Photo: Marco Nannini/UniCredit

Route du Rhum Class 40 week two round up

The Global Ocean Race's Ollie Dewar shares his assessment

Monday November 15th 2010, Author: Ollie Dewar, Location: Guadeloupe

Throughout the first week of Class40 racing in the Route du Rhum - La Banque Postale (31 Oct-7 Nov), competition was characteristically tight and filled with drama and humour. Thomas Ruyant on Destination Dunkerque took pole position mid-week as the Class40 fleet split with hotly-tipped Nicolas Troussel and Crédit Mutuel de Bretagne leading a breakaway pack east of the Azores High in search of a quick route to the NE Trade Winds. While Ruyant and the northern group found the strongest breeze to the west, a lurking mid-Atlantic high-pressure system threatened to turn the position rankings upside down although Ruyant continued to increase his lead dramatically over the chasing boats in the northern pack.

During the second week (7-14 Nov), evasive action and a sharp drop south prevented the majority of the northern group from entrapment in light airs and forced a few boats close to the Azores with terrible consequences for one competitor. Areas of light wind continued to dog the fleet leader as the northern and southern groups merged and the relentless pace of Troussel to the south began to threaten Ruyant’s 10 days at the head of Class40 and by midday on Friday, the rout of the podium had begun.

Confusion and instability in the northern group

During the first weekend at sea, the northern group tangled with the Mid-Atlantic high pressure system, while leading in the southern group, Troussel made a steep ascent from 19th to 10th place on Sunday evening as the two groups of Class40’s converged with Troussel and Crédit Mutuel de Bretagne trailing Ruyant’s Destination Dunkerque by 157 miles. In third place, trailing the fleet leader by 95 miles on Monday, Sam Manuard on Vecteur Plus was averaging just under 11 knots south of the system’s centre on a broad port reach. “The conditions just now are a little more steady than they were during the night when I was caught in some rain showers where the wind was very shifty and unsettled,” reported Manuard. “It is pretty confused and so when it is like this, I feel like the scientific approach to the weather is the best thing,” added the yacht designer and Mini sailor. Having analysed the weather, Manuard remained sceptical about the route taken by the southern group: “Arriving from the east is still an option, but really nothing is for sure.”

Evasive tactics in the northern group and the dive south forced four of the fleet to thread through the Azores Archipelago with Thierry Bouchard in 18th place on his Akilaria RC2 Comiris - Pôle Santé Elior; Eric Galmard in 20th on Avis Immobilier; Olivier Grassi in 21st with Grassi Bateaux and Eric Defert on his new Verdier Tyker40 Drekan Energie - Groupe Terrallia sailing through the islands in pitch darkness during the early hours of Monday morning. Meanwhile, at the eastern end of this Portuguese, territorial outpost, Bernard Stamm and Cheminées Poujoulat reached São Miguel and rendez-voused with two shore crew for vital repairs. In calm conditions off Ponta Garca on the island’s southern coast, Stamm and his team made repairs to the steering system and by daybreak on Monday, Cheminées Poujoulat was back on the race track, 448 miles behind the Class40 leader having dropped back to 32nd place during the long limp south to São Miguel.

For many in the northern group, dropping south and skirting the high pressure in unstable conditions was becoming tiresome. GOR entry, Jean-Edouard Criquioche on Groupe Picoty - east of the fleet leader and trailing Destination Dunkerque by 226 miles in 7th place - was beginning to find the atmosphere suffocating: “Last night was completely black without a glimpse of any stars through the thick, dark cloud cover,” reported the French skipper on Tuesday morning. “The sea was totally black and this darkness engulfs the boat with just the nav lights throwing a pool of light on the sails. It feels like I’m the only person in the world on board a boat sailing into the unknown without effort and in almost total silence.” Despite the poetry, Criquioche was getting jumpy: “This private world would be perfect if the breeze stopped getting on my nerves so much: switching round through 50 degrees and varying between eight and 25 knots.”

