Old men and the sea...

Mike Birch and Etienne Giroire's TwoSTAR plan, as Giroire recounts his harrowing Route du Rhum capsize

Tuesday May 3rd 2011, Author: James Boyd, Location: none selected

Ocean racing legend Canadian Mike Birch and Franco-American Fort Lauderdale-based spinnaker sleeve maker Etienne Giroire are to participate in next year's TwoSTAR, the classic doublehanded transatlantic race, reintroduced by the Royal Western Yacht Club. They will follow this up with the fully crewed return race east across the Atlantic in the Quebec-St Malo race.

Birch and Giroire are looking to participate aboard Eure-&-Loir, the ORMA 60 trimaran belonging to Francis Joyon that won the 2000 OSTAR. They are now looking for financial and material support. Together, they will be the oldest doublehanded crew ever to have competed in an oceanic race.

Incredibly come the TwoStar, Mike Birch will be 80 years old. Birch is of course part of sailing history having won the first Route du Rhum in 1978 aboard his 38ft trimaran, Olympus Photo. Until 2002 he participated in every Route du Rhum. During the 1980s he skippered the maxi-catamaran Formule TAG, a boat that in subsequent incarnation was Peter Blake and Robin Knox-Johnston's ENZA New Zealand and Tracy Edwards' Royal & SunAlliance. During the early 1990s Birch campaigned the ORMA 60 Fujicolor.

Come the TwoSTAR Giroire will be 58. He sailed his first transatlantic in the 1970s, and after running large sailing yachts in the US, joins Bruno Peyron in 1984 for Quebec-Saint-Malo and afterwards regularly raced with Birch onboard Formule TAG. In 1985 he started ATN Inc producing sailing accessories, but best known for its spinnaker sleeves. He participated in the 1992 Europe1 New Man STAR, winning the 40ft class, establishing a record that remains unbroken today. In 2006 he won the Round Britain & Ireland race. During last year's Route du Rhum, he capsizes losing his trimaran ATNinc.com.

Etienne Giroire recounts his Route du Rhum and the sorry loss of his boat

"My boat is a 40ft trimaran, designed by Walter Greene from Yarmouth, ME. She is a strong, swift and seaworthy vessel that served me well in the 1992 OSTAR/single handed transatlantic from Plymouth, England to Newport, R.I. in a time of 16 days, six hours and 45 minutes - a  record that still stands.

"I entered the French single handed transatlantic race, the Route du Rhum, as the only American in the race and at age 56, one of the oldest competitors. My class was the 'Rhum', the only 'Open' class of the race, where monohulls raced boat for boat with multihulls, without handicap, just like the first edition of the Route du Rhum in 1978, won by Mike Birch, on his 40ft trimaran Olympus Photos, 98 seconds ahead of a 70ft monohull Kriter 5. This very close finish, after 23 days of racing, did a lot in making the Route du Rhum such a legendary race.

"The Route du Rhum starts from St Malo, on the northen coast of Brittany, in the Channel, and finishes at Pointe a Pitre, in Guadeloupe, French West Indies. In the 2006 race, the winner Lionel Lemonchois finished in 7 days 17 hours, with a 60ft trimaran Gitana 11 at an average speed of 20.2 knots!

"My start was not very spectacular: I elected to stay behind the very large racing fleet (86 boats), away from potential collisions and mishaps… After dropping my nephew Herve and John (of Colligo Marine) on my support inflatable, I unfurl the screecher and bore away toward the starting line: I crossed it on a very broad reach four minutes late alongside some Class 40s. Ahead the horizon was full of multicoloured spinnakers, as the big boats were powering away towards the Cap Frehel, where several thousands of spectators, inshore and on the water were watching… The 105ft trimaran Groupama 3 was already leading the fleet and would eventually win the race, nine days later.

