Fall in northern France is usually windswept and gray, but for two important days in early November the sun shone brightly and light breezes rippled the water. It was hardly what the racers participating in the Transat Jacques Vabre wanted. Among the skippers are some of the world's most experienced sailors and they knew that a good blow would shake up the fleet. Early dismastings have become a hallmark of this race; however, this time that was not to be.
When the monohull fleet set off on Saturday, November 3, a light northwesterly wind was blowing, and a day later when the multihulls started, the conditions were identical. While the weather might have been benign, the competition was anything but. This edition of the double-handed dash across the Atlantic will certainly be the most competitive ever with 14 Open 60 multihulls and 19 monohulls (both Open 50 and 60s) taking part. In France where sailing is a national obsession, careers are made and lost on the results of a high-level ocean race such as this and it was obvious watching both starts that no quarter would be given.
As an event, the Jacques Vabre is quintessentially French, and if sailing is your passion and you feel that it does not get equal footing in the world of sports, you ought to go to France and experience the next one. It is truly a media and public spectacle. On the docks in Le Havre thousands of onlookers turned out to enjoy the sight of the boats on the water, while in nearby tents scantily clad Brazilian dancers handed out free cups of coffee. The Jacques Vabre is as much about good coffee as it is about the top-tier of professional ocean racing. Jacques Vabre is after all one of France's most popular coffees and the fifth running of the event returns again to South America and the roots of good coffee—this time to Brazil. Both fleets finish in the seaside town of Bahia, but by different routes. The monohulls go direct; the multihulls must first round Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic before they can head for Bahia. Race organisers hope that both fleets will finish at roughly the same time.
Just prior to the race, most skippers and co-skippers can be found on board their boats signing autographs and conducting interviews, clad in sponsor garb and lingering almost casually. Their easy-going demeanor belies the intensity and professionalism they bring to their campaigns and the stakes could not be higher. Win the Jacques Vabre and you will win the hearts of the French public and more importantly, more sponsorship commitments for future sailing events.
Despite this intensity, a casual observer wandering the docks would have a hard time picking a winner. All the boats seem to represent the very latest designs; however, as soon as they hit the water and the starting gun fired for the monohulls it was obvious who the top teams were. Group Armor Lux, skippered by Bernard Stamm, looked like an odds-on favorite, and Stamm and his co-skipper Vincent Riou wasted no time leaving an impression on the massive spectator fleet. Playing small wind shifts in a fickle breeze under the lee of some massive cliffs, Group Armor Lux reached the first turning mark off the entrance to Le Havre harbor and proceeded to do a horizon job on the rest of the competition. Mike Golding, skipper of Ecover, sailing with racer-journalist Marcus Hutchinson was second to the mark. His Open 60 career has been plagued by bad luck; running aground off New Zealand while leading the last Around Alone and dismasting less than 24 hours into the Vendée among other lesser mishaps.
Those setbacks notwithstanding, Golding is a fierce competitor and looked favorably upon his chances of winning this race. "The boat is as good as it's ever been," he said. "If we can just get some conditions that favor Finot [boats designed by the normally dominant Groupe Finot] boats we should be fine." Golding was referring to the downwind performance of his generation of Open 60s.
His sentiment was echoed by Javier Sanso aboard SME Neoceane (formerly Gartmore). "Our boat is very fast downwind," he said. "And this is a downwind race." Sanso is also a Vendée competitor and Spain's best hope for a good showing in the next one.
|"It will be Moloney's first chance to show his talents as skipper of an Open 60 without operating in the shadow of Ellen MacArthur."|
While Stamm and the two Finot boats got off to a good start, farther back in the fleet old rivals, and by most yardsticks, pre-race favorites Sill Plein Fruit
), were locked in their own battle. Both CDB
are good all-round boats and their speed, displayed this past summer during the EDS Atlantic Challenge, must leave the rest of the fleet concerned. Roland Jourdain, skipper of Sill
, is one of France's top sailors with a third place in the last Vendée and numerous other victories to his credit. He needs a win, and with co-skipper Gale Le Cléach and a new mast in the boat (they were dismasted during the EDS) they look formidable.
Perhaps only Nick Moloney, skipper of CDB, wants victory more. It will be Moloney's first chance to show his talents as skipper of an Open 60 (Moloney won the EDS as co-skipper with Ellen MacArthur aboard Kingfisher). With his sites set firmly on the next Vendée, Moloney is ready. "We are really pumped," he said. "Mark and I have been waiting for this for a long time and we are ready to push our boat every inch of the way." The Mark he refers to is Mark Turner, partner and project manager for Ellen MacArthur.
In the Open 50 class Alex Bennett is fiercely determined to win. He and Paul Larsen are sailing Pete Goss's old Vendée ride renamed One Dream, One Mission to reflect Bennett's intentions to race the next Vendee. His toughest competition is likely to come from Eric Denamiel on SetraBio, formerly Cray Valley, winner of Class II in the last edition of Around Alone.