On Sunday evening, Yvan Noblet had moved into second place on Appart City – Giovanni Soldini’s former Telecom Italia - and held the position trailing Ruyant by 105 miles on Tuesday morning after a bumpy Monday night: “A really complicated night,” admitted Noblet who had chosen a far deeper dive south than the fleet leader. “Not much wind and coming from every angle at changing strengths with plenty of squalls.”

Horrific collision off the Azores

However, neither Criquioche nor Noblet had a night as stressful as 25 year-old French skipper, Louis Burton, on his five year-old Pogo, Bureau Vallée. Holding 11th place just west of the Azores and making around 7 knots boat speed under full main and big spinnaker, Burton went below shortly before sun rise on Tuesday morning for some rest: navigation lights were on and so was the radar alarm, but barely had he closed his eyes when Bureau Vallée slammed into the port side of a 30-35m Portuguese fishing boat. “It was a really hard impact,” reported Burton. “I rushed on deck and the carbon bowsprit had shattered and acted as a shock absorber and because the autopilot was trying to get me back on my original course, I was pinned to the side of the fishing boat.”

With wind and electronics working against him, Burton shouted for assistance from the fishing boat’s crew: “I banged on their hull and yelled for help, but there wasn’t a person in sight.” Desperate to get free, the yacht’s third reefing pennant caught on the fishing boat’s bulwark and Burton thinks there were three or four more violent impacts along the hull of the boat before Bureau Vallée finally disengaged. Despite being severely shaken by the incident, Burton reported that all the vital parts of the boat were functioning: “The mast and the shrouds are fine,” he confirmed. “There’s a gash in the bow and some scrapes and fractures along the hull-deck joint, some of the stanchions and the pushpit are a mess and the bowsprit is in three or four pieces.”

Isolation in the north for Nannini and Coleman

North of Noblet and Criquioche, two Global Ocean Race entries had taken the most direct route through the high and had resisted the direct drop south. In 18th place, Italian skipper, Marco Nannini on UniCredit, and New Zealand skipper Conrad Coleman in 21st place on 40 Degrees had both sailed into the high pressure system, slowing down on Monday with a dramatic loss of speed on Tuesday to around five knots and a tumble down the rankings. Marco Nannini explained the situation: “The disturbances caused by hurricane Thomas mean the high is being pushed south-eastwards, faster and earlier than we could anticipate when we were sailing this way a few days ago,” he revealed. “So, I didn’t dip south with the others. I hoped to pass in time and going south-westwards was the shortest route out of the path of the high.” As usual, hindsight is a wonderful thing: “The only sure solution would actually have been to stay a lot further north after the front or dip south far earlier and more dramatically,” continued the Italian skipper. “But we couldn’t know at the time.”

Halfway point for Class40

At 15:16 GMT on Tuesday afternoon, Franck Cammas and the 105ft trimaran, Groupama, crossed the finish line in Guadeloupe, winning the Route du Rhum’s Ultimate Class after nine days and three hours of racing. Approximately 1,800 miles east of Cammas, the majority of the Class40 fleet reached the Route du Rhum halfway point, with Thomas Ruyant and Destination Dunkerque making just over 10 knots keeping a 105 mile lead over Noblet and Appart City in second. However, Nicolas Troussel and the southern group were rapidly disrupting the rankings pattern as the bulk of the northern fleet continued to be forced south by the high pressure system. Troussel and Crédit Mutuel de Bretagne climbed to fifth place as the two Class40 fleets converged with a deficit of 184 miles on the leader and picking up the pace to 11 knots in the late afternoon. Troussel’s nearest rival in the southern group, Damien Seguin and Des Pieds et Des Mains lay in ninth place, 114 miles off Troussel’s stern with Marc Lepesqueux and Marie Toit - Caen La Mer in 10th, Christophe Coatnoan on Partouche in 12th and – taking a very southern option and splitting from the pack – Pete Goss and DMS in 11th with slightly under 170 miles separating the chasing quartet.