"We were very lucky: the wind was easterly, helping us down the Channel - traditionally, late in the year, the wind is usually from the west and often strong, so this proved a God send for us as well as the very large spectator fleet…

"The wind died and I remained becalmed for a while, then the wind returned on the other gybe: so I hoisted the spinnaker and powered west: as I cleared Cap Frehel, in front of dozens of spectator boats, the spinnaker down haul let go! No problem, the ATN spinnaker sleeve did its job and controls the flapping spinnaker. I then unfurled the screecher and under full sail we had a gorgeous afternoon/evening of sailing. As the sun was setting down over Brittany, I was slowly catching up a bunch of boats, the helicopter from Sea Events buzzed around me and took some great images, zeroing on the only American Flag in the fleet.

"Come night time the weather remained great, not even cold! We were now sailing around Finistere, the western end of Brittany, entering the Bay of Biscay, the last hurdle before the big jump: the run down to Guadeloupe… I was easily adjusting to singlehanded sailing mode: hot tea, fruit, catnaps… But you can only go so far with catnaps - after a couple of days, your body needs a longer rest: the deep sleep cycle. It is not possible to prevent it from happening, your body shuts down for a while, recovering. It is said that the minimum length for deep sleep cycle is 45 minutes, from which you cannot suddenly emerge: this means that numerous catnaps of 5-15 minutes duration will push the need of a deep cycle sleep later, but never replace it, hence the need of radar + alarm, AES (radar identifying and recording) and transponders (radar target enhancing ), and of course full navigation lights from sun down to sunrise to allow the skipper some sleep.

"We were doing great: slowly catching up with more boats, mostly Class 40s and there were a lot of boats in the water. I was surrounded by masthead lights and remember several night time crossings…

"On the next day, there was a beautiful beam reach across the Bay of Biscay, but it is a day to remain alert for we were crossing a very busy body of water: they are lot of shipping lanes and the AES kept on beeping, identifying ships whenever their radar sweep over me….

"I saw something floating ahead of me, on starboard. As I got closer, I recognised the twin hulls of a flipped catamaran! I immediately thought of a Route du Rhum competitor, to whom I should lend assistance, so I dropped the mainsail and got as near as I could to the capsized boat, and instantly recognized it: it was Formule TAG, or Spirit of Antigua as she is now called. I knew the boat very well since I had sailed a full racing season with Mike Birch aboard her in 1984. Mike had already told me that she had capsized while on a delivery off Brittany.

"I took a couple of pictures, hoisted the mainsail back up and got on my way again. But to see this great catamaran (110 x 45ft) overturned took a great toll on me: I was shocked and it impressed me and made me doubt all of my sailing decisions for the next days… a very uneasy feeling… it was very hard to shake off a feeling of doom.

"And that was when the main halyard let go, just as it did in the 2005 OSTAR. I was unable to climb aloft as it is way too wavy and bouncy. So I decided to alter course to get to some protected water closer to the Spanish coast: I arrived there at sun down, near the little Spanish harbor of Ribadao. There the sea was calm and I quickly climbed up with my Mastclimber, reattached the deadend of the main halyard and immediately returned to the deck. But the wind had disappeared and as I tried to get underway I was becalmed for three to four hours, which I used to sleep deeply. The wind returned later that night from the west - on the nose! I tacked upwind all night, cursing my decision of altering course ( if I had kept going after the main halyard broke, I’d have encountered light air anyway, closer to the Azores..) and I lost a full day.

"I cleared Land’s End next morning and I was not alone - a Class 40 Kogane is with me, trading tacks… Around midday, I call Yvo, my loyal weather man and strategist who told me: “Go for it Etienne, there is air all the way now!” Finally, I set the spinnaker and started the crossing, the big jump.

