Features May 1, 1998 Issue

Offshore Log:
The Whitbread 60s After 20,000 Tortuous Miles At Sea

Currently cruising the Grenadines, Nick Nicholson, a measurer for the Whitbread and America’s Cup, took time away from Calypso to inspect the Whitbread 60’s during their layover in Brazil. Here’s what he found.

By the time the nine Whitbread 60s reached Sao Sebastiao, Brazil in late February, they had raced more than 20,000 miles, averaging well over 250 miles per day. There have been a number of 24-hour runs in excess of 400 miles, with Silk Cut setting a new 24-hour monohull record of 449 nautical miles. That’s an average speed of 18.7 knots.

These boats are driven amazingly hard by professional crews whose skill and stamina are simply awe-inspiring. Just as in a day race, however, a boat has to finish to win. Gear failures are unacceptable. Mechanical and electrical systems must be completely reliable. Sails, rigs, and hulls must withstand unbelievable punishment.

With the race more than two-thirds completed, with the hard miles in the high southern latitudes behind them, we took a close look at the boats in Brazil, just after the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn, just before the run up the coast of South America and across the Caribbean to the continental US. Here’s how the boats are holding up so far in this round-the-world race.

As you might expect, the winches on Whitbread 60s carry huge loads. For this year’s boats, Lewmar prepared a special winch package consisting of wide-bodied three-speed pedestal and handle-driven winches for primaries, secondaries and mainsheet. These winches are specifically geared to the requirements of Whitbread 60s, and have completely interchangeable parts, minimizing the number of spares that must be carried. They have been essentially trouble-free, but get complete overhauls at every stopover.

The all-purpose deck winches—each boat carries four or six—are stock Lewmar 54 two-speed self-tailers. The cast bases of several of these winches broke during early stages of the race, and Lewmar has since replaced all the cast bases with specially machined bases, which are both stronger and less sensitive to cracking from the inevitable distortion that comes from mounting the winches on surfaces that are not perfectly flat.

These machined bases would significantly increase the price of the winch, and are not likely to find their way into the normal retail consumer market. The only other problems associated with the winches have been some broken pawls, once again the result of the extreme loading experienced on water-ballasted boats capable of speeds in excess of 30 knots.

Clutches and Jammers
There are no cleats on Whitbread 60s. The multiple lines that lead to each deck winch are secured by clutches and jammers. The fleet is well-divided between Spinlock XT Powerclutches and Lewmar Superlock clutches. With a safe working load of just over a ton, these clutches are subject to enormous abuse.

The Lewmar clutches have high-strength plastic sides which are capable of carrying the full rated load of the clutch as long as the line enters and exits the clutch with a totally fair lead. If the lead is unfair, however (for example, if you pull the line at an angle, rather than straight aft), you can break the body of these clutches. One boat reported having broken two Superlock clutches in this fashion. Most of the boats have installed fairleads to prevent this.

We have not seen any similar failures of the aluminum-bodied Spinlock XT rope clutches.

The main halyard on each boat is secured with a halyard lock which can be released from the deck. Using a halyard lock halves the halyard compression load on the mast.

Headsail halyards, however, do not have locks, and must lead through jammers or clutches. Before the Whitbread, Spinlock released its new ultra-high-load wedge jammer. These are not clutches, and cannot be released under load. They will hold five tons, and are used on Whitbread 60s—and on very large cruising and racing boats—as halyard stoppers. They have proven to be trouble-free.

Other Sailing Hardware
Only one boat—the American entry Chessie—has a Harken Yacht Equipment deck layout. It has been trouble-free. The other eight competitors have deck hardware by either Lewmar Marine or Frederiksen, with a single brand used for all the deck hardware on each boat, excluding the winches, which are all Lewmar. Other than a few broken blocks, there have been almost no deck hardware failures.

Spinnaker Strops
One of the more controversial features of the Whitbread boats are the spinnaker strops. These boats spend a lot of time under spinnaker, and the halyards would chafe through at the sheave in a matter of hours. Instead, after hoisting, a spinnaker halyard load is transferred to a strop made of multiple turns of Spectra, dead-ended at the masthead and fitted with high-load shackles attached to the head of the spinnaker.

Unfortunately, with the exception of one boat which has a patented deck-operated halyard lock, a man must be sent aloft to secure the strop every time a spinnaker is hoisted, doused or changed. This is staggeringly dangerous, and it is a miracle that no masthead man has been severely injured. Just imagine yourself being hoisted 26 meters (85') to the masthead of a boat going 25 knots in 15' seas to do a job that requires both hands. Remember, the mainsail is up and there is no headstay to wrap your legs around. Are these guys nuts?

Pulpits and Stanchions
To save weight, pulpits and stanchions are fabricated of aluminum tubing, rather than stainless steel. On leg five, from New Zealand to Brazil, which includes the trip around Cape Horn, Chessie’s aluminum bow pulpit slowly transformed itself from a forward-raking pulpit to an aft-raking one. This was not the result of a single overload, but of constantly pushing the bow of the boat through the waves ahead at speeds of 25 to 30 knots. The paint, too, was blasted off the pulpit by the force of the water.

Likewise, most boats have reported severely bent or broken stanchions. In one case, a spinnaker sheet block exploded, and the sheet took out four stanchions before it met something strong enough to hold it.