Meeting of the fleets

By Wednesday morning, the two squadrons in the fleet had begun to merge, creating a 780 mile-wide wall of Class40’s spread across the North Atlantic. In the northern group, Rémis Beauvais on his 2006 Philippot-designed Routes du Large holding eighth place was furthest south, forming the inter-pack link, trailing the southern pack leader, Nicolas Troussel and Crédit Mutuel de Bretagne in sixth by 84 miles. However, the overall fleet leader, Thomas Ruyant, continued to pull away, adding a further 52 miles to the distance between his Tyker40 Destination Dunkerque and Troussel’s Pogo S² in 24 hours. Ruyant also achieved gains over his nearest rival in the northern group, Yvan Noblet in second place on Appart City, adding 25 miles to the distance deficit in the same 24 hour period and leading Noblet by 127 miles at dawn on Wednesday.

Apart from German sailor, Jörg Riechers in fifth on who polled a speed average of 13 knots on Tuesday afternoon, Ruyant was consistently the fastest boat in the fleet, averaging 10-12 knots. “I’ve got the strongest breeze because I’m furthest west,” the 29 year-old, 2009 Mini Transat winner explained simply on Wednesday morning. “But what’s ahead? Who knows? I’ve made some pretty good decisions strategically and I’ve tried to understand what’s going on with the weather, although it’s really complex,” he admitted. “It’s not Russian roulette: it’s just interesting and complicated.” Looking over his port quarter at Crédit Mutuel de Bretagne in the southeast, Ruyant was cautious. “Judging by what Nicolas Troussel is currently up to, I imagine he’s going to stick with a southern approach to Guadeloupe. But nothing is fixed! Personally, I think the comment made by Jean Le Cam is highly valuable: ‘If you don’t know where to go; go west!’.”

Stamm back in the chase

Meanwhile, 500 miles behind Ruyant, Bernard Stamm and Cheminées Poujoulat were back in the hunt following a pitstop in the Azores with the round the world specialist scalping six places in the 48 hours following a restart from São Miguel on Monday morning and moving into 26th place. Furthest south in the Class40 fleet, fellow circumnavigator, Pete Goss in 13th place, explained his rapid dive down to 27 degrees North: “I didn't want to get too close to the northerly fleet as they come down to meet us,” confirmed the British skipper of the new Akilaria RC2, DMS. “As it happens, I think we got it pretty much right as we headed down into a very long night. The trouble was that we were continually stalked by these huge great rain clouds which wreak carnage with the prevailing wind,” Goss continued. “At one point, I had the Solent out and was on a fetch for forty minutes, rain, calms and - of course - a big old slop. It was a night of effort and caution,” he explains. “At one point we reached 20 knots of boatspeed only to be dawdling along at five knots half an hour later. I actually fell asleep whilst standing up!”

Goss was not alone in feeling the effects of 11 days of hard sailing and, 265 miles behind the race leader, GOR entry, Jean-Edouard Criquioche with the new, third generation Pogo S² Groupe Picoty was feeling the strain: “I’ve finally left the high pressure zone that has been tormenting me for 48 hours,” reported Criquioche on Wednesday morning having doggedly hung onto 7th place while skirting south of the high pressure system. “We’re now making good progress to Guadeloupe, but this isn’t altogether a good thing and we’ve got some light airs on the way tomorrow,” he continued, eyeing the weather data. “Today’s programme? Re-hydrating as much as possible as it’s beginning to get hot and to get some sleep in the bank as I’m severely in the red after the past couple of days,” Criquioche admits. This is the French skipper’s second Route du Rhum and he is well aware that light airs racing can be exhausting. “So today, it’s ‘Operation Kip,’ followed by more kip, and possibly some further kip!”

