A racing frenzy

For North American sailors, accustomed to being ignored by media and public alike, the ocean racing scene in Europe is like something from a different planet. Try to envision thousands of fans, packing docks and quays for days on end in an effort to spot famous sailors, collect autographs, watch starts, and celebrate finishes. Newspapers and TV, particularly in France, offer up a daily diet of sailing coverage with special emphasis on the day-to-day doings of the super-stars. Moreover, the pace of this juggernaut has accelerated in recent months with an unprecedented number of major races scheduled between July and November of this year.

Thanks primarily to the Internet, sailors outside of Europe can follow these events as never beforea development that holds great promise for the long-term future of sponsored ocean racing on our side of the pond. So far, only a handful of U.S. sailors have attempted to break into the European professional game, but a few up-and-comers have begun to take their talents abroad.

In this column, I’ll introduce some of the highlights over the next six months of ocean racing in Europe. Two major transatlantic events, the Europe1-New Man Star (formerly the OSTAR) and the Quebec-San Malo Race, will soon be bringing large fleets of “unlimited” ocean racing boats to ports in North America. For curious sailors in the Northeast, these two events represent rare opportunities to discover what fans in France get so excited about.

Figaro Solo and the AG2R

Little known outside Europe, the Figaro circuiteven more than the Mini-Transathas evolved into the principal training ground for professional shorthanded racers in France. Quite a few of the “big guns” enjoy the Figaro so much that they continue to come back year after year despite numerous offers to race aboard larger, more glamorous boats. Each summer, the progress of the 50-plus “Figarists” is eagerly tracked by at least 10% of the French population.

Back in the IOR era, this series was sailed in level-rated half-tonners (30 to 32 feet LOA), but since 1990 it’s been a strictly one-design affair. Compared with today’s hot sportboats, the purpose-built Bénéteau Figaro is a fairly mainstream 32-foot racer with a broad transom, flat aft run, and moderately proportioned bulb keel. Over the past decade, the same hull has actually been adapted for several of Bénéteau’s production cruising models, but as a stripped-down racer with 200 liters of water ballast a side, and a big fractional rig, it still qualifies as a hot ride (and definitely a handful for singlehanding). The existing Figaro fleet (about 200 boats in total) also sees regular action in a various crewed events around western Europe, notably the AG2R double-handed transatlantic race, to be discussed a bit later.

La Solitaire du Figaro is the climax of a protracted circuit with events scheduled from May to October. This year’s Figaro will begin on July 27 with a 360-mile race from Arcachon on the west coast of France to Gexto-Bilbao in Spain. Next comes a 320-mile leg to St. Nazaire back in France, followed by the big one: 600 miles around Fastnet and back to Falmouth, England. The fourth and final leg is a 230 miler via the Isle of Wight to finish in Cherbourg, France. About 55 sailors are expected to take part.

Dean of the Figarists is Jean Le Cam who has raced the series 15 times and won twice. Philippe Poupon is also right up there with 13 Figaros under his belt, including three victories. To date, only a few “international” (i.e., non-French) sailors have tackled the Figaro class, but this may soon change, thanks in part to active encouragement from the French government (which perceives added value to sponsors if this series can develop a strong following elsewhere in the world). In recent years, the most successful of the “internationals” has been Ireland’s Damian Foxall, who was “top novice” in ’97, a leg winner in ’98, and 10th overall in ’99. Foxall has lately established a singlehanded training school in Kinsale, Ireland, to help others follow in his footsteps.

This year sees the first North American Figarist since the late Jerry Roufs (the French-Canadian sailor who was lost at sea when his open 60 capsized during the ’96/’97 Vendee Globe). Roberta Holden, only 22 years old, is also Canadian. Like Roufs, she sees the Figaro as a logical stepping stone to a career in solo racing.

