in the zone

There has been a lot of contention regarding Traffic Separation Scheme’s  (TSS) in offshore racing/record breaking recently. The most well known in  recent times being the Round Britain and Ireland record breaking attempt by  Marc Guillemot on ‘Safran’, for which he has a court appearance and likely  hefty fine, later this month. Now however, the penalties handed out to 7
skippers in the Vendee Globe 4 days ago by the race committee (and not by  Alex Thomson, but more on that later..) has taken centre stage.

I have been  asked to explain the whole thing for the running Artemis Offshore Academy  blog on the Vendee Globe, so here goes.

So first off, what is a TSS?

Traffic Separation Schemes – ‘TSS’ are in place around busy commercial  shipping areas to funnel commercial traffic (big ships) into specific lanes  at key points, rather than allowing them to take their most economic route.  Much like lanes on a road, they structure shipping routes, and are  designed to limit the amount of times ships meet and converge, therefore  reducing the amount of collisions. If you want to cross these lanes as a  leisure craft, you can. To do this you must cross at 90 degrees,  perpendicular to that of the ships, thereby crossing in the shortest
distance. As soon as you enter the TSS, you must also go all the way  across, no turning round halfway cause you don’t fancy your chances! And  that’s a ‘heading’ of 90 degrees by the way, not a COG (Course Over the  Ground) of 90. If you don’t do this, you are actually breaking the law.

So what happened during the Vendee? And why the 7 penalties?

Very simply, 7 boats entered the TSS just off Finnisterre, and didn’t  follow correct procedure across it. Some for just a matter of minutes  before realising and gybing away, Mike Golding and Jean Pierre Dick for  example, were as others crossed completely, but not at 90 degrees.

I understand that the sailing instructions/rules of the race, for the  Vendee Globe 2012/3 state that normal COLREG’s, (collision regulations/rules of the road if you like) are to be adhered to if you want  to cross a TSS. None of those 7 skippers did that, none sailed at 90  degrees and others turned around in it, therefore breaking not only the  rules of the race, but technically the law as well. As you can imagine it’s  important for race organisers to follow the rules of the road and the law  with their events.

So why all the controversy?

The feeling amongst some skippers was that those who stayed in the TSS  longer, or crossed it completely, gained a tactical advantage by doing so,  and therefore they asked the Race Committee to look into it. The Race  Committee then asked them to protest the boats believed to have infringed.  Sailing is the most prolific self policing sport I can think of, and  protesting is the only, just, fair and correct way for potential  infringements to be looked at in more detail, so fair enough, and protest  them they did. Why should there be a rule if some people are just going to
ignore it, and gain an advantage by doing so? The main areas of controversy are outlined below:

Lack of clarity of the rules

In the Figaro, all TSS zones as well as other stated navigational hazards,  a known ship restricted in its ability to manoeuvre for example, are stated  as ‘no-go zones’. It is a disqualification (DSQ) or a very hefty time  penalty if you infringe, depending on the race. In the Solitaire this year  for example, every TSS in the English Channel was a no-go zone, it was a
DSQ if you entered them in any way, shape or form. It is not an uncommon  notion to think of boats having to short tack up the side of a TSS zone,  treating it as an island, or un-navigatable (if that’s even a word) bit of  shallow water for example.

The Vendee Globe race rules stated that the normal rules for leisure craft,  COLREG’s, apply to all TSS zones. But how do you police whether someone was  ‘heading’ at 90 degrees through the shipping lane when all you can see is  their course over the ground? Better to just write the whole area off in my  opinion and not deal with the issue any longer.

Unfair penalty distribution

The way the penalties were handed out was also unfair. The committee  penalised boats that were in the TSS ‘for up to 3 hours’ with a 2 hour  penalty, so at worse case, 66.6% of their offence. Whereas Brit Mike  Golding was in the TSS for 10 minutes and got 30 minutes, 300%. And  Frenchman Jean Pierre Dick entered for 150 meters before realising and  gybing out and got 20 minutes?! The scaling seems unfair, but a blanket,  TSS ban in all racing and record attempts again would prevent this issue,  making it clearer for the skipper, easier for race committees, and not to  mention safer and fairer for everyone.

