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Wrapping Up The Race

Grant Dalton (with trophy) and the core of Club Med's crew celebrate their victory. At far left is co-skipper Franck Proffit.
The Race is over, at least for the first two boats, and at last the naysayers have been silenced. It seems like just yesterday that pessimistic pundits were predicting a perilous end to this newest circumnavigating event. The concept of a no-limits, nonstop race around the planet for these giants of ocean racing was more than some people could contemplate, but as Club Med sailed into Marseille last Saturday evening, it was a spectacular ending to an event that some said should and would never happen.

The Race has not been without its drama, and while Grant Dalton and his crew were drinking champagne on the winners podium, the real truth about their circumnavigation began to emerge. Club Med is now a battered boat that might have seen worse if its two sister ships, Innovation Explorer and Team Adventure, had been able to push harder. Aside from some obvious structural delamination to the forward crossbeam (what Dalton called "structural core shear") and missing padeyes on the deck, co-skipper Franck Proffit admitted that they had nearly lost their mast just days before the finish. In a brief statement he said, "Just three days from Marseille, because of a lower shroud failure, we nearly lost the rig. Just near the terminal where the Kevlar shroud joins the mast, a lot of extra wear had taken place. We added extra lashing and connections to keep it together to the finish." Their jury rig held, but only by the slimmest of margins.

Ocean racing is about nothing if not about incremental gains on the competition taken wherever and whenever possible. Keeping important information like structural damage to yourself is all part of a long-term strategy, one that Dalton learned 20 years ago racing his first Whitbread aboard Flyer. Owner-skipper Connie van Reitschoten suffered a heart attack in the Southern Ocean and declared unequivocally that the first the competition would know about it was when they saw a body bag floating by. The stakes have been raised considerably since then, but the lesson remains the same. Divulge an inch and the competition will take a mile.

The mighty Club Med, blasting across the ocean despite critical gear and structural failures.
For Cam Lewis and his team aboard Team Adventure, the news of Club Med’s structural failures came as no surprise. "The pace we were pushing each other down the Atlantic was beyond our wildest imagination, and with hindsight it was obvious that one of us was going to crash and burn. It happened to be us, but it would eventually have happened to Dalton if we had not broken our boat." Dalton conceded, adding, "Cam Lewis was very fast and our biggest threat. If they’d had a bit more time to prepare he could have been here in front of us."

After suffering damage to the crossbeam and the starboard hull, Team Adventure diverted to South Africa to effect a repair and in doing so took themselves out of contention. The relief on board Club Med was palpable, and after hearing the news of Team Adventure’s diversion the crew took the foot off the pedal and throttled back for the first time since the start. They dropped the headsail and sailed comfortably through the night under the mainsail alone. The next morning they gathered their thoughts, hoisted the headsail, and set about the business of maintaining a comfortable lead over Innovation Explorer. It was a margin that they were able to maintain all the way across the Southern Ocean and on to the finish in Marseille.

Jan Dekker and Alexis de Cenival prepare a patch for the partially delaminating main crosssbeam aboard Club Med.
According to co-skippers Dalton and Proffit, the worst weather Club Med encountered occurred in the South Atlantic north of the Falkland Islands where strong headwinds battered the boat, tossing it about in choppy seas. This was where Club Med eventually sustained the damage to the crossbeam. What Dalton called his "Army of Three"—crew members Jan Dekker, Neil McDonald, and Ed Danby—set to work using their ingenuity to bolt the companionway doors to inside and outside surfaces of the crossbeam to try and contain the damage to the core. The co-skippers had to reduce the boat’s speed while the crew carried out the repair work worked, but the wily New Zealander once more diverted attention from the damage by claiming light winds were slowing the boat down. It was quintessential Dalton.

Three days after Club Med’s nighttime finish, Innovation Explorer sailed across the finish line doing nearly 30 knots. Dalton complimented co-skippers Lo´ck Peyron and Skip Novak on their circumnavigation saying, "they pushed us all the way. If circumstances had been different, it might have been them here today—not us."

From my perspective as an involved observer [the author assisted Team Adventure with sail development], there is no doubting the brilliance with which Grant Dalton campaigned his boat and sailed his race. It was flawlessly executed from early sea trials to a clear victory in Marseille. However, I can’t help wondering what Innovation Explorer might have been able to do had they had more time and money. They were late launching and even later finding their stride after the race began, dropping 700 miles behind while sitting becalmed in the South Atlantic High. Once free of it they remained a constant distance behind Club Med all the way to the finish. They set the fastest time for a Southern Ocean crossing, and in fact averaged a higher speed than Club Med for the race. They sailed 28,764 nautical miles at an average speed of 18.45 knots while Club Med covered 27,407 nautical miles at an average speed of 18.3 knots.

The brain trust on board Innovation Explorer included (from left) Yves Loday, Loick Peyron, Skip Novak, and Julien Cressant.
Novak will be the first to tell you that with a better sail inventory they would have been able to be more competitive and been able to push Club Med harder. Of course hindsight is always 20:20. With what we now know about the damage to Club Med, it might have been a different story had the playing field been more level at the start.

Only when all the competitors are home and the dust has settled on this event will we be able to assess its success. Already it’s clear that when you dare to push the envelope with new technology and design, the long-term benefits to sailing in general become evident. The technologies pioneered in hull construction, equipment, and sail engineering will one day be used to make offshore sailing safer and more enjoyable for everybody. It’s too soon to predict how it will all filter down, but Randy Smyth on Team Adventure is predicting that we will be seeing a lot more of Cuben Fiber fabric in sails despite what happened with Playstation’s sails. Revolutionary new fabrics and materials tested on the "lunatic fringe" can only have a beneficial impact in the long term for the rest of us who enjoy life on the water.

Sailing advances aside, it is clear that The Race blazed new frontiers. Gone are the days where a circumnavigation in less than 80 days was just speculative thinking. With a boat that does not break and competition that can stay the course, Novak and company are already talking about a 55-day circumnavigation. Daily addicts that logged on to Team Adventure’s website for news soon started to send letters of disappointment when their favorite boat’s speed dropped below 20 knots. By time Team Adventure passed Wellington, they were calloused regarding day runs of over 500 miles and speeds in the high 30s.

While Club Med’s record time of 62 days, six hours, and 56 minutes is remarkable, it will not be ratified by the World Speed Sailing Record Council, which demands a starting point farther north than Barcelona to meet theoretical minimum distance requirements. Olivier De Kersauson, the man who holds the official fastest circumnavigation, in fact sailed fewer miles and took more than nine days longer than Club Med to complete his voyage. The truth is that no one's record, not even Club Med's, will be safe for long. Bruno Peyron is already talking about another event in four years time and De Kersauson plans to be there with a mega-multihull. In fact, he is about to complete construction of a 130-foot trimaran that he hopes will circumnavigate in 50 days. So to those naysayers who thought the current crop of entries in The Race was beyond reason, I say, hold on to your hats, the ride is just getting started.

Suggested Reading:

The Race so Far  by Brian Hancock

Previewing The Race  by Brian Hancock

Living Large on Club Med  by Dan Dickison

Buying Guide: Chartplotters

Brian Hancock is offline  
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