The biggest gathering of fans at any sports event in Europe this weekend will not be at a soccer or rugby match but crowding the dockside of St. Malo in Brittany at lunchtime Sunday to watch 91 singlehanded sailors start their 4,500-mile Route du Rhum race across the Atlantic to Guadeloupe in the French West Indies. A few of the competitors will be at the helm of giant machines, most will be steering smaller boats that can and will be tossed about just crossing the English Channel, they race in five different divisions, and there will be just three Brits among them.
In the run-up to the start, up to 200,000 people a day, say the police, have crowded the walled city and its harbour to catch a glimpse of these crazy adventurers and a fleet festooned with flags in part celebrating its 10 edition. Sunday, weather willing, there will be 250,000 to watch the kick-off and then to wonder, as they make their way back to warm homes and beds, what is waiting for the departed masochists. Answer, in the first 24 hours a wet and windy path to exhaustion.
Fatigue and lack of sleep is one of the biggest dangers. The sea is no respecter of age and reputation and the oldest competitor, the 75-year young Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, admitted worrying not a little about the task of hoisting his relatively big mainsail on Grey Power and not being able to sleep much until through the shipping lanes, across the Biscay, and then turning right into the warmer Atlantic . Relative because on the two biggest boats, the 105-foot trimaran Banque Populaire and the even bigger 130-foot Spindrift, Loick Peyron and Yann Guichard have adapted a bicycle pedalling solution to the task. Legs are stronger than arms.
The fleet is predicted to be bashing into stiff breezes and lumpy seas as they exit the Channel but the quick boys – Sidney Gavignet estimates his 70-foot trimaran Musandam-Oman Sail will be past Finistère soon after breakfast on Monday morning – will then pick up a favourable shift in wind direction and enjoy some fast progress. The Bay of Biscay could be free sailing as they head for the big right turn.
The record, 7d 17h 19m, was set by Lionel Lemonchois in the 60-foot trimaran Gitana in 2006 and odds are that it will be broken this year. As he is in a stretched, 80-foot version, Prince de Bretagne, Lemonchois could break it himself, but others should be even faster. But while the fastest eight or 10, assuming no disasters like capsizes, should make it in just over a week the class that constitutes nearly half the fleet, the Class 40, can look forward to 10 more days before enjoying the rum punches and Franco-Caribbean cuisine of Point à Pitre.
Among them are the two other British competitors, Conrad Humphreys, carrying from Plymouth the colours of Cat Phones, and Miranda Merron racing against instead of with her French partner Halvard Mabire. “It will be like doing half a dozen Figaro singlehanded races in succession,” says Humphreys, whose goal is a second crack at the Vendée Globe singlehanded non-stop round the world race in 2016 or 2020.
Ninety-one boats and 91 goals but two in complete contrast are those of Peyron and Gavignet. For Gavignet the mission was almost accomplished before he left the dock. It was strictly commercial as thousands trooped through the Oman tourism marquee picking up leaflets – or having their children’s hands hennaed.
There are various strands to the initiative which is Oman Sail from youth development and sail training/schools at home to tourism and inward investment abroad and its Yorkshireman ceo David Graham is quietly proud about seeing the programme, which includes having an Omani sailor in the Olympic opening ceremony, knit together and expand. He is more animatedly proud of having built a team in Muscat which continues to promote Omani women to senior management positions. And he is working on having a Volvo round the world campaign to run alongside the Olympic goal. The dots of what may turn out to be a permanent national strategy built around sailing are being joined up.
For Peyron, well, what can you say? He is a phenomenon who can straddle all types of sailing, solo or in a crew, and he picked up this gig at the last minute because Armel le Cléac’h suffered a bad injury to his right arm.
It means that Peyron’s own Rhum project, a yellow 30-foot trimaran called Happy, is for sale up on the hard at La Trinité with part of the sale contract including the stipulation that Peyron can borrow it back to do the quadrennial Rhum in 2018.
That will be after the America’s Cup in 2017, date to be confirmed, venue to be confirmed. Peyron is a key part of Sweden’s Artemis AC team, run by British gold medallist Iain Percy and recently joined by fellow China Games gold medallist Paul Goodison, who had been sailing with Ben Ainslie.
The Artemis team will be travelling mob-handed to Melbourne at the beginning of January with Peyron as both coach and competitor in the Moth World Championship. “My job is to control the back of the fleet,” he says self-deprecatingly about an event which will attract several America’s Cup team personnel.
Before that “I am in a war, for sure. Especially with this weapon.” Every major manoeuvre takes at least an hour but the platform is more stable. “I wouldn’t have given up my project to do the Rhum in a MOD70 [the boat in which Gavignet is racing] and I already have a lot of grey hair from sailing small trimarans,” says Peyron ruefully
Yann Guichard, whose at other times co-skipper and partner is Dona Bertarelli, has the kit to deliver a new record. Peyron is a canny and doughty competitor. Both have weather experts working around the clock to calculate the fastest route. And so do many of their rivals. But competitors without the grandee budget touch just have to work things out for themselves. Which is what Columbus had to try to do.
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