Mid-fleet congestion

As the northern and southern groups converged, it was becoming increasingly congested in the middle of the fleet both in terms of rankings and geographical proximity with the intensely close racing for which Class40 has become synonymous. Leading the middle block of boats south-west, Louis Burton on damaged Bureau Vallée held 11th place, 414 miles behind the fleet leader, with the German-Swiss 50 year-old, Axel Strauss, in 13th on the 2007 Akilaria Tzu Hang just 13 miles behind Burton. Sailing with a damaged Solent, a delaminating mainsail and having lost his Code 0 overboard, 51 year-old Thierry Bouchard on his 2009 Akilaria RC2 Comiris - Pôle Santé Elior held 15th place, a handful of miles ahead of Eric Galmard on his 2007 Akilaria, Avis Immobilier. At the back of the middle block, British sailor, Richard Tolkein, in 29th place on the two year-old Humphreys design ICAP Orca and Fabrice Amedeo on the new Akilaria RC2 Géodis were separated by just five miles.

In the middle of the group, Bertrand Guilloneau on his 2006 Ker40 Ville de Douarnenez in 20th place hung onto a nine mile lead over GOR entry, Tanguy de Lamotte in 23rd place on Novedia – Initiatives who was fighting to climb up the rankings after sustaining a near-terminal, horizontal rip in his mainsail two metres below the third reef at the end of the first week. De Lamotte spent six hours making repairs: “It took ages,” he explained. “I stuck several Kevlar patches over the tear on both sides of the sail, then stitched the entire area. I also added extra reinforcement where the sail rubs against the spreaders as – in my opinion – this is what caused the rip in the first place.” During one of his countless trips under the boom while stitching, De Lamotte walked straight into one of the batten cars on the unbent section of mainsail. “It smacked me straight in the face and broke a tooth,” he continued. Despite the sharp pain from an exposed nerve, De Lamotte completed the repair, hoisted the patched main and broke open the med-kit, but soon grew weary of the instructions and called the Route du Rhum Medical Officer. “I shut the book at the chapter on dental procedures and called Dr. Jean-Yves Chauve who talked me through the process,” he explained. “I succeeded in making a few grams of plaster and attaching this as a sort of bandage to what was left of the tooth.”

Brakes go on for Ruyant

Since escaping the clutches of the mid-Atlantic high-pressure system, Class40 leader Thomas Ruyant and Destination Dunkerque had consistently increased distance on the chasing pack building a lead of 133 miles over Yvan Noblet and Appart City in second place by Wednesday evening and keeping the southern threat of sixth-placed Nicolas Troussel and Crédit Mutuel de Bretagne 253 miles off his port quarter. However, on Thursday morning, Ruyant hit a wall of light headwinds in a high pressure ridge, instantly dropping to 2 knots of boat speed. Southeast of Ruyant, Sam Manuard and Vecteur Plus in third and Damien Grimont on his new Pogo S² Monbana kept out of the windless zone holding a steady 8 knots in stable southerly breeze on a port reach as did Yvon Noblet further south. Making the best speed, further south than the leading group, Nicolas Troussel and Crédit Mutuel de Bretagne made the best speed at just under 11 knots in 6th place 185 miles behind Ruyant.

Early on Thursday evening, Destination Dunkerque was through the ridge and back up to speed, but the half-a-day spent in the near-windless zone had extracted a high price. By Friday morning, Troussel had taken 50 miles from Ruyant’s lead trailing Destination Dunkerque by 137 miles while Manuard gained 22 miles closing into 98 miles of the leader and Grimont took 38 miles from the deficit bringing Monbana to just over 100 miles from Ruyant. In second place, Yvon Noblet gained 37 miles, closing down to under 40 miles from the race leader and posing the biggest threat during Ruyant’s ten-day tenure at the front.

