frogs rule

Brian Hancock hopes not to get hate mail with this piece! He could certainly use some love for his cause to get his books back in print. Help a brotha out.

Anyone who reads what I write with any regularity will know that I have great respect and admiration for French sailors. They know how to put on a show and their displays of immense sailing talent never cease to amaze. But seriously what’s with starting races in early winter just when the weather in the North Atlantic is starting to get nasty? Late October, early November is no time to be crossing the Bay of Biscay and this was proven these last few days when a tightly packed low pressure ripped into the Transat Jacques Varbe fleet causing havoc. The race has barely started and there has already been big attrition including the capsize of the Ultime trimaran Prince de Bretagne. The crew of Lionel Lemonchois and Roland Jourdain were sailing upwind in 25 knots of breeze when the boat flipped over. Luckily both sailors are OK and they are planning to recover the boat.

The Transat Jacques Varbe started out in 1993 as “La Route du Café”, a single-handed race from Le Havre on France’s north coast, to Cartagena in Colombia. Two years later it became a double-handed event and the race moved the finish port to Brazil, first to Salvador and now to Itajaí. It’s an event that celebrates coffee and the close connection between the coffee fields of Brazil and the coffee shops of France, in fact the TJZ, as it’s commonly known retraces the routes of the 17th century merchant ships that plied their trade between the two continents.

I have been to numerous TJV starts and you can smell the coffee long before you get to the race village which is always mobbed by ten of thousands of spectators that come out to celebrate the sailors and admire the boats. It is an incredible scene but usually marred by lashing rain and winds that almost blow the hospitality tents away. I appreciate that these races need to start late in the year because they are funded in part by their host ports and are used as a way to drive tourism, but maybe it’s time to think more about the sailors and less about the sponsors.

This most recent TJV started this past Sunday under sunny skies and in very light winds, but the light winds did not last long. By the first evening of the race the wind started to build and the troubles started happen. The first casualty was the IMOCA 60 Maitre CoQ who reported mast damage and diverted to the port city of Roscoff. They were followed not long after by a second IMOCA 60 Edmond de Rothschild, the crew citing numerous breakages that collectively forced them to abandon the race. It didn’t take long before a third IMOCA 60 Safran diverted for Brest with damage on board.

There is a second trough of low pressure forecast to hit the fleet tonight bringing winds approaching forty knots and very rough seas. Sounds like a load of fun and all in the name of a good cup of coffee. The only boats that may be spared are the Ultime trimarans that have made it far enough south to avoid the worst of the wind. Currently the leading boat, Sodebo sailed by Thomas Coville and Jean-Luc Nélias, is off the coast of southern Portugal leading second place Macif by 65 miles. In the IMOCA 60’s Alex Thompson and Guillermo Altadall on Hugo Boss have a narrow 3 mile lead over Bastide – Otio with Kito de Pavant and Yann Régniau on board. In the Class 40’s V&B lead with Bretagne – Crédit Mutuel Élite just a couple of miles astern.

The good news is that in a couple of days most of the fleet will be into warmer tropical conditions and the misery of the first few nights fighting gales and dodging ships will be a distant memory. It’s a very good thing sailors have short memories otherwise no one would show up for the races, especially those that start from the north coast of France just in time for the winter gales.