Sunday, 10 July 2011

Les Sables - Horta - Les Sables : Down to the Wire

Down to the wire for the Les Sables-Horta-Les Sables Class40s

Les Sables-Horta-Les Sables race tracker at 13:30 GMT 07/07/2011 – Image courtesy of Geovoile

by Oliver Dewar

Early on Saturday evening, the 14, double-handed Class40s in the Les Sables–Horta-Les Sables Race crossed the start line in Les Sables d’Olonne in the Vendée region with stunning downwind conditions for the opening stage of the first leg to Horta in the Azores. During the five days at sea, the fleet split into two packs before exiting the Bay of Biscay and have since converged with just 20 miles separating the front four boats and the light winds of the Azores High blocking the final 380 miles of the course.

Breaking from the pack:

First boat to break from the pack was Global Ocean Race 2011-12 (GOR) entry, Lionel Regnier and Pierre-Yves Cavan on Regnier’s new Akilaria RC2, Wanted Partner. Overnight on Saturday the fleet fanned-out in the Bay of Biscay, dividing into two groups spread over approximately 90 miles north-south with race leaders Stéphane Le Diraison and Vincent Barnaud taking the southern option with the new Finot-Conq-designed Bureau Véritas, joined by Denis Lazat and Remi Aubrun in 3rd place with L’Express-Sapmer; GOR entries Jacques Fournier and Jean-Edouard Criquioche furthest south on Groupe Picoty in 6th and Wanted Partner in 10th position.

“A big thank you to the organisers of the race for these superb weather conditions!” wrote Le Diraison from the fleet leader, Bureau Véritas, early on Sunday morning. “It’s all happening: the speedo is alive; the sea is beautiful; the wind is moderate and stable! Last night was starlight with lightning flashes in the distance while dolphins showed us the road ahead and we had beautiful sustained speed runs of 15 knots.”

While the southern group was exclusively French on Sunday morning, the northern group was truly international, led by the Spanish duo of Gonzalo Botin and Alvaro Lopez-Doriga in second with 2008 Akilaria, Tales, holding a three-mile lead over German skipper, Jörg Riechers and French co-skipper Etienne David in 4th with mare.de². Furthest north, the British duo of Andrew Dawson and Jon McColl held 13th place on Spliff, trailing the 11th place Italian team of Andrea Fantini and Salvatore Merolla on Hip Eco Blue by three miles.

Groupe Picoty squeezes into the lead:

On Sunday afternoon, Jacques Fournier and Jean-Edouard Criquioche took the lead on Groupe Picoty, but overnight, the idyllic conditions changed with the wind shifting northerly, then north-westerly and dropping to under five knots. Fournier and Criquioche held pole position in the southern group on Monday morning with a 3.5 mile lead over Le Diraison and Barnaud, closest to the Spanish coast on Bureau Véritas, 60 miles due north of Punta de la Estaca de Bares, just east of La Coruña. “It was a difficult night and this morning the breeze is minimal,” reported Fournier early on Monday.

Soon, the breeze picked-up to around 10 knots from the south-west with Groupe Picoty and Bureau Véritas making the best pace at seven knots in the southern group, while the northern pack had the best of the breeze with the Spanish team of Gonzalo Botin and Alvaro Lopez-Doriga squeezing eight knots out of Tales and moving up to second place. Most northerly in the fleet, holding 5th place on, Yannick Bestaven and Christophe Bouvet were satisfied with their position: “All is good and we’re not that concerned with the leaderboard right now,” Bestaven reported. “I think the Spanish are in the best place, then the Germans and then us, right know,” he continued. With Botin and Lopez-Doriga eight miles ahead of and Riechers and David on mare.de² one mile astern in 6th place, the trio were keeping it tight.

Spaniards at the front:

The dominant weather system was the low-pressure system sitting static west of Ireland, spinning headwinds from its southern limit into the Bay of Biscay. With the system’s centre predicted to move eastwards late on Tuesday, which group in the fleet would find the strongest breeze as the wind shifted north-westerly? Would the southern group find themselves in a weaker band of breeze as the Azores High came into play when the depression shifted eastwards?

By early on Tuesday morning, part of Bestaven’s prediction had come true: Botin and Lopez-Doriga were in the lead on Tales with less than a mile astern in second. However, the southern group delivered better speeds, with GOR entries Lionel Regnier and Pierre-Yves Cavan on Wanted Partner dropping back to 13th place, but delivering the best speed at just under eight knots, sailing closest to the coast, cutting the corner around Spain, 85 miles off Cape Finisterre. “We’ve got a very short sea at the moment,” reported Regnier early on Tuesday. “The dilemma, as always, is do we carry maximum sail with the boat suffering, slamming and falling off waves, or do we reduce sail and behave cautiously.” The speed option was taken and a reef shaken-out, but with difficulty. “Last night, we got a knot in a reef pennant jammed in one of the reefing eyes,” Regnier explained. “We managed to clear it by perching on the boom with a hammer – brutal, but effective!”

Fournier and Criquioche make their move:

As the wind shifted from south-westerly to westerly over Monday night, Jacques Fournier and Jean-Edouard Criquioche made their move on Groupe Picoty, staying on port tack, heading north-west and rejoining the northern group. “After an idyllic start to the race, the sea and a little depression reminded us that we’re not here to work on our tans,” wrote Criquioche on Tuesday morning. “We’ve just passed through a front and we’re now on course for the Azores,” he continued. At dawn, Groupe Picoty tacked onto starboard and, three hours later, they were back in the lead with Tales one mile astern off their starboard quarter. “I’ve plugged the next waypoint into the GPS,” explained Criquioche. “It is table #3 on the terrace at Peter Café Sport in Horta,” he said, confirming his choice of destination 830 miles off the bow. “It’s the table closest to the bar...”