The podium rout begins

By midday on Friday, Troussel’s assault on the podium began as Crédit Mutuel de Bretagne – 270 miles in latitude further south than Ruyant and in stable, southerly breeze averaging over 11 knots boatspeed – moved up into third, just 13 miles behind Appart City as Noblet staggered into light headwinds. Overall, the southerly boats suddenly had the wind advantage with the group following Troussel – Damien Seguin and Des Pieds et Des Mains in 9th; Marc Lepesqueux with Marie Toit - Caen La Mer in 11th and Christophe Coatnoan in 12th on Partouche – were averaging consistently higher speeds than the majority of the fleet at 9.5-11.8 knots. A further 300 miles of latitude south of Troussel, Pete Goss and DMS in 15th place had found good southeasterly breeze, picking up the pace to 11.5 knots and reaching deeper south trailed by a band of southerly companions including the Spanish Mini sailor with possibly the longest name in sport, Gonzalo Botin Sanz de Sautuola, in 22nd on Tales Villa Esperanza slightly under 100 miles behind Goss, with François Angoulvant in 32nd on Fermiers de Loué – Sarthe, Willy Bissainte and Tradition Guadeloupe in 33rd place and Patrice Bougard in 35th with Kogane all joining the drop southwards.

Reflecting on his gamble to the south, Goss was prepared for any outcome. “It’s really interesting to watch the fleet as it pans out across the Atlantic,” wrote Goss on Friday morning. “Looking at it, you wouldn't believe that all the Class40s started at the same place on the same day with the same destination in mind,” he commented. With a distance of around 780 miles between DMS in the south and Marco Nannini on UniCredit in 27th place furthest north and Ruyant at the head of the fleet 1,300 miles south-west of the Class40 backmarker, Bulgarian sailor, Dimitar Topolov on White Swallow heading towards the Azores with a catalogue of sail, instrument and pilot problems, the spread of the fleet is impressive. “The ironic thing is that no matter how we sail, fate will now decide which choice of split in the fleet has got it right,” Goss continues. “For myself, I am more than happy with my choice and look forward to the outcome. It will be either champagne or sack cloth, but I will be happy with either, for it is about the decision at the time, rather than the outcome,” he adds. “The next four days are going to be very telling - no regrets.”

By Saturday morning, Troussel had moved up to second trailing Ruyant by 85 miles with Noblet, Manuard and Grimont dropping back to 100 miles behind the race leader. Reporting 15 knots of southerly breeze throughout Friday night, Troussel and Crédit Mutuel de Bretagne had averaged 8 knots and although the breeze moved forward in the early hours of the morning, the French skipper took time to reflect during his ascent of the podium: “This isn’t like any of my previous transats,” observed the Proto winner of the 2009 Transat Charente Maritime Bahia. “Usually, we should be in following breeze at this latitude, tucked into the Trade Winds. This is different, but it’s OK. The sea is choppy and confused, but because the water temperature has risen rapidly, the occasional face full of water is actually quite refreshing.”

Top speed for Marco Nannini

Meanwhile, a little under 600 miles of latitude north of Nicolas Troussel, GOR entry Marco Nannini was back on the move during Friday night. Despite his isolation to the north of the fleet and dropping back to 30th place, his Class40, UniCredit, was averaging the best speed in the fleet at 10.8 knots on Saturday morning. Nannini explained the situation: “I was a long way north and west of the fleet, so I had little option but to cross the front,” the 32 year-old City of London banker reported. “Several others are now approaching it and Conrad Coleman is the now feeling the pinch and other boats have slowed too.” Southeast of UniCredit and trailing Nannini by 80 miles in 34th place, fellow GOR skipper Coleman on 40 Degrees slowed to under one knot in the early hours of Saturday morning and the group of boats directly south of Nannini also suffered with Régis Guillemot on the new Pogo S² Regis Guillemot Charter in 25th place; Bertrand Guilloneau and Ville de Douarnenez in 22nd; Olivier Singelin on the 2009 Akilaria Gonser Group – Cambio in 24th and Pierre-Marie Bazin with Les 3 caps in 33rd all dropping speed overnight, only regaining some pace 24 hours later, early on Sunday morning.

While the fleet south of Nannini encountered headwinds, the Italian skipper was broad reaching southwestwards in easterly breeze: “The wind behind the front had nothing to do with the GRIB file,” commented the bemused skipper, although the transition period prior to the favourable breeze had proved exhausting. “There is a swell from far away, which makes it impossible to keep the sails filled and they flogged relentlessly,” he explained. “I had to helm pretty much all of the time as the wind shifted so randomly that the pilot could not cope. I almost came down with heat stroke under the intense sunshine and I had to drink several litres of water. Every shift, if it meant a tack, meant also stacking everything to leeward and fill the leeward ballast, it was the only way to keep the sails filling.”

