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 2 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 shippings 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 faff 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.
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…