Burning up the atlantic

The Atlantic Ocean lies on the doorstep of the established sailing nations in Western Europe and North America, so it’s hardly surprising that many of the world’s “classic” ocean races are held in this venue. Notwithstanding sailors’ offhanded references to “crossing the pond,” the Atlantic is, by nature, a tough place to sail due to the complex eddies of the Gulf Steam; the frequent gales, ice, and fog of the north; or the squalls and hurricanes of the sub-tropical regions. Add in some of the world’s heaviest shipping traffic and you’ve got an ocean that demands to be taken seriously, particularly when voyaging or racing shorthanded.

And there has certainly been no shortage of Atlantic racing activity, short-handed and fully crewed, during the first half of the current season. Major races originating in Europe have included the AG2R (double-handed in 32-foot Figaro boats), and the Europe1 NewMan Starthe granddaddy of all solo transats, formerly known as the OSTAR (Observer Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race). The present, somewhat awkward moniker incorporates the names of 1996/2000 sponsorradio station Europe 1 and clothier NewMan, which signed on for this year.

Historically, the OSTAR, more than any other event, has been responsible for making solo ocean racing a national obsession in France. Lately, with two continental sponsors replacing the London Observer newspaper, there have been rumblings that a French club should take over the race organization. That, however, was before the 2000 race. When the dust had settled, the French skippers, although still a substantial majority, failed to dominate the podium as in years past. With England emerging as a second major power in the single-handing game, the management of the “English Transat,” will now most likely remain in the hands of the Royal Western Yacht Club. Moreover, this year’s Star provided “proof of concept” for some wholesome trends in the open class monohull designencouraging developments that will likely influence the design of offshore voyaging boats.

Meanwhile, on our side of the Atlantic, several homegrown “classics” have also been evolving with the times. The venerable Newport-Bermuda racefirst held in 1906left the gate at record pace, only to have the leaders run smack into a fully developed high parked over Bermuda. After enduring a 24-hour crawl to the finish, it was the slowest-rated yacht in the fleeta 1965 Rhodes 41 skippered and navigated by Eric Crawfordthat slipped in on the heels of the big guys for the corrected time victory.

But aside from usual tricky navigation and the vagaries of handicap racing, a noteworthy development for this year’s Bermuda race was the introduction of an exhaustive pre-race training and qualification procedure. Programs of this sort should go a long way toward ensuring that offshore racing disasters like the 1979 Fastnet and the 1998 Sydney-Hobart race will not recur, at least not on the same scale.

A younger Atlantic classic, and one with an utterly different character, is the Worrell 1000, a 12-leg sprint up the Atlantic coast from Florida to Virginia in double-handed, high-performance beach catamarans. Each leg of this outrageous event begins with a beach launch through the surf, and ends with boats back on the sandhopefully upright, but sometimes capsized and broken. First held in 1976, the Worrell has developed a truly fanatical following. This year, it returned to its one-design roots after an extended stretch as a “developmental” eventa change that has made it more affordable, but certainly no less spectacular. Among the novices who tackled this year’s Worrell 1000 was ocean-hardened pro racer Rick Dieppe who commented (after finishing at the back of the pack): “I’ve sailed a Whitbread, I’ve sailed a lot of miles, and this really is some hard-core shit.”

Rounding out an incredible first half to the 2000 Atlantic racing season is the maiden voyage of Club Med, the first of three virtually identical 108-foot catamarans being worked up for The Race. Club Med easily surpassed the 24-hour record set by Steve Fossett’s PlayStation about 15 months earlier with a run of 625 nautical miles. Moreover, she averaged 15.3 knots for just less than 3,900 miles while setting a new trans-Atlantic record on the Cadiz-to-San Salvador route. With at least a half-dozen of these mega-multihulls soon to be prowling the seas in search of records, it would seem we’ve begun a whole new chapter in the centuries-old quest for fast ocean passages under sail.

Women triumph in two Transats

The AG2R and the Europe1 NewMan Star were noteworthy this year in part because they saw female sailors win out over predominantly male fields. In the AG2R, Karine Fauconnier teamed up with Lionel Lemonchois, both strong solo competitors in ’99 Mini Transat, to coax their 32-foot Figaro one design to a decisive four-hour victory. Four hours may not sound like a lot after sailing 3,000 miles, but racing the Figaro one designs is unbelievably competitive. The same time window in ’98 saw 10 boats cross the line! Between violent head winds on the first leg and light, fluky going on the second, this year’s AG2R was the slowest on record. Even the winners spent more than 17 days at sea, and many crews arrived very hungry, having polished off their emergency rations with several hundred miles to go.