Meanwhile, fellow GOR entries, Lionel Regnier and Pierre-Yves Cavan, southernmost in the fleet on Wanted Partner, had a less defined route to the Horta, making a crucial tack onto port off Cape Finisterre to avoid a band of light airs of the Spanish coast.

Two boats head for home:

Later on Tuesday, the French duo of Patrice Bougard and Gilles Dadou holding 10th in the northern pack on Exedra contacted the race organisation and announced their retirement. Bougard had sustained a serious ankle sprain soon after the start while co-skipper Dadou had injured himself in a fall. With deep regret Exedra turned around and headed for Lorient. Having held second place since Monday afternoon, with a brief period as fleet leader, the Spanish duo of Gonzalo Botin and Alvaro Lopez-Doriga also retired and headed south-east to La Coruña with rig issues on Tales.

Characteristically tight:

By dawn on Wednesday – day five at sea – the front three boats were separated by just seven miles with Yannick Bestaven and Christophe Bouvet on taking the lead over from Groupe Picoty and leading Fournier and Criquioche by under a mile, with Riechers and David in 3rd making the best speed average of 9.5 knots on mare.de². With just over 600 miles to the finish and the northern and southern packs converging, just six miles separated Le Diraison and Barnaud on Bureau Véritas, furthest south in 4th, from Reichers and David in the northern group.

After five days at sea, just 21 miles separated the front four Class40’s with a total fleet spread of 116 miles and no sign of any individual team easing-up. Jacques Fournier and Jean-Edouard Criquioche summed up the scene on Groupe Picoty: “It’s becoming obsessive now,” admitted Fournier on Wednesday night. “It’s trim, trim, trim and more trim all day and all night with each individual cloud bringing some direction variation and strengths between 13 to 22 knots,” he reported.

During the night, just such a variation favoured and mare.de². “We’ve lost some ground to our buddies further north as with the wind going right, they could open their sails a fraction and gain a few tenths of a knot of speed,” confirmed Fournier. “However, the north-south spread between us is so small [approximately 28 miles] that we’re all on the same road.” However, Fournier, Criquioche and the other 11 double-handed crews were all studying the wall of light 6-8 knot north-westerly breeze blocking the route to the finish in Horta. “The light airs before the finish will clearly present some opportunities,” continued Fournier. “This crew and this boat are on good form and ready for anything.”

Front trio converge

By Thursday morning, the leading trio of, Groupe Picoty and mare.de² had closed down their north-south separation to just 15 miles and by noon this was reduced to three miles as the boats dropped south-west with just over 400 miles to the finish. kept a seven mile lead over Groupe Picoty, with Fournier and Criquioche making the best speed at nine knots – one knot faster than Bestaven and Bouvet on the lead boat. Meanwhile, 53 miles further south, Le Diraison and Arnaud on Bureau Véritas had been averaging slightly under ten knots since dawn, nudging Reichers and David on mare.de² off third position.

In the early afternoon, kept the lead, slightly less than eight miles ahead of Groupe Picoty with 380 miles of the race remaining. “The wind has calmed a little and the final miles to the Azores risk being very complicated with the arrival of the predicted light airs,” confirmed the fleet leader, Yannick Bestaven, at around noon on Thursday. “So, we have to keep an eye on Groupe Picoty, even if it’s not very polite to finish in front of the Class40 Association’s ex-President, Monsieur Jacques Fournier and his co-skipper.” Positioned 36 miles south of Fouriner and Criquioche, Stéphane Le Diraison and Vincent Barnaud held third on Bureau Véritas, trailing Groupe Picoty by 11 miles in terms of Distance to Finish and keeping a two-mile lead over Jörg Reichers and Etienne David on mare.de².

Leading the second wave of Class40’s, 30 miles behind Reichers and David, Denis Lazat and Remi Aubrun in 5th position on L’Express-Sapmer held a commanding lead of 30 miles over Olivier Grassi and Jean-Baptiste Glin onboard 6th place Grassi Bateaux.

With the breeze expected to decrease dramatically as the fleet approaches the Azores, it is certain that there will be a scramble for the coveted table #3 on the Café Sport’s terrace.

Les Sables-Horta-Les Sables leaderboard at 13:30 GMT 07/07/2011:
1. DTF 380 Spd 8.8kts
2. Groupe Picoty DTF 388 Spd 9kts
3. Bureau Véritas DTF 399 Spd 8.1kts
4. mare.de² DTF 401 Spd 8.4kts
5. L’Express-Sapmer DTF 430 Spd 8.7kts
6. Grassi Bateaux DTF 461 Spd 4.7kts
7. DTF 464 Spd 7.7kts
8. Techneau DTF 464 Spd 8.4kts
9. Hip Eco Blu DTF 488 Spd 7.8kts
10. Velevent DTF 509 Spd 7.3kts
11. Wanted Partner DTF 519 Spd 7.4kts
12. Spliff DTF 520 Spd 8.1kts
RTD Tales
RTD Exedra

Global Ocean Race
Les Sables - Horta - Les Sables