Quick reactions by Noblet saves Appart City

With the dozen leading boats beating on port tack throughout Saturday, Yvan Noblet was making the best speed of 10 knots in third place on Appart City until his forestay lashing failed at the deck pad-eye. Instantly, the mast canted aft at around 45 degrees plunging the boom into the water. Within seconds, Noblet dropped the sails taking any major load off the rig. The French skipper recovered quickly, flying the Solent headsail with one reef from the boat’s inner forestay and he was quickly back on the pace at 9 knots. Although, Noblet has complete faith in his rigging, Appart City is now handicapped with the loss of full-Solent capability and although his Code Zero - flown on a bolt rope from the outboard end of the bowsprit - is an option, there is now a huge gap in his sail wardrobe: “Upwind between 9-15 knots, it’s just too much breeze to use Code Zero,” admitted Noblet on Sunday morning. “I’m going to try and keep in control of the boats around me, but it’s going to be tough,” he predicted.

Fireworks on 40 Degrees

While Noblet’s routine was disturb by standing rigging failure, GOR entry, Conrad Colemen in 33rd place on 40 Degrees, had an off-watch drama in his light airs exile north of the main block of the fleet early on Sunday morning. “I went down for a nap and awoke after 30 minutes to the sound of rain,” reported the Kiwi solo sailor. “I looked at the computer and saw that the wind had turned dramatically to the right and we had been sailing north while I was asleep, rather than the intended southwest. I was draining the ballast and putting on my jacket to go outside when we were walloped by a massive gust and a lightning bolt touched down close by, flash-crash.” The yacht’s anemometer shot from 10 to 35 knots and the heel indicator went from 15 to 50 instantly.

“I made it into the cockpit, kneeling on its sides as I prepared a tack and then finally got the boat round and managed to bear away from the wind,” Coleman continued. “We were now surfing at speed, the sky alight with fire, the spray from the bow glowing white in the flashbulbs. I realized then, barefoot and sopping wet, with the tallest conductive pole in hundreds of miles, that I was in danger and so was the boat.” Coleman immediately turned-off all the electronic systems, then fought to control the boat. “I caught the helm before it wiped out and sat gripping it with a manic grin on my face, glinting in the compass light. Yes, I was back! This is what solo sailors have to deal with. Wind shifts whilst asleep; crazy, out of control boats - our bread and butter problems, but at least I was out of the seemingly ceaseless calms.” Following the hyperactive, early-morning action, Coleman picked-up speed to just under 8 knots, dropping south, 23 miles behind his nearest rival, Pierre-Marie Bazin in 32nd place with Les 3 caps.

As the breeze shifted from south to southwest on Saturday night, Thomas Ruyant, leading the fleet and furthest west on Destination Dunkerque, was first to tack onto starboard dropping south towards Nicolas Troussel. Meanwhile, 750 miles southwest of the Class40 leader, the IMOCA Open 60 fleet were struggling in minimal breeze 130 miles north of Guadeloupe. At just after 05:00 GMT on Sunday, Roland Jourdain and Veolia Environnement took first place in the IMOCA fleet while five of the following pack stalled to sub-five knot speeds north of the island while two boats – Michel Desjoyeaux on Foncia in 7th and Arnaud Boissières with Akena Vérandas in 8th - charged towards the finish at around 10 knots in stable, easterly breeze.

At 14:50 GMT on Sunday, Ruyant and Troussel were separated by 30 miles with the lead boat continuing to slam south into southwesterly breeze and a steep sea on starboard tack as Troussel led the trailing pack due west on port. Weather models suggest that the breeze will shift further west on Monday providing the chance of fast reaching down to Guadeloupe before the breeze slackens on Tuesday.

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