Even more dramatic were the results achieved by two young, female skippers racing solo in the 1-Star. The 23-year-old British phenom Ellen MacArthur took top honors in the biggest and toughest fleet of open 60s yet assembled23 boats including at least a dozen with clear-cut winning potential. Four days later, another young Englishwoman, Emma Richards, age 25, took top spot among the Class 2 monohulls in her first solo ocean crossing.

As a boost to women’s racing, it would be difficult to imagine anything better than this double-barreled coup. Until now, the OSTAR has had only one female winnerMary Falk, who set the record for Class 5 Monohulls in ’96, her third consecutive 1-Star. Now, in one go, two of the three female entries in a field of 81 had emerged as the outright winners, and in the top two monohull classes. For that matter, the third woman, Catherine Chabaud, finished a very creditable fifth among the open 60s. Chabaud’s earlier achievements include a very close second place finish last fall in the double-handed Transat Jacques Vabre, and being the only woman so far to officially finish a Vendee Globe.

Ellen MacArthur’s meteoric rise in ocean racing is inspirational stuff for anyone, regardless of gender. It’s also a textbook example of how a talented, ambitious individual can achieve a world-class standard in ocean racing within an amazingly short time frame.

As a schoolgirl in Derbyshire, MacArthur hoarded her lunch money for three years to buy her first sailboat, an eight-foot dinghy. Although largely self-taught and not a product of organized junior sailing programs, by age 18 she’d learned enough seamanship to successfully race a 21-footer in a rugged round Britain event. At this point, she had the opportunity to team up with Mark Turner, a keen solo sailor and professional marketing man, for a two-boat go at the Mini Transat. Following almost a year of preparation, Turner finished fifth, MacArthur 17th. Overnight, MacArthur became a media darling in France, and Offshore Challenges, the fledgling business that she and Turner had established to develop solo/shorthanded sailing in Britain, was headed for the big time.

The next breakthrough was a major sponsorship by British retailing giant Kingfisher, which made it possible for MacArthur to charter Pete Goss’ open 50 (formerly Aqua Quorum) for the Route du Rhum single-handed Atlantic race. Again she exceeded all expectations, finishing first in class and fifth among the monohulls, ahead of several 60s. MacArthur’s growing profile in France tied in nicely with Kingfisher’s recent expansion into continental Europe. With the promise of a full sponsorship in hand, the Offshore Challenges team set their sights on getting MacArthur into a new open 60 monohull for the Vendee Globe.

Recognizing that she’d need to raise her game considerably to stand a chance against the seasoned French pros, MacArthur began an exhaustive, full-time training program while the new boat was still in the planning stages. With the help of coaches and contacts on both sides of the Channel, she campaigned one-design Laser 4000 high-performance dinghies with Olympic sailor Paul Brotherton; raced aboard the open 60 trimaran Primagaz in the ’99 Fastnet race; drilled at the French government-sponsored Figaro training center; and raced the double-handed Transat Jacques Vabre with Yves Parlier aboard Aquitaine Innovations. A shortage of weather-routing expertise was addressed by studying with the dean of French weather strategists, Jean-Yves Bernot. To manage her resting patterns for maximum sailing efficiency, she worked with sleep specialist Dr. Claudio Stampi (see page 20, this issue). By January, when the new Kingfisher was launched, MacArthur had already gone a long way toward closing the gap with her more experienced competitors. She had been racing sailboats only five years.

Unique design

Kingfisher is the first open 60 from a newly formed design team headed by naval architect Merfyn Owen along with Allen Clarke, Rob Humphreys, and consultant Alain Gautier. Owen had experience with open 60s from a stint as project manager for Mike Golding’s Group Four campaign, and he was keen to investigate some concepts that he believed could make these boats faster yet easier to sail. Gautiera double winner in the BOC and Vendee Globe, presently campaigning on the open 60 trimaran circuitwas brought aboard to help ensure that the groups’ more novel ideas would be workable in a real- world context. The stated goal of the program was to come up with an open 60 that would be safer and easier to handle than previous boats, with a bit more emphasis on upwind and light air performance. MacArthur’s small staturejust 5’3″had to be taken into account as well. Many of these design criteria are, of course, also associated with modern, high-performance voyaging yachts.

With a maximum beam of 17.7 feet, Kingfisher is about a foot narrower than most of the current open 60s. Likewise, her published displacement of 8,700 kilos is on the conservative (i.e., heavy) side, although it should be pointed out that a majority of the existing boats have recently added ballast to meet the new stability and self-righting requirements for the upcoming Vendee Globe.

