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Dan Dickison
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Living Large on Club Med

Super-size it. The 106-foot Club Med is capable of 40 knots says co-skipper Grant Dalton.

Size matters. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And size is the first thing that comes to mind when you lay eyes on the 106-foot maxi catamaran Club Med. Sitting at her berth in the Marina de Vilamoura, this giant’s 136-foot wing mast towers over the other vessels moored here in Europe’s largest marina on the Portuguese Algarve coast. The freeboard on her twin hulls closes on nine feet; her semi-custom Lewmar winches are bigger than hat boxes; and you’d need two hands to encircle the shroud terminals on her uppers. Like the hype surrounding the circumnavigating event for which this behemoth has been built—The Race of the Millennium—almost every aspect of Club Med is larger than life.

Under brilliant sunshine, the striking graphics adorning her hulls and spar—with fish and turtles and a bathing beauty cavorting—belie the vessel’s all-business nature.
But Club Med is purely and simply a racing machine, a point that comes across as soon as her 13-person crew goes to work. It takes eight grinders, one tailer halyard, and two line tenders to get the 3,780-square foot mainsail up. And once it fills, 106 feet of turbo-charged multihull begin to awaken. Four crew are needed to hoist the headsail (one of nine that will make up the final inventory for The Race), and with that set, the boat springs to life, rapidly leaving the Vilamoura coastline astern.

Dalton, beseiged by media, guides the maxi cat through its paces.

Standing behind the titanium wheel in the port-side cockpit, co-skipper Grant Dalton checks that both 13-foot daggerboards are deployed as this ocean-going monster picks up speed in a remarkably unnoticeable fashion. The true-wind gauge in front of Dalton registers 10.5 knots and the speedo shows nine knots, then quickly it moves up to 12.3, then 12.5, and 12.8 as crew member Herve Jan fine-tunes the headsail trim. There’s very little communication needed between Dalton, co-skipper Franck Proffit stationed in the starboard cockpit 50 feet to leeward, or any of the other 11 crew. Just the shout of a name and a terse hand signal accomplishes a little more tension on the cunningham, or a slight ease of the one-inch-diameter mainsheet.

Dalton and the rest of the Club Med team have come to Vilamoura for the final months of preparation before the start of this winter’s mega event, The Race. The boat’s eponymous sponsor has a popular resort property nearby, and Dalton fully appreciates the importance of keeping a sponsor content. Despite his co-skipper status and his own protestations to the contrary, this Kiwi is the team leader of Club Med. With the experience of five Whitbread campaigns on his curriculum vitae, respect for this New Zealander is almost automatic, and his imprimatur of cautious, thorough preparation is everywhere. Even the crew’s jovial yet business-like demeanor echoes Dalton’s easy going style. When asked what size waves he expected to see going around the world, the 43-year-old Kiwi replies: "Well that’s a hard one because normally when people tell you that they were in 60-foot waves, you straightaway have to figure in a 50 percent BS factor, so they were probably in 30-foot waves. But I don’t know how big they'll be," he says with a shake of his head. "Big bastards for sure."

Out on the water, as the big cat glides along, there’s relatively no sensation of speed until you check yourself by looking through the 1,400-square-foot trampoline to see the Atlantic rushing by between the hulls. Dalton calls for a jibe and just before he bears off, the boat is hit by a puff of 17 knots. The speedo surges above 20 knots, moving past 22, then 25, and topping out at 25.9 before it begins to descend as the boat bears away. It’s a tease for the guests aboard and a testimony for the crew. They know their craft has the jets to transport them around the world in front of their rivals, but, as Dalton says, "success depends upon reliability and being smart."

Under full sail, Club Med makes quick work of covering sea miles.

Being smart began for Dalton and Club Med’s directors when they chose the Gilles Ollier design team to conceive this behemoth and the Multiplast yard in Vannes, France, to build it. Their combined expertise is reflected in the boat’s pedigree, with ancestors like Jet Services, Elf Aquitaine, Royale, among others, and three America’s Cup Class monohulls. Dalton made another smart move when he signed on Mike Quilter in the navigator’s role. Quilter has been around the world three times with Dalton, and that’s just one aspect of his resume. As a specialist, he won’t be counted among the three, four-person watch teams on the boat, but he nonetheless hits the pedestal handles, trims the sails, and fills in wherever there’s a need.

