Deneen Demourkas reports from inboard Groovederci on the Tour De France a la Voile Part ll.
Today is Saturday, July 3rd and I am in Dieppe, France. I had to write it just to remember what day it is and where I am. A lot has happened since my last update, primarily that we have started what we are all here for, the racing! It has not disappointed.
We started off last Saturday with a mandatory “Prologue” race. This was a day of some “organized” practice starts and then a short race that doesn’t have any score for the overall race, just a parade of sorts. The RC set a starting line just off the coast of Dunkerque where we had a very reasonable breeze of 12 to 15 knots. I say “reasonable” because last time we were here it was nuking! We were to have four practice starts and then a race. Well, it seemed reasonable until we ran the line that was set and understood that the line was set at 23 boat lengths and we were 28 boats on the course. Jungle Ball! The RC had also set a windward mark at about a quarter mile (for our practice starts).. All I can say is that it is One Design, and when you have 28 boats going off on a start, sailing a quarter mile beat in 15 knots, guess who gets to the top mark first? EVERYONE! It was a massive shit fight off the line, up the beat was no better. Sailing on starboard tack meant nothing to the port tack boats and if you had any common sense, forget about trying to round the mark! Ah yes, welcome to the jungle. For the “Prologue” race the line remained the same and the beat wasn’t much longer than in the practice starts. The RC had the foresight to send us up to weather with a starboard rounding. This exercise made it very clear as to why we have rules of the road (Racing Rules of Sailing) and why port roundings work in match racing and not in fleet racing! Shit fight again.
We departed Dunkerque on a “coastal” race to Calais. Not much of a race for such a big effort in moving the Race Village and the “Pikey Camp” 25 miles down the coast, but we did. It was four hours straight of hiking for the crew, a lot of tacking up the beaches to keep out of the current and more hiking. I can’t remember how we finished.
I see my friends on Oman have reported on the Calais to Dieppe leg so I’ll get to the long one, Dieppe to Pleneuf-Val-Andre. Two hundred miles and all 35 hours spent hiking. We departed Dieppe in about 10 knots of wind, short tacking up the rocky coast for about four hours before heading off on a long, very long port tack out. While we rounded the first mark in 18th, we soon found ourselves heading up the beach with the leading pack (Dunkerque, Nouvelle Caledonie, Toulon Provence Mediterranee etc.). The coast is a tricky one with lots of rocks, current and swirling winds. Our navigator, Jeremie Beyou was ever diligent with the deck screen and I anxiously awaited every call for a tack. At one point, we had just tacked (due to a rock somewhere in the vicinity) and within a minute, two boats behind us hit said rock, one after the other. The noise of the first boat hitting the rock was sickening and left a bit of a lump in my throat that remained throughout the race.
Thankfully, soon after that incident it was time for that long port tack away from the coastline. The hours, the hiking and the miles went on and on through the chilly night. At times we had as much as eighteen knots of wind and a few downpours to boot. Your competition was always right there with you and there was no rest for the wicked. A constant battle. Nighttime here is short, it gets dark at about 10:30 p.m. and starts getting light at about 4:30 a.m. When the sun came up we realized that we had lost Nouvelle and Dunkerque and there was Oman up on our weather side. We were pushing hard for Cherbourg and could see the tip of the coast we needed to round about 25 miles away.
Unfortunately the expected lift never arrived and we had to tack back out to make the point, losing again on the leaders. Thankfully for us, there was a restart in the cards. The current in these parts is absolutely ripping and with the wind dropping, the leaders are almost standing still with the fleet compacting into them. This is where you need to keep your wits about you as we are headed into some tricky sailing along the coast again. At one mandatory mark, we sailed about a half a mile upwind of the mark, tacked onto port still sailing upwind and were swept down to the mark and rounded. Timing is everything here. If you tacked too early, you were swept back out into the bay and into the stronger current making it impossible to get back in the game. Thankfully, our timing was spot on. Here again, more short tacking up the coast, rivers of current swirling around with huge boils in the water that looked like they could swallow up the boat (I’m sure a few have!).
