I know it’s been a while already, and despite the fact that we now live under the dictatorship of frantic speed and instant news, I’d be tempted to say "big deal", it’s not as if the performance I’m writing about today is likely to be bettered in a couple of weeks. And look at the bright side of things, the guys involved have had time to digest the experience, reflect on the effect it has had on their lives, so the virtues of a good old fashioned delay should sometimes be praised.
Right, talking about delay, I’ve managed to not even tell you what this is all about yet, and I think you should all be congratulated for your patience – a quality the characters of today’s story certainly displayed, having spent some 18 days and 18 hours on the North Atlantic aboard a 20-ft cat with no comfort whatsoever. Meet Benoît Lequin and Pierre-Yves "PYM" Moreau, who last year set a new Dakar – Pointe à Pitre record and decided that actually, the New York – Lorient route was quite appealing too… So they built their purpose-designed cat, trained and spent long hours studying the weather. Then Benoît had to wave PYM goodbye in New York, as the latter, part of Banque Populaire’s crew, first set off to cross the Atlantic in less than 4 days before coming back to the Big Apple. Come to think of it, he’s the crazy one in the story, because why would you even bother crawling your way across the pond when you’ve just flown over it at 40+ knots?
Anyway, "why?" definitely is the first questions that springs to mind when one thinks about such a challenge, and if it’s not as blatantly masochistic as a cross-ocean rowing endeavour – think "slow, boring, repetitive and useless" – the objectives are not obvious from the start. Classic ocean records? Yup, we all know what those are about, our good old friend "speed", with its accomplices "faster" and "fastest", and no other justification – works fine, no need for complications (though if you really want to dig deeper, there’s always the "driving technology forward" argument that car salesmen love because they can refer to F1 in their pitch. To a certain extent, when you see a monster like BP5 charging along at 45 knots under sails alone, you kinda begin to hope that it actually will drive technology forward, and that commercial sailing will make its return eventually – but oh yeah, I hear you complaining "I thought you said no complications?", so I’ll go back to my initial point.)
So Benoît, why? "I guess we got all excited after the Dakar – Guadeloupe record, and started imagining a new challenge. Soon, it turned into an intellectual game, and we looked at every single thing that could potentially go wrong aboard such a small boat on such an ocean, trying to come up with a solution each time. It does put your imagination at work, and a large part of the motivation lied in that problem-solving process. That and the fact that errr… nobody had done it before, which in itself is something.
The most wind we’ve had was 45 knots, and at the time the waves were about 4 metres high – that was probably the most stressful part of the voyage. Fortunately, we had installed generous water ballasts, with 178 litres in each hull, just forward of the daggerboards. Upwind, it’s fine until 30 – 35 knots – I mean it’s a bit like war onboard, but it remains reasonably manageable and we’re able to still make progress. Reaching is to be avoided when the wind gets that strong, it’s way too tricky. Another difficult part of the voyage was when a crossbeam separated from the hull and we had to spend 4 hours lashing the two together, because we knew that if we stopped in Newfoundland it meant the end of it all. It worked, but the hull still had suffered a perforation and water was getting in, so we spend the 13 remaining days scooping out 100 litres per day. If you add to that the time spent pumping to make fresh water with our manual device, we did an awful lot of water-related chores… We had two "Survivor" desalinators, and by pumping for 30 minutes each, we had 5 litres per day. Imagine you’re doing that while helming, and with the mainsheet in hand just in case!
What surprised us was the level of fatigue we reached, and we realised that because at one point we both became very irritable for no good reason. The slightest problem was infuriating, and we even started to take it out on one another, even though it was completely unjustified. Fortunately, we had enough lucidity left to have a good view of the situation, so we made an effort to cool things down. In such an environment on such a small boat, a quarrel can end up with catastrophic consequences in no time. But we were cautious, and soon after identifying that potential issue things got back in order, but it showed us how exhausted we were. The last portion of the voyage was frustrating, we were very wet, the sea state in Biscay was horrible and even though the boat could do 9 knots upwind, we had to tack our way towards the finish and the VMG was consequently only 4,5 knots. I’d say the last 3 days were pretty unpleasant, but eventually we got there and I said to PYM ‘Looks like we managed to cross the Atlantic without even capsizing once’, which sincerely amazed me.
Maybe I should’ve shut up, because on the last tack, less than 100 metres away from the line and right in front of the spectator boat, we pulled a textbook ‘upside down’ – our concentration had dropped, and we hadn’t even tied the gear to the benches properly so we lost some stuff in the process. Usually, we stacked everything nicely before the tack, secured it, and anticipated our manoeuvre – and now there we were, looking like complete idiots with everyone on the spectator boat going ‘Oh no!’. We made a point of righting the boat up ourselves to prove the validity our our systems and not to compromise the ‘no assistance’ aspect of our challenge, and went on to cross the line… even wetter."
If any of you want to get in touch with Benoît to have a chat, notify him of your intention to better his reference time on the course or provide funding for his Vendée Globe effort (he’s also looking at entering a potential French Volvo team), email him here [email protected]
If you want to know what PYM’s up to, follow Banque Pop’s Jules Verne campaign, as the man will be part of that crew.
Pic by Nicolas Rouget