Along with all but one of the open 60s launched within the past two years, Kingfisher has a canting keel rather than lateral water ballast. Performance advantages aside, the swing keel appears to offer the most straightforward solution to reliable self-righting. The latest open 60s (including Kingfisher) also have more deck camber and larger deckhouses than their predecessors, again to promote recovery from high heel angles. Kingfisher’s substantially radiused hull/deck intersection is an additional small step in the same direction; one that also offers aerodynamic and structural advantages, albeit at a small cost in working deck area.

Like other late-model open class monohulls, Kingfisher is equipped with port and starboard, asymmetrical bilgeboards (i.e., daggerboards). Although contributing to weight and complexity, they are essential for upwind performance because, when the hull is heeling 20° to 25°, a keel that is canted to windward an additional 35° will be closer to horizontal than vertical. On the other hand, interference effects among the four foils (keel, extended bilgeboard, and twin rudders) are likely to be a major source of hydrodynamic resistance, particularly at planing speeds. Refinements in this area became a major focus for WS Atkins, an engineering firm associated with the Kingfisher design team.

High-aspect fins, particularly daggerboards and rudders, are very vulnerable to collision damage. Indeed, during this year’s 1-Star, Mike Golding aboard Group Four broke a bilgeboard through a mid-ocean collision, opening a serious leak and quite likely costing him second place in the final standings.

Kingfisher was one of several boats in the 1-Star to hit a whaleunfortunately an increasingly common occurrence as the numbers and speeds of ocean racing boats continue to climb. The strike resulted in a crash stop from 14 knots but no damage to the boat. Whether this was good engineering or good luck would be hard to say for sure, but “collision-proofing” was definitely a design priority. For example, the two spade rudders are mounted in tapered, removable cassettes, so an entire damaged rudder assembly can be hoisted out using a tackle on the boom and replaced with a spare that is carried aboard.

When it comes to rigs, there are two popular schools of thought for open class monohulls: rotating wing masts supported by shrouds led outboard to the tips of long deck spreaders; and fixed masts, most often with three pairs of conventional, aft-swept spreaders. The former promises reduced mast turbulence and superior aerodynamic efficiency, while the latter is almost always lighter and perhaps less prone to breakdown. Interestingly, the Kingfisher design team suggested that an exceptionally lightweight, slender fixed mast with the shrouds led to deck spreaders might well be the quickest of all. Ultimately, however, they opted for a slightly sturdier fixed mast without the deck spreaders.

Given a conventionally stayed, fixed rig, it’s a straightforward matter to adjust mainsail camber through a fairly wide range by altering mast bendsomething that cannot as easily be achieved with a rotating rig. Sailboards, and certain advanced dinghies such as the Olympic 49er, feature pre-bent rigs that can be set up to automatically de-power “from the top down” each time the stability limit of the craft is tested in a gust. For solo or short-handed sailing, it’s obvious that a rig with this capability would be far superior to having to chose between sailing underpowered in the lulls, or manually playing the sheet to de-power the main in gusts. Judging from early overhead photos of Kingfisher under sail, MacArthur’s team may have made at least a bit of progress in this direction.

An uphill struggle

Closehauled on port tack in a strong sou’wester is the norm for most westbound North Atlantic crossings, but this year’s 1-Star was even more of an upwind battle than most. The leaders in the smaller classes described three weeks of rugged upwind work, in some cases with no more than eight to 12 hours of sailing with sheets cracked off. Although the lower size limit for this year’s 1-Star had been raised from 30 to 35 feet, the organizers continue to encourage modest amateur entries. A full month after the start, only 33 of the 81 starters had finished, with 26 officially retired and two others stopped in the Azores for repairs. The only American to finish the race so far has been Martin van Breems, who took second place among the Class 3 monohulls aboard the J/44 Monhegan, despite a collision with a fishing vessel just two days out. Bruce Burgess, the sole U.S. 60-foot starter, returned to England to repair storm damage sustained two days into the race, only to withdraw after learning of a death in the family.

Catalyzed by the solo triumphs of Giovonni Soldini and the recent America’s Cup, sailing is currently enjoying an explosion of popularity throughout Italy. A strong cadre of young Italians are following Soldini into the single-handed game, and several achieved success in this year’s 1-Star. Among the Class 2 monohulls, Andrea Gancia narrowly lost out to Emma Richards after a see-saw trans-Atlantic battle. Fabrizio Tellarini bettered his 3rd in the ’96 race by winning Class 5 in his home-built Mont Gay 30 that he’d extended by four feet to meet the new minimum length requirement. Soldini himself finished 5th in Class 1.