Threading our way between rocks, rivers and more rocks was tedious, particularly when you are starting to get tired. We had been sailing for 24 hours by now and the only sleep to be had was that head nod on the rail. Again, you need to be on your game because this is where the gains are to be made and gain we did! After rounding the tip of Cherbourg it was a tight reach with the masthead (more hiking) and staying high was the name of the game. I have no idea what the breeze was because all my instruments are now reading COG/SOG, course, heading, depth and so on.. no room for those numbers anymore. I’ll guess it was about fifteen knots and getting a perfect call on angle from Jeremie before hoisting, we were off and ripping and this is where I got my second wind. We made huge gains on the fleet by sailing higher and faster than anyone around us. We must have passed ten boats on this reach. “Back in the game”! The battle continued for several more hours, ten to be exact and now we were back to a jib reach, continuing to claw our way back up the board. At times I was simply sailing along, so tired that I forgot I was racing, I was just sailing.. and without thinking, rolled a boat that was to leeward. At first I couldn’t understand why he was being so aggressive and slowly remembered that we were “racing”. The guy was good, got into my wake and surfed behind us for about thirty minutes.
When I finally lost him there was a cry of disappointment from his boat that was quite amusing. Battle on. As day turned to night again I was really getting fatigued. I was starting to hallucinate way before the sun set and the sea and boats before me looked like they were uphill. A very strange feeling. Boats all around, never a minute to rest, the next one to pass was just ahead. Day turned to night in an instant, I couldn’t see a thing and the numbers on the displays were starting to confuse me. Three hours to go and I was wondering if I could make it. The kite went up again and suddenly we were surfing down waves, blasting into the darkness, heading for some lighthouse I couldn’t see. I was very anxious by now and having a hard time reading the numbers on the displays let alone understand them. The trimmer wanted one angle, the navigator another and the tactician yet another.
My team did a great job here as they basically had to talk down the jumper (me!), shake me, slap me in the face, whatever it took to keep me going. I was a wreck and I am very thankful that Jono Swain was trimming the kite. He quickly realized that I was blind and out of my mind, took control of all the numbers for me and just started calling simple angles in degrees up or down. More rocks ahead, ripping current, darkness, fatigue, the finishing line was getting closer. As we approached the finish we were the furthest boat left of a group of four that were slightly ahead and we were making huge gains with only 300 meters to the line.. we needed 400 to pass them. Ah well, we were happy to cross the line regardless and compared to where we had been at times over the last thirty five hours, we were grateful for a 7th, finishing around 1:30 a.m.
But the madness wasn’t quite over yet. The night was black as black and the RC had set up a mere 400 meters from the rocky shore. Not much room to get the kite down and boats were finishing in rapid succession. After two near t-bones whilst dropping our main, we found a rib that would guide us into the rapidly draining harbor. For some boats, they would have to sit out in the bay and wait it out, not able to get into the harbor for hours…OUCH! There had been casualties along the way. The two boats that hit the rocks behind us just after the start. Two more running aground somewhere in that massive river near the tip of Cherbourg, Mummaduck had hit the rocks near the lighthouse (okay, I couldn’t see it because it was a three foot tall stick in the water with a light on it and I was looking for a “lighthouse”! I guess it used to be there.. now just a wreck.). Another Dutch team, Brunel hit the same pile just after Mummaduck only they hit it bow before keel. Not good.
When we arrived at the harbor that afternoon for our inshore, the seriousness of the damage to these boats was evident. Keels looked like hamburger and the split in the bow of Brunel was a nasty one. After the inshore race there were 4 boats lined up to haul out, a 5th hauled out earlier. My boat captain, Rob Huntingford has become a bit of a legend around here. He was the only one who knew how to get these boats back in the race, and the only one with the materials to do it. He gave his advise to Mummaduck and then he worked through the night on Brunel and by the next morning, they were all back in the race except for one. Good stuff! And not so good was hearing that the skipper of a student team named Supplec had taken seriously ill. I have no idea what has happened to him but the team has now dropped out of the race. I wish him all the best.
Yesterday, July 7th, the boys took off for Lorient, another 200 mile race. I had penciled myself out of this one months ago and looking at the forecast (very light!), I was not at all envious of the boys as they docked off. The shore team and I are packing up here in Pleneuf and as I look at the boat tracker I’m feeling sorry for my team, all of them really. In the last twelve hours they have only managed a mere ten miles. Brutal.