting a drogue, trailing lines, actively sailing: he looks at a whole series of options. I did suggest to him that he carry out a similar analysis for windvane self-steering systems. “If only I had the time…”, was his response, but he approved of the idea in principle and in the end I had a go myself and produced the “Windvane Report”.

How does using a windvane system in the Southern Ocean differ in practical terms from using one in more normal conditions?

There are two different approaches available when sailing in extreme wind and sea conditions. Firstly, if using a system with a limited lateral arc of travel and lateral end stops, like the Aries and Monitor, it is advisable to take the system out of service promptly if there is a risk of being knocked down or rolled. This is to prevent breakage in the event of overloading. For Monitor sailors Are Wiig and Susie Goodall, these dangerous situations in which they repeatedly had to steer by hand probably played a decisive role in the their eventual dismasting/abandonment as well as prompting the organiser to deny Monitor “approved” status for future editions of the GGR.

Susanne Huber Curphy survived a number of severe storms with her Aries during La Longue Route, the less heavily regulated counterpart to the Golden Globe.

Susanne took her Aries out of service and entrusted the boat to her Jordan Series Drogue. As it says on the Aries website, “The new lift-up leg is great to take off the pendulum rudder completely – Either while in port or to keep her from damage in case you are becalmed in heavy swells or in case you have to survive a storm with your Jordan Series Drogue.”

What about the second approach you mentioned?

Actively sail for longer. Windvane self-steering systems that have a large arc of travel are less vulnerable to extreme angles of heel – including knockdowns – because they do not have to rely on designated failure points.

Do you think an electronic autopilot might be a better suggestion?

Definitely as a back-up to improve safety and spare single-handers the need to steer by hand if the windvane system is damaged. We saw in the Golden Globe 2018 how quickly and calamitously it can all go wrong when self-steering is temporarily unavailable.

You reproach the organiser of the Golden Globe for having prohibited electric autopilots, but every entrant is allowed to have one on board in a sealed box for use in case of emergency.

Reproach? No. Criticise? Absolutely! Only three participants in the GGR 2018 took advantage of this rule, but thanks to the experiences of the 18-strong fleet in that race, we now know a lot more than we did then. The situation in terms of safety is fundamentally different for 2022 and there have already been heated discussions between future participants on this subject. Given that none of our windvane self-steering systems is really suited to this environment, I don’t understand why the organiser allows his charges to carry a tiller autopilot but then threatens to punish them with relegation to the Chichester Class if they use it. This seems to me to be inviting sailors to gamble with their own safety: take the prudent course and be disqualified from the main event or push on and hope for the best! La Longue Route had no restrictions on the use of autopilots – and no boats lost at sea either.

Knox-Johnston didn’t have a tiller autopilot in 1968.

That’s only because they were not available at the time. There was nothing like our modern windvane self-steering systems available in 1968 either, so strictly speaking none of the units used in the last race fall within the spirit of the GGR. Knox-Johnston steered by hand over long distances because his trim-tab system generated only a fraction of the force brought to bear by modern designs. Fortunately, once he had trimmed her correctly, Suhaili could largely be left to her own devices.

What sort of repairs do single-handers need to be ready for today?

Are Wiig had to replace the overload tube on his Monitor at sea four times while the bevel gears on Susie Goodall’s Monitor actually jumped out of alignment more than once after hard impacts against the end stops. Both ended up having to steer by hand for prolonged periods and both eventually had their race ended by self-steering failure. Susie was able to realign the bevel gears on her Monitor at anchor in calm waters off Hobart, but the same thing happened again later on in the race. Mark Slats, who finished second, had to cannibalise components from his boat’s interior and commit a vast quantity of Sikaflex to keep his Aries attached to the boat after the force of the pendulum arm impacting hard on the end stops all but tore it off the transom.

What practical differences are there in windvane self-steering system operation between the GGR and conventional bluewater sailing?

Windvane self-steering systems were designed for sailing in moderate latitudes. The GGR took them into an environment for which they had been neither conceived nor engineered. All a windvane self-steering system can do is adjust the angle of the rudder by a certain, limited amount. Trim, balance and good seamanship are the skipper’s responsibility. This is a tricky circle to square for sailors with a race to win because the competition is always breathing down your neck from behind or threatening to pull away in front. Knox-Johnston’s analysis found that GGR racers were even reluctant to deploy drogue systems, presumably because of the time it would have taken.

Knox-Johnston also mentions how exhausting the process can be. Do we have reliable figures for the actual use of windvane self-steering systems in the GGR?

No, we are unlikely to be able to find out from the sailors how much of the time their mechanical steering slaves were at the helm. All of the GGR skippers must have spent a huge amount of time at the helm though simply because their self-steering will regularly have been unable to cope. The Golden Globe Race mercilessly exposed the shortcomings of windvane self-steering systems both in terms of availability and susceptibility to damage. It appears the organiser has yet to appreciate this, as otherwise he would surely have afforded his charges the option to use a tiller autopilot without fear of punishment when safety so dictates. The GGR’s “approved systems” endorsement creates an illusion of safety and reliability that does not stand up to the facts.

Thank you for speaking with us Mr Foerthmann.
Interview: Hans-Harald Schack

Hans-Harald Schack (65) is sailing Journalist, author of books and sailing articles. He has participated to Clipper Round The World Race in 2014.

WINDVANES USED IN THE GGR AND HOW THEY FARED
MARK JOHN SINCLAIR, Aries, no damage, retired in Australia
MARK SLATS, Aries, 2nd place, WSS mounting broken
NABIL AMRA, Beaufort, WSS broken, retired
FRANCESCO CAPPELLETTI, Beaufort, WSS broken, retired
PHILIPPE PÉCHÉ, Beaufort, WSS broken, retired
JEAN-LUC VD HEEDE, Hydrovane, 1st place, broken shear bolt
GREGOR McGUCKIN, Hydrovane, capsized, retired
KEVIN FAREBROTHER, Hydrovane, retired
LOIC LEPAGE, Hydrovane, broken shear pin, knocked down, retired
ERTAN BESKARDES, Hydrovane, retired
UKU RANDMAA, Hydrovane, Monitor, 3rd place
ARE WIIG, Monitor, four broken safety tubes, knocked down, retired
SUSIE GOODALL, Monitor, multiple broken safety tubes, knocked down, retired
ABHILASH TOMY, Windpilot, multiple knockdowns, dismasted, WSS intact
ISTVAN KOPAR, Windpilot, 4th place 12 storms > 50 kn, three knockdowns, WSS intact
ANTOINE COUSOT, Windpilot, retired, WSS intact
IGOR ZARETSKIY, Windpilot, retired, WSS intact
TAPIO LEHTINEN, Windpilot, 5th place, WSS intact

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