St. Malo readies itself for Route du Rhum

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The Independent Online

St. Malo took a pasting in WWII, but the restored fortress town in eastern Brittany is enjoying this week a much friendlier invasion.

The cause of all the excitement is a yacht race called the Route du Rhum, staged every four years over a 3,542-mile course to Point a Pitre in Guadeloupe.

Hoping to be near the front, but not expecting anyone to beat the record of 7d 17h 19m set by Loick Peyron in Gitana four years ago is Sidney Gavignet. His 100-foot trimaran, Oman Air Majan, marks the return of the ‘Ultimate Class’ after the domination of Open 60s, and, before that, 60-foot trimarans.

It is two years away, but the Open 60s are already revving up for the next Vendee Globe in 2012 with Vincent Riou’s new PRB, Roland Jourdain’s new Veolia, and the reigning Vendee champion Michel Desjoyeaux’s new Foncia.

In addition, Jean-Pierre Dick has his new Virbac Paprec, in which he will defend his Barcelona Race, two-handed round the world non-stop, which starts on New Year’s eve.

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The RDR is the race that saw, in 2002, the year that Ellen MacArthur won it, only three 60-foot trimarans finish out of the 15 that started. Leaving the Atlantic coast of France and crossing the Bay of Biscay in November can be a hazardous challenge.

Gavignet certainly expects to finish, probably in about nine days. As part of his build-up he sailed the Nigel Irens and Benoit Cabaret-designed tri to a new record for sailing non-stop round Britain. He thinks that may have been harder than the race he now faces with so much enthusiasm.

“Every day there are more and more people coming to St. Malo, 300,000 on Thursday alone. It’s great to have the Route du Rhum as popular as this and to see a fleet that runs from a 15m. aluminium boat, with the 48-year old Christine Monlouis representing her native Guadeloupe and also interested in cooking, to these state-of-the art carbon fibre machines. I will be on freeze-dried food,” he added.

Gavignet, who partnered Sam(antha) Davies on an Open 60 in the two-handed Transat Jacques Vabre last year, says he has used the same preparation procedure as for the Round Britain project and will have the pedal to the metal on Sunday. “There’s no way you can be shy on the start line,” he says, and has been adjusting his sleep patterns for the last 10 days. “You need to get used to sleeping in daylight,” he says and you should sleep before you are tired, eat before you are hungry and drink before you are thirsty. And,” he warns, “never, never put off doing a job until later.”

The boat will return to Lorient after the race and planning for the 2011 programme will take place in January. The big multihull is just part of a wide-ranging sailing initiative in Oman encompassing tourism to schools programmes.

Lorient is also the home of the Groupama team, whose big tri will be competing against Gavignet in the hands of Franck Cammas, taking time out from his preparation for the Volvo round the world race, which starts from Alicante in a year’s time. Gavignet is an old Volvo hand who would like to do the race again, but preferably as skipper.

While the thousands ashore cheer them off the start line on Sunday, the competitors know that the forecasters are predicting an angry Bay of Biscay in the first 24 hours. North-westerly gales the other side of an incoming low pressure system gusting to 40 knots are on the menu. Reducing sail and slowing the boats down to keep them in one piece will be the order of the day but the wind should provide a fast run south to the Azores. Being first into the new weather patterns will pay handsomely.

There is a record fleet of 86, not least because of the continuing success of the Class 40s, which number among them a British holder of the Legion d’Honneur.

Pete Goss was given the award for rescuing Raphael Dinelli – he paid a visit this week - from his capsized yacht in the 1996 Vendee. Goss was in the 50-foot Aqua Quorum. This time he is driving Tony Lawson’s Class 40, Concise, renamed DMS for the event, in a return to his first love, solo racing. It is not the easiest of comebacks. Competition in the class, which at 44 entries is over half the total, is fierce.

The jury to settle disputes, on and off the water, throughout the next America’s Cup cycle will be the same as presided over the last Cup, earlier this year in Valencia.

Chairman will be the Australian Dave Tillett with two British, Bryan Willis and John Doerr, one New Zealander, Graham McKenzie, and the only woman on the panel will be Josje Hofland of The Netherlands.

All the appointments were made under the auspices of the International Sailing Federation and will run until the end of the cup, at a venue yet to be announced, in 2013.

Ed Baird will take over as skipper of the new TP52 being built for the Quantum team for next year’s Audi MedCup series. He replaces another American, Terry Hutchinson, who moves to Torbjoin Tornqvist’s Swedish team Artemis, which is expected to announce formally its challenge for the America’s Cup in Stockholm on 8 November.

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