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SPS Praha

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      With five days to go before they set sail upwind across the North Atlantic, the very last thing teams wish to discover are severe structural problems with their boats. However, this is exactly what has been experienced by three of the teams due to take Monday's start of The Transat.

In the Open 60 class for the last two weeks there has been major concern about the canting keels of the brand new Marc Lombard designs Sill and Bonduelle. Since their launch within the last month the keels on both boats have developed an alarming vibration when being pushed hard. During the recent 1000 Mille de Calais race concern over their keel's integrity was enough to prompt Roland Jourdain on board Sill to retire from the race. Ironically her sistership, Jean le Cam's Bonduelle, went on to win the race.

Since then both Sill and Bonduelle have been taken out of the water to have their keels fully checked. It appears the vibrations are occurring due to their keel foil twisting when the boat is powered up. After discussions with designer Marc Lombard and the structural engineer Herve Devaux they have attempted to solve this on Sill by casting a new keel bulb and fitting it to the foil, but in a position further aft to alleviate the twist. However this modification has not worked and the team are now back to square one. As a result Sill has been forced to withdraw from The Transat.
"It is not a question of taking the risk," commented skipper Roland Jourdain. "This transatlantic race is already hard enough with a perfect boat. To do it with a boat that is not 100% reliable is foolish."

Significantly Jourdain competed in the 2000 Vendée Globe and so does not have to take part in The Transat in order to race qualify for November's single-handed round the world race. "I prefer that my team and the architects and Herve Devaux work together to solve this problem. Of course it is frustrating, but it is the wise choice," says Jourdain.

However, for Bonduelle the situation is much harder as under the present qualification requirements for the Vendée Globe, she must complete in an officially sanctioned qualification race and The Transat is the last of these prior to the start of the race. Le Cam and his team are currently in discussion with the Vendée Globe organisers to see if there is a solution or if the only solution is to take Monday's start.

It is not only monohulls that have suffered structural problems. On Philippe Monnet's red trimaran Sopra Group the crew have discovered a 3sqm area of hull on the outside of her port float where the core has sheared. Most state of the art race boats are built in layers of carbon fibre and epoxy resin with a sandwich core of Nomex (a lightweight resin impregnated honeycomb material) in between. It is the Nomex core in this area which has broken. It is believed that the damage may have occurred during the 60ft trimaran's recent Grand Prix in La Trinite, or during the qualification for The Transat when the boat was hit several times by large cross seas. To make a repair the Sopra shore team must cut a hole to gain access to the inside of the hull. They will then cut away the inner layer of carbon and the broken Nomex and replace it. The crew hope to have the damaged section fixed by Sunday.

This morning forty-three-year-old French skipper Anne Liardet and her two-man shore crew are removing many of the non-essential contents from her Open 60, Quiksilver Edition. This decision is not linked to clearing the boat in final, pre-race preparation but in response to a recent decision by IMOCA - the 60 ft monohull class association - to insist that the fifteen-year-old yacht undergoes a 90 degree incline test before competing in The Transat as a legitimate entrant. Unless a successful incline test is completed before the start on Monday 31st May, IMOCA are likely to withhold issuing Liardet with that vital racing certificate.

The former Mini Transat and Solitaire du Figaro competitor and Vendée Globe hopeful is pragmatic about this recent development: "The boat made a 360 degree test in Le Havre before racing in the Transat Jacques Vabre last year (sailed, on this occasion, by Canada's Mike Birch) and we thought everything was okay." Technically, though, the boat was unqualified and IMOCA now intend to redress the situation.

At 19:00 UCT this evening Quiksilver Edition will motor across the Cattewater to Commercial Wharf, divers will then attach a spectra strop to the yacht's keel bulb and a crane will cant the boat on her side. Officials in a race organisation RIB will immediately place load measuring equipment to the top of the horizontal mast and calculate the forces produced by the yacht's unassisted attempt to right herself. Liardet is positive that her Open 60 will exceed the test's requirements claiming: "The boat is fully prepared, the boat is ready to race and so am I."


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