"I was now on to the southern route, around the southern edge of the Azores High, but the risk remained of being caught by the prevailing calms to my north. There was not much pressure, but it was from the right quadrant, the weather was getting warmer, and so was the water, the boat is flat, sailing easily: I flew the masthead spinnaker for several hours, changed down to the fractional spinnaker when needed, then the screecher if the wind got stronger or I was headed: great reaching, the boat is flat, dry, all open, the solar panels are charging well, the autopilot does not strain, it was a pleasure to look at my boat slide effortlessly toward the setting sun…

"Sometimes, the wind piped up, and I remember some great ride at 20 knots+, when it is better to steer: but this was a pleasure, to get the wind just right, and when the boat starts to accelerate, bear away just so, to keep the apparent wind pumping, as multihulls love to create their own apparent wind! But ones need to steer for that. In flat water the properly trimmed boat will do okay, but as soon as the sea state changes, so does the tune, and to stay in the groove, it takes a careful helmsman…and even in high speed, my boat feels safe, very rarely burying the bows…. Every so often, the lee bow would bury a bit in the wave ahead of us as we are overtaking it, but it slides out with no hobby horsing, smoothly, safely.

"Safety on a multihull is mostly about high buoyancy: my boat was designed 25 years ago, its floats displace 150% of the total weight of the boat so if one ama is pushed all the way down flush with the sea, it would displace 4500 lb. This ratio was very modern at the time and allowed more sail area to be carried. Nowadays, a modern racing trimaran is designed with floats able to displace up to 300% of its total weight, meaning that its mainhull will come out of the water before the ama buries. Older trimarans or heavily loaded multihulls are unsafe for they are lacking this reserve of buoyancy and eventually trip over their floats when pressed hard.

"This was a very good part of the race: broad reaching while farther south the winds were stronger. I had time to trim the sails, check for chafing, change halyards and sheets, work around the boat while she sailed straight under autopilot, to sleep a lot, cook and drink as needed, and I could leave clothing to dry outside as long as I attach them - my cockpit was surrounded by socks hanging on winch handles standing in winches... a happy sailor bumming around his buddy the boat, sharpening his weapon, grooming his favorite mount…

"As I did this, I realised that I hadn't looked in front of the boat for hours! I was alone in a very large body of water, very seldom did I see a ship, more often a light on the horizon at night, otherwise, we were alone on our little piece of ocean, minding our own business of crossing it, barely scratching the water as we sailed by…

"I received emails as this allowed me to know where my competition was and how well they are doing, and I got lots of messages of good will from friends and family which boosts me. The Facebook page 'vas y tonton' set up by my nephew Herve was very active and got lots of traffic.

"There were 11 competitors in my Class: After a slow and hesitant beginning to the race, I was now catching up nicely: from ninth, I quickly become eighth when a 55ft monohull (sailed by the only woman in my class) abandoned after a collision with a fishing boat, then seventh when the youngest competitor with a 39ft monohull turned back to France with a leaky boat, then sixth when a 45ft fast monohull stopped in the Azores with an autopilot problem, fifth for a while until the Open 50 Mondopticien overtook me in the south: this a well known boat in America, the former CCP Cray Valley skippered by JP Mouligne, winner of class 2 of the BOC Challenge in 1996… this was a faster boat than my 40ft trimaran. Open 50s usually do the Route du Rhum in 18-19 days. A boat like mine takes in 20-22 days. The best time ever for a boat of my kind is 19.5 days by Kriter 10, skippered by American Jack Petith in 1982. I was planning on bettering this time.

"Since the start, the Open 50 Vento di Sardina skippered by Andrea Mura was leading the Rhum class on the Northern route, while my friend Charlie Capelle on the 40ft trimaran A Capella was following him, and Luc Coquelin on the Open 50 ketch Pour rire Medecin was third on a median route. The third trimaran in my class, Eurosanit skippered by JP Froc was 10th, on the same route as me, but further south. The leader was now 170 miles ahead of me: I chose the option of the southern route because it was better suited for my boat, since it was mostly downwind and warmer weather too. This became evident towards the end of the race when the southerners in the trade winds, as the Northerners were beating against it, but for now, the northerners were powering away from me on a shorter route…

"The weather warmed up every day, the water as well, and I was south of the Azores, progressively entering the tropical part of the Atlantic Ocean… I was seeing every sunrise and sunset, hoping for a green flash. I sailed through squalls every so often: I entered a cloud and the wind increased to 25–30 knots, overcast and driving rain, which was great for showering: I usually dropped the mainsail all the way down, and kept the working jib trimmed flat, ready to drop it if it needed to be. The squall usually lasted 5–10 minutes, and left behind a clean boat and skipper!

