Lake victory for Coutts

As strong gust brings carnage in Bol d'Or

Sunday June 18th 2006, Author: Denis van den Brink, Location: France
New Zealand skipper and America's Cup legend Russell Coutts crossed the finish line of the 68th Geneva Bol d'Or Rolex shortly before 2100 to take line honours. After some extraordinary close boat for boat racing, keeping his crew of amateur doctors on their toes right until the last breath of wind, Coutts narrowly beat Philippe Cardis on Julius Baer, last year's winner Loïck Peyron on Nicolas Grange's Okalys and Alain Gautier on Foncia.ch. At the entrance to the 'petit lac', just 5 miles from the Geneva finish line, there were still four Decision 35 catamarans in the running for victory. From La Baule on France's Atlantic coast, Peyron was the first to come within sight of the line, driving hard down the French side of the lake under gennaker. At that point, Russell Coutts and Philippe Cardis were on the opposite Swiss side of the lake. Gybe after gybe, from wind pockets to wind holes, a different set of cards was dealt over and over again, the advantage changing every few yards. Rooted to the helm, Coutts remained concentrated to the finish to take victory on the last gybe.

577 crafts, monohulls and multihulls alike, set off at 0902 hours this morning on the 68th Bol d'Or Rolex's lengthy start line off 'la nautique' - spanning right across the western end of Lac Léman or Lake Geneva as it is better known outside Switzerland. The wind was absent at the start, made a timid appearance, that gradually built under the pallid sun as the boats made off towards the French side of the lake, the majority on port tack under large gennakers. The main players within the spectacular Décision 35 class were quick to move ahead: Alain Gautier in Foncia.ch, was on the warpath with the smaller M2 catamarans Team New Wave and Flam, momentarily taking the lead ahead of Loïck Peyron on Okalys and Ernesto Bertarelli's Alinghi. Once the 5-6 knot easterly wind had established itself the small M2s were able to fly a hull and hang onto the wake of the 35 footers. Two hours later, the leaders fleet passed Yvoire, leaving the lower part of the Léman, known locally as the 'petit lac'.

Despite the weak easterly wind, the spectacle of the start was as good as ever with the line spanning one side of the lake to the other. Spectators on a hundred or so boats of all shapes and sizes watched as the yachts filled the entire race zone, accelerating away towards the French side of the lake The diversity of the fleet was particularly impressive from high performance one-offs such as Jo Richards' Full Pelt, Jean Psarofaghis' Psaros 40 Sys and Co or Alex Schneiter's Tilt, quickly streaking ahead of the huge monohull fleet, transforming the slightest breath of wind into speed.

Thonon in 3 hours.

Shortly before noon, with the wind still struggling to reach 6 knots, the leading Decision 35s were making 5 to 10 knots of boat speed as they hooked onto any breath of wind they could find. Only with great concentration and energy spent trimming did the crews succeed in flying a hull with the wind on the beam, causing them to accelerate to more than 12 knots. At Versoix was Bertarelli's Alinghi was in the lead but Jean-François Demolle on Cadence and Philippe Cardis on Julius Baer came right back into the thick of the action. Further back, still at the exit from the 'petit lac', the leading monohulls, the canting keel water ballasted Psaros 40s, fell into a wind hole; Alex Schneiter on Tilt, Nicolas Engel ( Taillevent II) and Eric Delaye ( Oyster Funds) momentarily finding themselves at a complete stand still. At that point, part of the M2 fleet opted to split away; Tilt, Orusla and Flam heading off for Rolle on the north shore, while Team New Wave, GLG Finances and Star Logistiques threaded their way towards Thonon on the opposite bank.

Le Bouveret in 5 hours 40 mins!

It took the leaders 5 hours and 40 minutes for the front runners to round the Bouveret mark and begin the return trip to Geneva. The D35 Cadence was first to round at 1442, followed by Alinghi, Banque Gonet skippered by Russell Coutts, Julius Baer then Foncia. Before the mark, last year's winner Loick Peyron on Okalys was totally becalmed resulting in him being overtaken by the M2 Team New Wave which had taken a a more northerly course around the lake, close to Lausanne. Peyron eventually rounded the mark and immediately set off towards the northern side of the lake. This proved to be a winning option as Okalys and Julius Baer, then Banque Gonet and Alain Gautier's Foncia hit nearly 10 knots as they approached Cully (to the east of Lausanne). Meanwhile Alinghi and Cadence were locked in a series of gybes in the light airs on the French side - a shorter but higher risk course in the wind shadow of the mountains. Here they passed the first monohulls still on their outboard leg to Bouveret, led by Taillevent II. While the multihulls headed off again under gennaker, the first of the hundred strong fleet of 'Surprises' were still passing Rolle, the boats spread out across the entire width of the lake.

"We got off to a great start" said Xavier Lecoeur, helmsman on Mirabaud 2, "but our extended route towards Yvoire didn't bear fruit. We battled the whole day in a light 3 to 4 knot wind, enough to keep the sails filled and race with the boats in our class. The difference is down to the quality of the trimming and the extent of concentration." Well positioned in the centre of the lake as the D35s were closer to the shore, Bertrand Geiser and Christophe Stamm's Team New Wave momentarily took the lead in the overall results.

The storm dictates

It was forecast.and so it happened: A little after 1700 hours the fleet were struck by a sudden, violent squall, complete with rain and a violent 20+ knot gust of wind and a massive westerly rotation. This enabled the bigger leading multihulls to dive south towards Evian, and the monohulls still en route to Bouveret to hoist a spinnaker and accelerate downwind. The storm wreaked havoc among the fleet, race management having to deal with around 20 incidents including broken masts and capsizes. Rock solid on the helm during the fierce gusts, Russell Coutts shot back into the lead off Rolle, snatching pole position from Loïck Peyron who was still fending off Philippe Cardis' advances on Julius Baer. Ernesto Bertarelli on Alinghi was the worst victim of the gusts. His D35 dismasted off Evian in the worst of the thunderstorm.

At the entrance to the 'petit lac' and with Alain Gautier chasing him closely, the outcome was far from certain. Even the 'little' M2 Team New Wave still looked set to upset the hierarchy of the bigger D35s. At the end of a breathtaking final full of suspense, Banque Gonet and Coutts came good; Philippe Cardis taking second place for the second year running.

"Congratulations to the crew," commented Coutts on his arrival. "It was very close racing. We remained within contact for the majority of the race after rounding Bouveret in 3rd. We staked everything we had at the end".

Banque Gonet crewman Pierre Pinodeau added:: "The suspense was intense right to the last moment. The sudden reversal of positions was really hard on the nerves. It's hard to take in this victory. The gusts we encountered off Yvoire will always be the high point of this race. Russell showed what he was made of there. We wanted to drop everything. He stayed on the helm and told us to trust him. He handled the boat fantastically with impressive power and control."

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