Holden began offshore racing only last year, in the wake of a strong but ultimately unsuccessful bid for the Europe Dinghy berth on Canada’s Olympic Sailing Team. As a paying crewmember in Sir Robin Knox-Johnson’s Clipper Challenge, she raced from the Seychelles to Cape Town and across the Atlantic to Rio, discovering a love for offshore sailing along the way. She subsequently signed on to train with Damian Foxall in Ireland and, when plans to race the AG2R with British sailor Lorna Graham fell through, elected to charter a boat herself for the Figaro Solo series. Since January, Holden has taken part in an intensive Figaro training program sponsored by the French governmentthe same clinics which originally enabled Damian Foxall to get up to speed in the class. She now feels she has a realistic chance of winning the “elf trophy” for top novice, which brings an automatic sponsorship for next year’s Figaro circuit.

Like the solo championship, the AG2R is raced in Bénéteau Figaro boats, but it is double-handed and raced across the Atlantic rather than point-to-point along the coasts of Europe. This past April, 42 teams, including many of the top names in French ocean racing, started the AG2R. However, a series of deep depressions brought relentless head winds during the opening leg from L’Orient, France, to Madiera, and led to13 withdrawals despite the very high caliber of this fleet. The first boat into the Canaries took nearly nine days, a new record for “slowest ever” on this 1,100-mile sector, although not for lack of close competition. Indeed, 13 other teams crossed the line within the next two hours, and 24 (out of 29) within 12 hours.

The second leg — 2,200 miles to St. Barths — began with a rolling start after an 84-hour stopover with the leaders departing around dusk on April 28. Since then the top dozen boats have raced almost neck-and-neck with some teams sailing within sight of one another for days on end. At press time, the front runners have just of 800 miles to go, and the lead has changed quite regularly. This one is obviously too close to call, but it only goes to show that the Figaro fleet consistently offers some of the best, most demanding ocean racing to be had anywhere.Europe1-New Man Star

Formerly known as the OSTAR, the grand-daddy of transatlantic singlehanded races has been held every four years since 1960. The tenth edition of this famous event will start in Plymouth, England, on July 4, and finish 2,800 miles later in Newport, R.I. Crossing times will likely range from as little as 10 days for the open 60 trimarans to three weeks or more for the slowest of the amateur entries. Compared to previous years, the proportion of professional sailors is upabout half of the total 94 entries. Although participation remains well below the record of 122 that started the ’76 OSTAR, the 2000 edition will almost certainly be the most competitive race yet. Those who visit Newport in the latter part of July will have a rare the chance to see a majority of the world’s top open class multihulls and monohulls briefly moored together on our side of the Atlantic.

For the seven open 60 trimarans competing in the Offshore Multihull Racing Association (OMRA), the Europe 1-New Man STAR is a key event in the 2000 Championship. The course record of 10 days, 9 hours, 15 minutes was set in 1988 by Philippe Poupon. Since then, the hazards of the North Atlantic have brought several would-be record breakers to grief, sometimes just a few hundred miles short of the finish line. But with three brand-new 60-foot trimarans on the circuit this year, and major upgrading to all the older boats, a new and substantially faster course record is by no means unlikely.

With 25 listed entries including almost every new boat launched within the past 18 months, the open 60 monohull class will be by far the largest ever to race this classic course. Several skippers will be using this 2,800-mile race as their qualifier for the Vendee Globe. (The Vendee, restricted to 20 entries, has an unprecedented 10 more currently on the wait list.) Among the seasoned professionals in this class will be Around Alone winner Giovanni Soldini aboard Fila, Thomas Coville sailing Sodébo, Michel Desjoyeaux with the new PBR, Catherine Chabaud with Whirlpool, Marc Thiercelin racing for a new sponsor as Activewear, Yves Parlier with the first-generation wing mast boat Aquitaine Innovations, and Britain’s Mike Golding (Group 4) and Josh Hall (Gartmore). Great attention, however, will also be focused upon the 23-year-old phenom Ellen MacArthur who recently qualified for the Vendee by sailing her newly launched Kingfisher back to England from its build site in Auckland. MacArthur has decided to head directly into the Europe1-New Man Star without much more than topping up on supplies, opting to test the long-term durability of sails and gear in preparation for the non-stop Vendee, even at the expense of reduced competitiveness in the transatlantic dash. Also of interest is the unusual Eric Sponberg-designed schooner, Project Amazon, now sailed by James Miller.