"One night, I got caught in a squall with the screecher up: I dropped the mainsail and bore away to diminish the apparent wind when the tack of the screecher ripped away from its furling drum! The sail was now unfurlable and flapped violently, shaking the rigging! The only way was to bear way downwind, and do a water drop: meaning to drop the sail forward of the boat into the sea. It would act as a floating anchor and when the boat stopped and started spinning around it, I would get it on deck and secure it away. I executed the manoeuvre with no problem, hoisted the working jib and got going again…

"But this was not good news: the screecher is a great, very all-purpose sail, and this would slow me down until I fixed it. It was no small job, as the tack of the sail is a very heavy reinforced corner, I had to use the electric drill to help get the needle through - a slow job, moving forward, stitch after stitch…

"Next morning and the mainsail fell down unexpectedly: the dead end of the main halyard had broken again due to some recurrent chafe that I didn’t catch last time and unfortunately the halyard fell inside the mast! So I had to get to the masthead to lead an outside main halyard as soon as possible, but again it is too wavy and bouncy. Eventually the conditions calmed down a bit, I dressed myself with several thicknesses of clothing to prevent being banged and climbed up with my ATN mastclimber - it was very very difficult, one of the most difficults thing I have done in my life (that and quit smoking): it took me 45 minutes to get to the masthead, holding the mast and the rig with all my strength when the boat swings aroung, climbing up when it is steady… Once finally all the way up, as I reached back to get the halyard that I fastened to the chair, I realised that it had fallen in the shaky climb! Very very upsetting! I climbed down, rested spreadeagle don deck for some time, but I had to do what I had to do, so up I went again. 30 minutes later, I reached the masthead again, reattached the dead end of the main halyard, and finally climbed down, reaching the deck exhausted and beat, but satisfied and very relieved. I could now rehoist my mainsail all the way up again - the boat was going again beautifully, close reach, 9 – 10 knots and I was catching A Capella, which is on the Northern route and paying for it now. I should be fourth pretty soon.

"It was a beautiful night. I was doing great, ready for the last stretch. The boat was in good shape, the screecher would be ready in a few hours and I felt ready for the finishing sprint: the last third of the race. I must keep on pushing the boat… the wind increased a bit, and I took one reef, dinner time, relaxed a bit, the wind seemed to increase a bit more, so I took the second reef because I felt like taking a nap: the night is clear, so I went below to lay down, where I could rest better than in the cockpit.

"The motion of the boat accelerating woke me up: I was in a deep cycle of sleep. I hurried out of the bunk and just before I could step up through the companion way onto the cockpit, the boat rotated around me, barely stopping when the sails hit the water… I never fell and found myself standing waist high in water, with everything falling around me, the boat suddenly stopped.

"Now what?!

"My first thought was for the survival bag, that includes the Iridium satellite phone, GPS, VHF, radar transponder… around me were floating all kind of bags, food, bottles, survival suit, the liferaft, fruit, I could only identify by touch, being in the dark… I gathered the survival bag, survival suit, liferaft valise and opened the escape hatch to get out of the upturned boat: I was still in the squall with 25–30 knots of wind, driving rain and choppy seas. I could not leave anything alone for fear of seeing it drift away rapidly, so I pulled the liferaft painter and it self-inflated. I fastened it to the upturned boat on the net, I then had a place to rest and keep the bags I salvaged.

"I dived back inside the boat a few times, but there was nothing there - the boat emptied itself very quickly, the only things left inside the boat were the floorboards hitting each other. When the trimaran is upside down, it acts like a membrane pumping on the sea surface, and when the escape hatch is open, allowing air in, whatever is inside the boat is expelled outside very quickly, with every wave.