Personal Strobes
Two days before leaving Brazil, Innovation Kvaerner had a spinnaker snafu during a practice sail which folded three stanchions flat and dumped bowman Alby Pratt into the water with the boat going 12 knots. He had previously survived going overboard during a nighttime sail change off the southern coast of Australia, where his pocket strobe made it possible for the boat to zero in and pluck him from the water in only seven minutes.

Any sailor, anywhere, who does not carry a personal strobe at night is asking for trouble. It is astounding that personal strobes are not mandatory equipment for normal offshore racing. They are as essential as safety harnesses and personal flotation devices.

Whitbread sailors must carry personal EPIRBs which can be located by VHF direction-finding equipment, and either personal strobe lights or a miniflare. Most opt for the strobe, as a mini-flare is a one-shot deal.

Safety Harnesses
The Whitbread fleet is divided between those boats whose crews wear harnesses equipped with inflatable PFDs, and those that wear conventional harnesses. Since the sailors usually wear heavy foul weather gear, a harness equipped with flotation is the only logical choice, particularly now that they can carry US Coast Guard approval as PFDs.

Whitbread 60s are required to carry radars with output of 3kW or more. No single brand or model predominates.

Radar is used for strategic purposes when within range of another boat, for spotting ice, and for conventional navigation when close to land.

The only failure reported has been Chessie’s cockpit-mounted Furuno LCD display. It died after ingesting water, apparently through a damaged trackpad gasket. This is no surprise, as the display is mounted just above the cockpit sole, and spends a significant amount of time immersed. Other boats have radar displays mounted belowdecks at the nav station.

While cockpit-mounted waterproof radar displays are an excellent idea, they should not be subjected to immersion.

Chafe is a major enemy offshore, and Whitbread 60s suffer as much as anyone else. Most running rigging is replaced after every leg. Five thousand offshore miles on a Whitbread 60 is probably the equivalent of 10 years of hard sailing for a normal boat.

Even high-tech sails suffer from tears, punctures, and chafe. Sails are repaired primarily with self-adhesive fabric. The boats carry sailmakers and sewing machines, and can repair even badly damaged spinnakers at sea. Substantial repairs on paneled or 3DL Kevlar sails are more of a problem, but the sailmakers have proven surprisingly self-reliant at fixing significant damage even to these sails.

In practice, about 75% of the sail repairs made at sea consist of repairs to spinnakers, just like on round-the-buoys racers.

Rig Failures
Two boats lost rigs on the fifth leg of the race. Silk Cut dropped her rig some time after a “minor” collision with an iceberg, and EF Education lost hers after a fitting failed. The collision caused no significant damage to Silk Cut’s hull or keel.

The Silk Cut failure was particularly disturbing, as skipper Lawrie Smith refused to give any details of the failure either to the sparmaker, or to EF Language, which carries a virtually identical rig, unless he was paid a huge sum of money. At the same time, he implied that the EF Language rig would eventually fail in the same manner as his own rig.

Needless to say, EF pulled their rig and went over it in minute detail, and the sparmaker brought in consultants to re-check the rig loading calculations, eventually calling for very minor beefing up of some fastenings in the mast.

Do not look for sportsmanship in the Whitbread race.

At each Whitbread stop, the Kevlar composite hulls and decks are inspected in minute detail, looking for signs of stress or delamination. There has been virtually no delamination in any hull. This is a dramatic change from the last race, when some boats had major structural failures.

Mechanical Systems
Each Whitbread 60 is equipped with a small auxiliary engine—most are Yanmars—whose primary functions are to power the water ballast transfer pump, drive a big alternator to charge the batteries, and power the high-pressure pump for the alternator. The main engine is only started if this auxiliary fails.

Watermakers are critical. The boats carry only minimal amounts of emergency water. Every liter of water consumed is produced by reverse osmosis, and no more is made than is essential for that day’s use.

Typically, the boats consume about 20 gallons of water a day for an 11- or 12-man crew. This is used almost exclusively for re-hydrating freeze-dried food, re-hydrating powdered drinks, and direct consumption. Personal hygiene is minimal, and most of the crews are pretty scruffy after three or four weeks at sea.

Chessie faced a difficult time when a cascade of mechanical failures—a sheered drive pulley and a shorted-out starter—rendered her watermaker inoperable. For several days, the crew was down to a few cups of water per day per man until repairs could be made.

The Swedish Match crew, too, suffered from dehydration when their watermaker membrane self-destructed. The cause of this failure is not yet clear.

Most other boats reported no watermaker problems. After the race is over, we will take a closer look at the electrical, mechanical and watermaking systems on these boats.

The boats do carry small handheld watermakers—four are required—but making enough water by hand pumping to supply the needs of 12 hard-working racing sailors is a far cry from making enough water for survival. It is little wonder that dehydration and borderline malnutrition are common problems. Most crews report average weight loss of about seven kilos (15.4 pounds) per man on each leg.

After almost 25,000 miles of the hardest sailing in the world, the Whitbread 60 fleet is surprisingly intact. Despite the lightest possible construction and the smallest safety margins conscionable in gear and equipment, there have been far fewer breakdowns than anyone expected.

The boats receive constant attention from shore crews once they arrive in port, but they must get there in one piece—or as near to one piece as possible—in order to stay in the hunt.

Every piece of deck gear is examined and repaired or replaced. Mechanical and electrical component are checked out and serviced. Belts are replaced, alternators and starters torn down, watermaker pre-filters changed and membranes cleaned.

Once in port, these boats get the type of treatment given to thoroughbred racehorses or Formula One race cars.

Then, the sailors go out and beat the hell out of them for another 5,000 miles.

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