Greetings from Le Havre
Predicting who will win the 2009 doublehanded Transat Jacques Vabre is about as easy as avoiding the rain in Le Havre, and gathering intel by spending time on the floating pontoon is not the most pleasant thing, unless of course you’re a penguin or a water-loving animal of some sort. While outside the harbour the Channel has been taking a beating for a solid week, the crews, members of the press, organisers and public spend most of their time running for cover and commenting on the weather – to be frank, at times the conversations heard in the media centre are reminiscent of your average hair salon banter. That’s when you can hear them, because the noise of the hail hammering on the roof is quite deafening. You could almost be tempted to hide in the sails locker of one of those IMOCA 60s, in order to catch a ride to Costa Rica, which sure would beat taking the ferry back to the UK.
But so much for that, and as they say in Brittany, if you focus too much on the weather you end up spending all your time in the bar ("qui regarde trop la météo passe son temps au bistrot") – not a bad option actually, because as everyone knows that’s a great place to hear interesting stuff, albeit not necessarily sailing-related. Yet the question was "who will win?", and even if I would never had imposed that kind of interrogation upon myself, I told Scot I’d try to come up with something, so I headed for the bar. That’s when I stumbled upon Dr Joucla, rigger extraordinaire currently employed by the 1876 team, so I asked him the question. "Before coming here, he said, I explained to my wife what this race was. She looked only vaguely interested, and just said ‘Is Desjoyeaux taking part? Because if he is you might as well stay home’. Just write that and your article is taken care of, right?", concluded the ropework master. I wish it was that easy, but thanks anyway pal.
Well at least that’s Foncia’s case settled, and the all-conquering white boat is on top of everyone’s list which is not exactly a surprise. Jérémie Beyou, Mich’s co-skipper, is a tough and talented competitor so those two are expected to strike pretty hard. Seb Josse and Jeff Cuzon, sailing on BT, are usually seen as the guys capable of challenging the Professor’s supremacy, and Brian Thompson (sailing aboard Dee Caffari on Aviva) reckons the victory will go to either Foncia or BT – we’re making progress here. Safran, the VPLP – Verdier lightweight racer skippered by Marc Guillemot and Charles Caudrelier, has scored a creditable second place in the race last time around (guess who was first…) and is very fast in medium conditions downwind – the same applies to Groupe Bel, her near sistership, so those two boats should rank rather well in the bookmakers files. Guys like Jourdain & Nelias or Le Cléac’h & Troussel should be seen as serious threats too despite boats that might be less adapted to that course, on paper at least. The Veolia duo is highly experienced and know how to push hard, while the Brit Air pair has already scored on the Atlantic (in the Figaro class) – moreover, if the fleet encounters strong headwinds which is a possibility, the Finot-Conq design Brit Air will have a good card to play. We shouldn’t forget to mention the orange boat in disguise, also known as the former-PRB-renamed-Akena, with Vincent Riou doing the handover by sailing alongside Arnaud Boissieres, the new owner. True, bad luck has pursued that boat since her 2006 launch, but her inherent potential is unquestionable and Riou doesn’t exactly have two left hands.
Less obvious but very interesting are the outsiders 1876 and Artemis. Aboard the former, French legend Yves Parlier is making his big comeback, after Guillermo Altadill’s "departure", and everyone agrees that he’s a serious client. "You never know what a guy like Yves is going to do, he’s a mad scientist who thinks outside the box, and I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of him giving us all a lesson", said Seb Josse summing up the general feeling. Let’s remember that Parlier, sailing with Pachi Rivero on 1876, the former and excellent Gitana Eighty, won the Jacques Vabre in 1997… The Artemis case is a bit different, with a boat that has had her issues but that was recently optimised and sharpened – almost a tonne lighter than she was last year, she’s now skippered by Sam Davies of Figaro and Vendée Globe fame, who can count on the rock solid Sidney Gavignet, a vet of four Whitbread / Volvo campaigns, a man as pleasant as he’s tough. That Anglo-French pair impressed quite a few people during the training sessions organised in South Brittany this autumn, so it will be interesting to see how they do against the competition. Mike Golding & Javier Sanso, Dee Caffari & Brian Thompson and Alex Thomson & Ross Daniel naturally also weigh in the equation, and it’s good to see new blood in the class with former Mini sailor Alex Pella taking the helm of the former Virbac-Paprec with Pepe Ribes at his side. The Spanish contingent is undoubtedly growing on the international offshore scene. Now the list wouldn’t be complete if I did not mention DCNS (Thiercelin & Pratt), the third Finot-Conq design: dismasted early in the last Vendée, she’s been rather unimpressive in the Istanbul Europa Race in September (won by guess who…), for reasons that remain unclear – so no real comment to make, but nobody exactly expects to see them at the front of the fleet.
Jocelyn Blériot – Pic courtesy of the honourable Yvan Zedda
PS – On a side note, and during one of these informal-but-informative bar chats, I learnt that some cruel practices that everyone thought had disappeared with the demise of tall ships and the creation of trade unions had been actually been adapted and refined on modern day racers – "They sent me up the mast just for fun", said a terrified shore crew member who shall remain unnamed to avoid any retaliation, "and as I was coming down they canted the keel so the boat heeled over, up to the point that I was hanging a few centimeters above freezing water, forced to jerk my legs around to avoid taking a dip." The community pretended to disapprove but everyone was laughing anyway. – Jocelyn Blériot – Pic courtesy of the honourable Yvan Zedda