Ellen and Foncia lead fleet from France

reports Ed Gorman from the start of the Challenge Mondial Assistance

Saturday May 12th 2001, Author: James Boyd/Ed Gorman, Location: United Kingdom
ORMA's new Challenge Mondial Assistance race for the 60ft trimaran fleet kicked off today at 1100GMT off Cherbourg's giant breakwater. Despite the forecast of light winds, in the sunny, but slightly hazy conditions the wind managed to muster itself to 15-18 knots from just north of east - more than enough for the trimarans to get fully powered up and provide a superb display for the assembled fleet of spectator craft.

With eight boats in the fleet of which seven are potential race winners, the start was taken at full speed, all the boats sailing under full main and Solent jib. Only Jean le Cam in Bonduelle and the old Gitana IX were not on the pace and were soon left for dead by the rest of the fleet. Gitana IX is the old Ollier designed Elf Aquitaine, once upon a time a winner of the TwoSTAR, and now 13 years old looks long in the tooth compared to the current generation of boats. In contrast Bonduelle was launched at the end of the last season for the two time Figaro winner and Formula 40 champion le Cam and put on an excellent show at the end of last year, winning several races in the final Offshore Racing Multihull Association Grand Prix of the season.

For the benefit of spectators and TV crews (the ORMA circuit is heavily televised in France), the trimarans had to complete a windward-leeward course before they could head off for the first major mark of the course - the Azores.

On the first beat it was Marc Guillemot's la Trinitaine-Ethypharm who slowly drew away, pointing marginally higher than the rest of the fleet. Like the other tris, Guillemot's Irens design was flying her centre hull and at one stage it lifted so high the tip of her daggerboard was almost visible. All the boats set off on starboard tack, sailing at around 15 knots, spray flying off their leeward hulls. Most made the first mark tacking just once, although Bonduelle tacked early to get out of the dirty wind left by the front runners.

1.5 miles to the east of the start line, it was Guillemot who rounded the weather mark first, ahead of Yvan Bourgnon's Bayer en France and Belgacom. He promptly protested Banque Populaire, Belgacom and Groupama for failing to observe several mandatory marks of the course en route to the windward mark. Over the radio Marcel van Trieste navigator on Groupama argued that they had complied with the race instructions but the new Banque Populaire and Groupama were forced to turn back reducing the leading pack to four boats. Alain Gautier's Foncia, with Ellen MacArthur on board rounded the weather mark in fourth place 1.5 minutes after the leader.

Gybing back towards Cherbourg, the trimarans had to follow a course back inside the breakwater where a mass of spectator boats had gathered. Under masthead gennikers, the trimarans were flying along at 20 knots, rooster tails trailing their leeward floats.

Re-entering Cherbourg's large harbour it was Foncia who had taken over the lead. Gautier, a former Vendee Globe winner, had obviously put his foot to the floor as Foncia was 40 seconds ahead of second placed La Trinitaine-Ethypharm. For the spectator fleet it was hugely impressive with media helicopters flying overhead and the 60ft tris able to open up the throttle fully.

The next mark of the course for the trimarans is Sao Miguel in The Azores, which they must leave to port before heading to Gibraltar and into the Med where they are expected to finish in Tarragona, southern Spain sometime next weekend. Hopefully Alain Gautier will not make a repeat of his performance in the last Transat Jacques Vabre when he pitchpoled his boat on the first night of the race. While that race was two handed this one is fully crewed and so pitchpoling is less likely to occur.

Who's going to win? See page 2...

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