To complement those initial moves, Dalton and company then put together a crew of experienced sailors from nine nations whose combined talents in offshore racing and multihull performance are unrivaled. In all, the crew brings the experience of 22 circumnavigations and an untold number of transatlantic passages to this project. If there’s a gamble anywhere in this strategy, it’s a bet that the synergy between multihull specialization and offshore experience will prevail.

Across the street—the crew’s jargon for the opposite hull—multihull maven and co-skipper Franck Proffit sits gazing out from behind his wrap-around sunglasses. A decorated offshore veteran at the age of 37, he stresses that the team is still learning the boat. "The rule is ‘don’t break the boat,’" says Proffit. One thing they’re learning, he adds, is that the size of the boat is deceiving when it comes to speed: "It doesn’t feel like 35 knots, so that’s why we don’t know so much about this boat. We know that we must slow down sometimes, and that is what is going to be hard, but you have to be really careful all the time because there’s not one single line on the boat that’s not under a load of two to three tons."

On a human scale, Club Med and its sail handling gear are simply colossal.
Proffit is alluding to the mystery surrounding material tolerances and fatigue factors; for a boat of these proportions, there just isn’t much data available to dictate how strong a certain component must be. Because of that, he and the rest of the crew are particularly concerned about eliminating weight anywhere possible. Weight on a performance multihull is anathema because not only does it slow the boat down, he says, it creates greater loads on the gear and the structure of the vessel itself. Neal MacDonald, a composite specialist and fellow watch captain on Club Med concurs: "I could break this boat in a matter of hours in the wrong conditions," he says, alluding to the big waves everyone expects they'll encounter in the southern ocean. "It’s a sensitive, delicate, fragile boat, and we know that." MacDonald claims that not even the equipment suppliers know how their gear will perform, because there’s never been a racing multihull this large before The Race. "Finding the balance and finessing the boat will be important," he concludes.

As the big boat swings into a jibe, MacDonald bounces away across the tramp toward the other hull. On such a fine, calm day, it’s hard to imagine how this craft will behave in waves a third as high as its masthead. Though the team has sped across the Atlantic once, and covered nearly as many miles in the north-south direction, they haven’t really tested Club Med’s mettle in big seas. It’s an issue that gives everyone on board pause, but it’s also just part of the job. "We’re out here to be the fastest boat that there has ever been," explains Dalton with a shrug. "That’s what these boats are. I don’t really know if we have an edge, but I suppose that’s why you race."

What’s Up With The Race

A lot has happened in the six years since Bruno Peyron announced this globe-girdling odyssey. No longer are there $2 million in prize money at stake, due to the fact that the $500,000-apiece entry fee has been lowered as an incentive to would-be participants who have struggled in the fund-raising department. And where there were once almost 40 potential entries, there are now apt to be fewer than six. Among the members of the media in Vilamoura last week, speculation abounded regarding just how many players would ultimately make the starting line. Currently only three boats have qualified for the event—Roman Paske’s Polpharma-Warta, Steve Fossett’s PlayStation, and Club Med. In order to allow more time for other potential entries, The Race organizers have moved back the date of their prologue event in Monaco. All entries must now be on site by December 13, but the main event will start on schedule—December 31.

That amendment was welcomed news for at least three teams hastily preparing entries. French sailing star Loick Peyron’s Code 1—a sister ship to Club Med—splashed down on October 12 and is now undergoing intial sea trials in the hands of its experienced crew of mostly French racers. American Cam Lewis’s Team Adventure—also a sister ship—was in the final stages of construction as of this weekend, but the campaign is suffering from a lack of cash and if the clock doesn’t run out on them, the funds might. Then there’s Pete Goss’s revolutionary 120-foot Team Philips, which, as of October 22, was sitting in Dartmouth, her masts nearby in a shed. The team hopes to make repairs to the port hull, restep the spars and have their steed back in action by the final days of November. Depending upon your source, two to three other entries are in the wings, but odds are they won’t muster the wherewithal to arrive in Monaco on time, ready to sail around the world.

Despite the changes that have occurred, The Race is nonetheless stacking up to be a remarkable event. And if the current crop of competitors can make it around safely, they just might be opening the door to future high-profile adventures for the sport. For additional information and periodic updates, log on to the event’s official website

Suggested Reading List

  1. Sizing Up the Competition for the Race by Pete Melvin
  2. Race Fleet Emerges by Mark Matthews
  3. Touching Base on the Race by Pete Melvin
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