"I was lucky to find a bag with a pair of glasses inside. When the sun rose, I could call with the Iridium phone and alert everyone of my unfortunate turn of events. I was not worried. when I capsized, the ARGOS and the Standard C distress beacons being underwater, stopped reporting my position, so the Race Committee woud know that something was up and they had my last position. The water was warm, 78 deg F, I had a few bottles of fresh water, some oranges, apples, nuts and dry fruit.

"I did feel very dumb and numb, upset of producing so much waste and slowly coming to terms with the idea of having to abandon my boat: I was 1350 miles away from the west indies, too far away to organize a rescue operation.

"The Route du Rhum race director, Jean Maurel, called me 45mn later: “ Etienne, where is your EPIRB?” “Sorry, it is stuck behind the chart table”, still wrapped in its original packing! The CROSS (rescue services) called me one hour later: “We know where you are. We are looking for a boat to pick you The survival suit was keeping me dry and warm. I slept a bit, spoke on the phone and around noon, the CROSS called me again: “A boat 28 miles away is coming to your position at 22 knots. Be ready to be picked up.”

One hour later, I saw this huge square shape coming out of the horizon. In another squall they contacted me by VHF: “We don’t see you, do you see us?” I guided them towards me: “I am downwind of you, 5 miles away.” They soon spotted me, and slowly got around me. I drifted onto them. The whole crew was on deck, taking pictures and lending a hand in the rescue. They threw me a line. I released the liferaft from my upturned trimaran and they hauled me all the way to the middle of the 600ft ship to the pilot’s ladder. I sent my two bags up and climbed up the ladder at 1445. I then climbed up another six flights of stairs to the bridge to meet and thank the captain.

From the bridge you could see clearly the white halo of the trimmed sails through the sea under my capsized yellow trimaran. We then resumed course at 1500, in the direction of Pointe a Pitre, which was my original destination. I could see my boat getting smaller in our wake, soon disappearing: Bye bye ATNinc,com / Up my Sleeve, my yellow trimaran, my tool, my weapon, my toy, my buddy… a difficult moment.

"The Container ship was the CMA-CGM Fort St Georges, 200m long, crew of 28, Cdt Angelo Bouyer. They treated me really well, like a favoured guest. In the capsize I had lost everything, passport, credit card, phones… I only had a couple of Tshirts and shorts + shoes. For two and a half days, I lived like a guest with great food, easy company. I looked around the ship, caught up with Emails… I received a great amount of touching messages from family and friends, anbd tried to answer them all, which is when the Facebook page vas y Tonton proved very useful and really found its justification…

"We reached Guadeloupe early on Tuesday morning, at sunrise. It is always a great moment to see the island emerge from the horizon after a crossing, and the switch from sea mode to land mode is always a bit odd after so many days at sea… Once docked, the local TV station was there, waiting for me: a first interview on the bridge with the Captain and then I was being chauffeured around to the race office, then the police station for a declaration of a loss of passport… back on land and its requirements!

"One of the biggest differences between my OSTAR in 1992 and this Route du Rhum in 2010 is the ability to talk to anyone, anytime, and the knowledge that the rest of the world knows where you are very precisely at any moment. This induces a feeling of safety which takes your guard down. In 1992, I was very aware of being alone, completely alone, I could only rely on myself in case of a dismasting or capsizing, knowing that no one knew exactly where I was. So I was very cautious and sailed much more conservatively.

"It useful to remember that my boat capsized in fair weather. It was not very stormy, although a 30 knot squall does qualify as a localised storm. What flipped my boat was the amount of sail area - I had two reefs in the mainsail + working jib / solent up. This was fine in 15 – 18 knots of wind, but when it increased to 25 + knots, since I was on a close reach, the boat accelerated, its own speed added to the apparent wind, and very quickly I had 30+ knots on deck. The boat was overpowered and under autopilot, kept the same course, lifted the main hull, then tipped over. She was a swift boat, light with a large rig, I sailed faster than the wind often, but then again, this was the Route du Rhum, not a delivery."




Latest Comments

  • David Bains 03/05/2011 - 16:41

    Mike Birch is an example to us all!

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