Third time lucky for le Blevec?

The former Orange boat captain talks about his Mini campaign and shows us his new Lombard design Actual

Friday October 12th 2007, Author: James Boyd, Location: Transoceanic
It is slightly ironic that the skipper at present leading the Transat 6.50 Charente-Maritime/Bahia (Mini Transat) race very very nearly didn't make the start due to the normally strict limitations on the size of the fleet. 42 year old Yves le Blevec, who sails Actual was only admitted into the race the week prior to the start when, at the last moment, the entry list was bumped up to 89 in total. To be allowed to do this, another support ship had to be organised to accompany this race and le Blevec managed to persuade Vendee Globe skipper Benoit Parnaudeau to allow the Max Havelaar Open 60 to make the passage with the fleet.

Sponsored by Actual Group, a French human resources company, Yves le Blevec is the most experienced offshore racer in this year's Mini Transat. He is best known for his past role as boat captain on Bruno Peyron's maxi-catamarans and was part of the crew that demolished the Jules Verne Trophy records on Orange 1 in 2002 and on board Orange II three years later. He also joined fellow Orange crewman Seb Josse on board ABN AMRO Two in the Volvo Ocean Race for the Rio-Baltimore leg.

This is le Blevec's third Mini Transat. He came fifth in 2001 and in 2005 he finished the first leg in third but dismasted close to the Equator on the second leg. Dismasting seems to be a serious problem in the Mini fleet. "I was disqualified because I needed some help with the mast in the *£$%£* big seas. So for me the race was finished," he recalls of that race.

This time around le Blevec was once again third on the first leg and at present (there is still a long way to go) is looking to be favourite to win the 2007 Mini Transat. Isabelle Joschke who won the first leg is effectively out of the race while Sam Manuard who came second appears to have some problems and is down to 27th, 173 miles behind le Blevec this morning.

While designer Marc Lombard appears to have fallen out of favour in the Open 60 class, le Blevec's new Mini is the latest from the La Rochelle-based designer and is apparently one of three new Lombard Minis, albeit the only one competing in this year's race. The last Lombard Mini was built for Spanish skipper Alex Pella for the 2003 race (and is again racing this year).

Actual's hull was built by a professional yard in Lorient and le Blevec, who himself is pretty handy with the epoxy, finished her off. The boat was put together in record time - just four months and launched in June last year. Since then, alongside Isabelle Joschke and Peter Laureyssens, le Blevec has consistently been on the podium, last year winning the Solo Chrono 6.50 speed trials (which he repeated this year) and the Mini Barcelona, while this year he won the heavy weather Transgascogne, the Trophee Marie-Agnes Peron and the Demi Cle 6.50 as well as coming second in the Pornichet Select.

"It is a very powerful boat, but not so light. It has a lot of power, a lot of sail area," says le Blevec of his new steed. Most evident of the boat's hull shape is that like the new Sam Manuard designerd Minis, such as the designer's own Sitting Bull, she has an Open 60/Volvo 70 style chine in her hull. And this makes her a strong reaching machine according to her skipper. "I think it is good because reaching the boat is very very fast and it goes very straight."

In terms of sail area, le Blevec has made a gain over his previous boats by going for a masthead rig as well as 'boomerang' arced-back spreaders enabling him to squeeze in a 19sqm solent jib into the foretriangle (remember the boat is only 21ft (6.4m) long. "So I have two reefs in the Solent because it is so big. Upwind and reaching it is a weapon!"

In comparison the new Finot-Conq designs sailed by Joschke and Laureyssens, have no chine in their hull and le Blevec reckons they are lighter. As a result they are a bit faster than him in lighter conditions and downwind. The lightest of all the new Proto-class Minis is believed to displace around 760kg, while Actual is closer to 800kg and the Finot-Conqs somewhere in between - so all fairly close.

A canting keel boat obviously, Actual has a pair of the longest most high aspect ratio daggerboards of all the latest Protos but has a cunning new system whereby each of these boards can be twisted by around four degrees. Le Blevec twists the leeward board more when sailing upwind, so that it provides more lift and straightens it out again when reaching. "Between reaching and upwind it makes a big difference," he says.

In addition to the canting keel which swings out by around 30 degrees each side, it also has a big bulb, again a feature upping the power in line with the latest thinking in the Open 60/Volvo 70 classes. Le Blevec reckons he could have shaved another 20kg off the bulb but prefers to keep this power. Down below on Actual are two additional water ballast tanks, each capable of loading another 170kg of water on board to help with the fore and aft trim.

With the new boat le Blevec has made every effort to be able to remode the boat quickly when manoeuvring or adapting to changable wind conditions by fitting a huge water transfer pipe between the ballast tanks and also sizing his stacking bins (effectively pipecots) so that they can take the maximum amount of gear. "We have to be very fast when the conditions change to change the boat around," he says. "With the water and safety materials and the food - there is more than 200kg of food - it is about 20% of the displacement of the boat, so we have to move it very fast." He also has the layout down below sorted out so that despite the inevitably awkward positioning of the canting keel mechanism inside the boat he can still sleep to weather.

As is the current trend in the Mini fleet (almost certain to be outlawed for the next race) le Blevec runs a fuel cell instead of a generator, but during the day relies on two large fold-up solar panels to charge the batteries. These, he says, have improved considerably in recent years and are capable of delivering a reason charge even when it is overcast.

While Minis are now allowed to carry wind instruments, they are still not allowed any electronics more sophisticated than this (ie no computers or comms gear other than a VHF) but the drain on the batteries is still large thanks to the autopilot. While le Blevec uses performance instruments from French manufacturer NKE, his pilot drive is a large electric Raymarine unit (plus a spare carried among his emergency gear).

The present Mini Transat and other Mini races we have seen this year indicate the class is getting ever more competitive. Le Blevec reckons that among the top boats the Mini class is getting every bit as competitive these days as the Figaro circuit. Even the speeds of the boats are similar, despite the Minis being 9ft shorter than the one design Figaro. "When you make just a little mistake you lose now. And it is very difficult to come back."

Having dismasted in the last Mini Transat le Blevec will be keeping a close eye on his gear this time around, particularly as there is still just under 2,000 miles left to go to reach the finish line with the Doldrums lying ahead.

More pictures on the following pages....

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