Penalty taken on your own terms

You can also do the penalty at your own discretion, when you see fit, even  if it does have to be completed by a certain longitude or latitude. Meaning  those who were sharp witted and did their ‘2 hour’ penalty whilst in the  doldrums, when not moving for 2 hours anyway, could potentially have less  of a ‘real life penalty’ to someone doing a 20 minute penalty whilst  surfing along at 20 knots.

This is a harder one to solve. Personally I think adding time at the end is  fairer, and therefore better. It is what is done in the Figaro and in my  opinion works very well. Being raced on accumulated time however, and over  a smaller timescale, the races have their differences. And it does bring up  the potential scenario where the first boat across the line may not be the  winner. And for a race like the Vendee, where its simplicity in message to  the general public is key to its success, one human, one boat, race around  the world, first one back wins… It is a dilemma.

Other issues

Another issue is that Alex Thomson, the skipper who raised the issue with  the committee, asking them to look into whether some boats had crossed the  TSS incorrectly, is now being heralded as the villain for his actions,  especially in France. This is because the race committee asked him to  protest the boats that he felt infringed, which he did. It’s a self  policing sport, and happens all the time, nothing wrong there. What it did  though was put the onus on him and not the committee. I don’t think this  should have ever been the case, this was something they could have looked  into and protested the boats for once it was brought to their attention  themselves. And if they didn’t agree with what he raised, it would have  been thrown out or simply given as a ‘non incident’. Again something that  happens all the time in our sport.

All this led to comments on the French version of the Vendee Globe website,  many quite insulting (to put it politely) towards Alex, his team, and ‘les  glouches’. A real shame as he is having a fantastic race so far.

Some claim it is a difference in how the French and British view the rules  on this. But 3 French, 1 Spanish, 1 Swiss, 1 Polish AND a Brit got  penalties? And at least 1 French skipper, Jean Pierre Dick, claimed to know  the rule and ‘tried his best’ to avoid it…

So, lessons learnt?

1) Make all TSS for offshore racing and record breaking attempts from this  day onwards, a no-go zone with a DSQ as a penalty for infringement.

Personally as a solo skipper, racing around coastal waters on the Figaro  circuit, it’s the only way to create clarity. What really is crossing at 90  degrees? And how can you prove you did that to the best of your ability  over someone else? And is that really racing? I don’t think so, let’s just  avoid them all together.

*If you do have a problem and enter the TSS by accident, you could ask for  redress, and follow normal COLREG’s during the incident. State to all ships  on CH16 you have a restricted ability to manoeuvre, you inform the  coastguard of why you are crossing incorrectly and ask them to put out a  notice to all ships to keep clear of you, giving your position and current  COG/SOG. While there may be an argument for difficulty in manoeuvring being  solo in big 60ft boats, you plan the TSS into your race strategy, simple –  you don’t (or shouldn’t!) hit land because it got in your way, you plan to  avoid it, you don’t go over a sand bank because it got in your way and you
don’t go in a TSS because it will get you DSQ…

2) Power to race committees to protest boats for such infringement, without  the need of input from skippers would also stop the situation with Alex.  It’s not cricket, do we really need to appeal for someone to be given out,  or deemed to have not played by the rules?

3) A solution for time penalties

Being able to do them at your own discretion in my eyes isn’t a fair way of  doing it. Anybody know the historic penalties that people have been given  in the Vendee Globe? Any suggestions?

Overall it is an interesting situation and I am sure many lessons will have been learnt from it. Issues like this are actually more prominent in the  Figaro than the Vendee due to close proximity of the racing in coastal  waters. Why not let’s use a set standard of rules across all races and  record attempts from here on in? I would be very interested to hear any  alternative opinions if anyone has them? And I apologies in advance for any  factually incorrect statements I may have made… – Henry Bomby