The fleet sailed in a steady northwesterly wind all night, and by daybreak Sunday they had sorted themselves into an order that might mirror what the pundits would have predicted. Sill Plein Fruit held a narrow lead over Group Armor Lux with Mike Golding's Ecover third and Moloney's CDB in fourth place. First among the Open 50s was One Dream, One Mission.
With the monohulls on their way the focus turned to the real stars of this show, the Open 60 multihulls. After losing momentum in the early ‘90s, this class has experienced an amazing surge of popularity in the last few years and all its top practitioners are building new boats. It's not hard to see the attraction. These boats are almost futuristic and unbelievably fast, and to see the entire fleet approaching the start line at full tilt was breathtaking. With less than a second to spare, Yvan Bourgnon and Yvan Ravussin took Nautica
across the line doing 25 knots and flying both the weather hull and most of the main hull clear out of the water. It's clearly an indication of this fleet's intense competition when the first 10 boats cross the line within 15 seconds of the gun in a 5,300-mile race.
The multihull fleet was also sent around a mark off the harbor entrance and the boats raced toward land across water churned white by spectator craft. Frank Cammas' Groupama is considered by many of the local pundits to be the one to watch and Cammas and his co-skipper Steve Ravussin certainly made their case rounding the mark well ahead of the pack. Groupama is a proven van Peteghem/Prevost design that won the Québec-St Malo race last year.
In second, were Loick Peyron and Loic Le Mignon aboard the brand new Fujifilm. To this reporter's eye Fuji looks to be the one to beat. Peyron is considered by many to be the finest multihull sailor on the circuit and their new, well-prepared Nigel Irens design was showing strong form early on. Chasing the fleet in high-powered RIB doing 28 knots, we struggled to keep pace with Fuji en route to the turning mark.
|"Ten boats all 60 feet wide make for a big obstacle, but the first to break free from the pack was sentimental favorite Foncia, with Ellen MacArthur and Alain Gautier on board."|
Once the first two boats made it around the mark the rest of the fleet converged creating a parking lot of ungainly looking craft each hunting for a gap to nip through. Ten boats, all 60 feet wide, make for a big obstacle, but the first to break free from the pack was Foncia
, an older boat and most definitely a sentimental favorite among the crowds on the dock. Perched to windward was one of the smallest and most successful sailors to ever step on a boat, and winding winches in the cockpit was another equally diminutive and well-known racer. The dream team of Alain Gautier and Ellen MacArthur, who have been racing together all summer to fine-tuned their work, looked impressive. Their boat may be old (circa 1993; Gautier has a new one under construction), but both sailors are fiercely competitive and looking for a win. If the ease and determination with which they were sailing is any indication, watch out for Foncia
Beyond those three entries, the multihull fleet is laden with talent and experience and any one of a number of boats has a bona-fide chance of winning. Adding a touch of glamor and femininity to the fleet are two well-known female sailors. Karine Fauconnier, daughter of the 1984 OSTAR winner Yvon Fauconnier, was looking terrific aboard her brand new boat Sergio Tacchini with co-skipper Franck Proffit, and at the back of the pack was up-and-coming British sailor Emma Richards on Pindar Systems with co-skipper Mikaela von Koskull. Richards won the 50-foot monohull class in the last Jacques Vabre and is having a new trimaran built for future events. Her boat, Steve Fossett's old Lakota is definitely outdated and slow, but with new sponsor graphics the boat still looked great.
"We are still in the learning phase," said a soft-spoken Richards before the start. "The Open 60 multihulls are the most competitive fleet in the world and we are pleased to be able to compete among them. Who knows, if it really blows our old, but strong boat might just do well." Richards is one of the finer new talents to grace the pages of yachting magazines and her career is in full upward swing.
The man known to most French sailing fans as the extra terrestrial, Yves Parlier, is the co-skipper aboard Banque Populaire, a brand new 2001 Mark Lombard design. Along with Lalou Roucayrol, this duo looks formidable. Parlier is also having a new boat built, which is rumored to be the most radical Open 60 to date. Bonduelle skippered by Jean Le Cam and FILA, skippered by Around Alone winner Giovanni Soldini both have a chance to take line honors. Each is a brand new boat, and with what appears to be an easy start for this race—instead of the usual three-day bash to windward—they might avoid the damage usually afflicted upon new trimarans and arrive in Bahia first.
Out on the water off Le Havre, it was not long before all the boats had sailed over the horizon and out of sight. At sea, the crews were settling into their routines, which will last approximately 16 days before they arrive in Brazil. The forecast is good, and if the fleet makes it to the tradewinds without slowing, this year's Jacques Vabre has the potential to be the fastest ever. It certainly has the makings to be the most memorable.
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