Of particular interest to voyaging sailors is the Class 3 monohull winner Biotonic, built and expertly skippered by Jean-Marie Arthaud, the older brother of sailing superstar Florence Arthaud. The extremely lightweight 45-footer (reputedly less than 10,000 lbs fully loaded) is, in fact, a three-cabin family cruiser designed by Luc Bouveta true, dual-purpose boat.

But at the end of the day, it was the Ellen MacArthur story that captured the world’s imagination. Although Kingfisher led nearly all the way, she was sometimes hard pressed by Roland Jourdain, who ultimately finished second about a half day behind. Nevertheless, Kingfisher always seemed to have a bit of pace in reserve, and her youthful skipper did an outstanding job of covering her opponents when the wind dropped off during the final third of the race.

Exhaustive preparation in every aspect of this campaign played a key role in MacArthur’s victory. In addition, electing to build in New Zealand rather than at home in the U.K. not only reduced labor costs, but provided a valuable opportunity to sea trial in the Southern Ocean.

Although her boat was not launched until January, MacArthur was one of the first of the new crop of Vendee hopefuls to complete her qualification passagesailing solo on the Cape Horn-to-England leg of the home-bound passage. By contrast, a number of her rivals in the Europe1 NewMan Star were primarily concerned with just finishing the race in order to meet the Vendee entry criteria. MacArthur is the first to acknowledge that the upcoming, non-stop round event will be an even tougher challenge. >Multihull magic

The seven open 60 trimarans in the Europe1 NewMan Star were, as usual, about 50% faster than the 60-foot monohulls, and capsize again played a role in the outcome. The hottest boat in the fleet, the new Banque Populaire, lost a float and capsized, most likely as a result of structural damage caused by striking something in the water. Skipper Lalou Roucayrol was rescued by a cargo ship, but his severely damaged boat has so far not been salvaged.

Hero of the class was Francis Joyon aboard Eure et Loir, the man who had skippered the previous Banque Populaire during the mid-’90s. No longer backed by a major sponsor, he had cobbled together an entry by combining the “old” B-P hull with a leftover rig some 10 percent shorter than his competitors’. As it turned out, his upwind speed through the three wicked depressions that punctuated the first half of the race was equal to anyone’s. After that, he played his weather cards perfectly to lead the fleet into Newport and set a new course record of 9 days, 23 hours, 21 minutes. This is almost 10 hours faster than Phillipe Poupon’s previous record (10 days, 9 hours, 15 minutes) despite the ’88 race getting nearly ideal reaching conditions. It just goes to show how much faster the 60 tris have become since then, especially upwind. It was also a huge vindication for the 44-year-old Joyon, who had been on track to break the record by an even larger margin in ’96 when he capsized less than 300 miles from the finish line.

Despite the remarkable speed and sophistication of the open 60 trimarans, there are signs that the class may be headed downhill. Already challenged in the sponsorship sweepstakes by the open 60 monohulls (which cost about a third as much to build and campaign) the tris are also losing their exalted status as the ultimate ocean greyhounds now that the new generation of mega-cats is gearing up for The Race. Single-handed passage records will most likely remain with the open 60 trimarans for quite some time, but not so the crewed records.

Club Med’s recent exploits on the Cadiz-to-San Salvador run is a case in point. Launched in France just a month earlier, the first of the 109-foot Giles Ollier cats has been spectacularly fast “straight out of the box.” Unlike the rather dainty-looking 102-foot PlayStation, Club Med has generous freeboard and very substantial cross beams. She carries a multi-national crew of 14 under the direction of Kiwi skipper Grant Dalton and French multihull ace Bruno Peyron. Again, by way of contrast, PlayStation will probably circumnavigate with just eight aboard, while the longer but even skinnier Team Phillips can accommodate no more than six. Clearly there are major differences in opinion regarding the optimal balance between sailing weight and manpower.

As we go to press, Club Med is about to try for the New York-to-Lizard Point record with a couple more trans-Atlantic training runs to follow. By autumn we can expect a parade of monster catamarans shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic in preparation for the main event beginning on December 31.

Of course, if all this is a little rich for your blood, you could always start angling for a crew spot for the next Newport-Bermuda, still the classic “navigator’s race” and an event in which Corinthian sailors continue to outnumber the pros. Or, if you crave excitement and more than a hint of danger, about $30,000 split two ways will bankroll an entry in the Worrell 1000. Six-time winner Randy Smyth, an Olympic medalist and arguably the U.S.’s top multihull sailor, will undoubtedly be back to defend his 2000 title, hotly pursued by at least 50 keen cat sailors from around the world.

Sven Donaldson, an Ocean Navigator contributing editor, is a former sailmaker and a marine technical writer based on the West Coast.

By Ocean Navigator