Monohull classes 2-5 naturally has fewer “name brand” entries, but there are some, such as the very quick Open 50 Magellan Alpha, now helmed by Alex Thomson. Also included is the famous Russian sailor Viktor Yazykov, who often nipped at Thomson’s heels while racing the Around Alone aboard his self-built open 40 Wind of Change. After 40 years, the legacy of Blondie Hassler continues to define this remarkably durable pro-am event. Quebec-San Malo In contrast to the Europe1-New Man STAR, the Quebec-San Malo is a fully crewed and primarily professional event. All seven of the OMRA trimarans plan to be in attendance, along with some of the open 60 monohulls from the preceding transatlantic event. The race begins on July 30 near Montreal and proceeds eastward the length of the Gulf of St. Lawrence before heading out into the open ocean bound for France. If the breeze cooperates, spectators on shore or aboard fast motorboats could get a rare chance to see these remarkable boats at speed.Non-Stop Round Britain/Ireland

Historically this course has been a point-to-point event with numerous pub stops along the way. However, for their 75th anniversary, the Royal Ocean Racing Club is staging a non-stop race for the entire 1,760 miles. A number of new super-racers including the latest IRM designs are expected, but so are many relatively modest yachts. BT Challenge

With a new fleet of a dozen 72-footers to replace the 67s used in previous events, Chay Blyth’s Challenge Business appears to be stronger than ever. This seven-leg, 30,000-mile race will start on September 5 and proceed from east to west around the globe against the prevailing winds and currents. Each yacht is sailed by a professional skipper and a crew of amateur sailors who have each paid about $45,000 for the privilege of beating to windward for the better part of 10 months. Evidently there are plenty of folks who are up for the challenge, because this race was supposedly booked up within weeks of being announced three years ago.

Incidentally, after the finish in July 2001, the BT fleet will be re-fitted in preparation for the start of another “wrong way” global race; this time starting and finishing in San Francisco. Berths may still be available for the New World Challenge, slated to start in May 2002. Vendee Globe

The most demanding of the solo circumnavigation races will kick off on November 5almost certainly with 20 open 60s on the starting line. Inflexible race rules specify no stops and no outside assistance, so, as in the past, it’s entirely likely that many will not make it back to France as official competitors. On the other hand, new regulations aimed at improving the self-righting capabilities and overall safety of these boats should go a long way toward ensuring that no one dies along the way. The 2000/1 Vendee is shaping up to be by far the most competitive yet, and we’re likely to see a new solo circumnavigation record that’s well inside the present 109 days. Unfortunately, it appears unlikely that Bruce Schwab’s open 60, currently under construction in Oregon, will be ready in time; so, once again, this race will probably not have an American participant.The Race

After two years of uncertainty regarding who, if anyone, would actually make it to the start for this “no limits” round-the-world extravaganza, it now appears likely that at least five huge multihulls will be in attendance. Playstation and Club Med are currently sailing, while Cam Lewis’ Team Adventure is scheduled for a September launch, hard on the heels of another 109-foot Ollier catamaran for a yet-unannounced syndicate. Roman Paszke’s Polish team has already qualified; and barring more major setbacks, Pete Goss’Team Philips will certainly be ready despite a horrendous structural failure during initial sea trials. Several other potential entries still appear to have an outside chance of making the December 31 deadline.

This ground-breaking event is sure to be huge and, thanks to two strong, U.S.-based programs, should (for once) attract substantial media attention in North America as well as Europe.

> Contributing editor Sven Donaldson, a former sailmaker, is a marine technical writer based in Vancouver.

By Ocean Navigator