In defense of boats' design Bruce Farr designer stands up to criticism of 'disaster waiting to happen'


AUCKLAND, New Zealand - Now that the Whitbread Round the World Race fleet is about to set out on perhaps the most hazardous leg of all, the 6,670-nautical-mile Leg 5 that will take the nine 60-footers deep into the icy waters of the Southern Ocean, around the treacherous Cape Horn and on to Sao Sebastiao, Brazil, questions are being asked about the W60 boats' safety and their sea-keeping abilities.

The Economist, in its Dec. 20 issue, labeled the Whitbread, with its "gung-ho crews" charging around the world, "a disaster waiting to happen."

"If people in the West think of the ocean as anything at all these days," the weekly news magazine wrote, "it may be as the stage for a new and growing set of Elizabethan adventurers whose spoils are media glory and corporate sponsorship. They put out to sea in ever faster, more extreme and more expensive yachts.

"The ocean was once something to be in awe of. Today, it is merely a medium for television spectacle. This has, as one by-product, littered the sea with yachts whose designs are evolutionary blunders."

The magazine pointed to the "media orgy" that accompanied the Whitbread fleet. The boats were "overgrown dinghies" and were "so ill-suited to crossing oceans that they were a disaster waiting to happen."

The Economist claimed that "the fanatical quest for speed" has undermined the seaworthiness of modern yachts and their ability to cope in rough conditions.

That kind of criticism stings all the more when it lands upon the shoulders of the team in Annapolis that designed all but one of pTC the current Whitbread boats.

Bruce Farr & Associates, Inc. is among the world's most experienced and most highly regarded yacht designers. Farr's vice president, Russell Bowler, is wise enough not to dismiss the suggestion that the Whitbread is dangerous.

"Of course it's dangerous," he said, "but one could say the same of a football game or of life in general. Certainly there are risks involved in going to sea. That has always been the case. And in this case I'm sure those risks are clearly understood.

"I have an enormous admiration and respect for all the Whitbread competitors," Bowler said. "They are all prime seamen, and they are very experienced in all sorts of conditions in all manner of boats. I know they have proper respect for the sea and its power.

"No one sets about racing around the world without taking proper precautions, and those precautions start with the boats themselves. They are tremendously strong boats. Not just the hulls, but their rigs, their sails, everything is engineered to withstand the kind of tremendous stresses that no ordinary sailboat is ever likely to encounter. No sailor, and certainly no sponsor, enjoys a breakdown, so an awful lot of work goes into the engineering of the rig and the boat in general to try to make them fail-safe."

Bowler says the history of the Whitbread race speaks for itself when it comes to questions of safety.

"During the very first race, back in 1963," he said, "when they were sailing in heavy displacement, older-style boats, three lives were lost. But since then, there has been only one other loss of life. That was during the fifth race, in 1989-90. That is not such a bad record for an event that has been taking hundreds of men and scores of boats around the world for 34 years."

Bowler warns that the Whitbread 60s ought not be confused with what he calls "the wild and woolly animals of the offshore racing scene," the unrestricted 60-footers that compete in the single-handed Vendee Globe round-the-world race.

"They are the most extreme by a long way," he said. "By contrast, the Whitbread boats have to be a certain weight, a certain strength and generally they are sailed by extremely competent people.

"If you looked at it from a miles-sailed-to-lives-lost standpoint, I think you would see that newer- style boats like the Whitbread 60s are a darn sight safer than the older-style boats with the full keels.

"The current Whitbread fleet has sailed halfway round the world with scarcely an incident worthy of note," Bowler said. "And they have done so at an average speed of 11 knots. I would agree that they are not the most comfortable boats to go to sea in, let alone sail around the world.

"But, on the other hand," he said, "nothing comes even close to them when it comes to excitement. As for safety, I think record speaks for itself."

Race update

The Whitbread Watch is a weekly log of the Round the World Race. Look for it every Wednesday in The Sun.

Pub Date: 1/28/98

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