Photo: Marco Nannini/UniCredit

Week one in the Class 40

Ollie Dewar examines what's been going on among the Route du Rhum tiddlers

Monday November 8th 2010, Author: Ollie Dewar, Location: none selected

On Sunday 31 October at 13:02 local time, the 44 Class 40s in the Route du Rhum - La Banque Postale single-handed race crossed the startline just north Pointe du Grouin off Saint-Malo, Brittany bound for Guadeloupe 3,600 miles across the North Atlantic. Among giant Class40 fleet are four entries from the Global Ocean Race 2011-12 (GOR): Jean-Edouard Criquioche on Groupe Picoty and Tanguy de Lamotte on Novedia-Initiatives from France; Italian skipper, Marco Nannini on UniCredit and New Zealand sailor, Conrad Coleman on 40 Degrees.

The Class40 racing throughout the first week has been characteristically tight and filled with drama and humour. Devastating gear failure took the early lead from round the world sailor, Bernard Stamm and Cheminées Poujoulat, with Thomas Ruyant on Destination Dunkerque taking pole position mid-week as the Class40 fleet split with hotly-tipped Nicolas Troussel and Crédit Mutuel de Bretagne leading a breakaway pack east of the Azores high in search of a quick route to the NE Trade Winds. While Ruyant and the northern group found the strongest breeze to the west, a lurking mid-Atlantic high-pressure system threatens to turn the position rankings upside down.

Early lead for Bernard Stamm

Straight from the start gun, Swiss skipper and one of the Class40 favourites for the race, Bernard Stamm, led the fleet in light 8-11 knots south-easterly breeze on his three year-old Rogers Design Cheminées Poujoulat, handing over pole position briefly to Yvan Noblet on the 2007 Verdier-designed Appart City as the Class40 fleet streamed past Ushant in the early hours of Monday morning with less than five miles separating the leading three boats. However, before the yachts dropped southwest into the Bay of Biscay, there was already drama with Bulgarian skipper, Dimitar Topolov, pulling into Roscoff 60 miles west of Saint-Malo to sort out a wrapped spinnaker on board his one year-old Humphreys ORCA design, White Swallow, while Olivier Singelin on his 2009 Akilaria Gonser Group–Cambio returned briefly to Saint-Malo to fix electrical problems.

By midday on Monday, Stamm was back in the lead in the Bay of Biscay as the wind backed from northwest to southwest and the majority of the Class40 fleet tacked onto port with the shift in choppy conditions and a cross-swell from the old breeze while Marc Lepesqueux and Marie Toit - Caen La Mer led the group remaining on starboard deeper into the Bay of Biscay holding 28th place overall, despite announcing that he may be forced to make a pit stop in the Azores to repair his damaged bowsprit: a problem that was later remedied using a splint and an extra support stay.

The following morning (Tuesday), Stamm and Cheminées Poujoulat held the lead keeping Thomas Ruyant and Destination Dunkerque at bay just under two miles off the Swiss skipper’s port quarter as the leading duo crept ahead of the chasing pack with a seven mile lead over Mini Transat sailor and yacht designer Sam Manuard on his own design Vecteur Plus in third place as the north-south divide in the fleet stretched to 300 miles with Italian skipper, Davide Consorte furthest north on Adriatech and François Angoulvant heading for Cape Finisterre to the south with Fermiers de Loué – Sarthe.

Thomas Ruyant takes pole position as the attrition begins

By dawn on Wednesday, the leading trio had reshuffled with Ruyant, winner of the double-handed Class40 Normandy Channel Race earlier this year, and his Verdie-designed Tyker40 Destination Dunkerque moving into first place with Manuard and Stamm less than five miles astern as the trio led the fleet into south-westerly headwinds. “The wind is a bit southerly with 17-18 knots and a short sea,” explained Ruyant. “Compared with Minis, these boats slam a bit and even on the helm it is hard to drive through the waves.” The 29 year-old skipper was leading from the middle of the north-south spread in the Class40 fleet approximately 240 miles north-west of Cape Finisterre with the centre of the Azores High directly in his path and the option of heading west of the weather system already taken.

In mid-fleet, Norwegian skipper Rune Aasberg on his Owen Clarke Design Express 40 Solo was forced to turn back and retire due to autopilot problems and early on Thursday, Italian skipper, Davide Consorte on Adriatech ceased his northern route, turned around and headed for France with a cascade of serious gear failure – leaking ballast tanks; broken main halyard; broken GPS and masthead wind instruments - leaving Régis Guillemot and Regis Guillemot Charter alone and exiled far north of the main fleet.

For fellow Italian skipper and GOR entry, Marco Nannini on UniCredit in 21st place, the loss of a countryman was a harsh blow: “I was really sorry to learn Italian entry Davide Consorte pulled out,” wrote Nannini in his daily blog. “He spent a tough time in the north through the worst of the winds, probably less than a day away from reaching the cold front and reaping the rewards of his tough route. It’s now real bad,” continued Nannini. “After Rune Aasberg, another pal, has dropped off, before we know it I'll be Billy-No-Mates in the big pond surrounded by frogs! Sorry no offence intended, just couldn’t resist the joke.”

Nannini was mid-pack in the group heading north and west of the Azores High with the pack led by Ruyant with Sam Manuard in pursuit and talented German Mini sailor, Jörg Riechers, in third place on his one year-old Owen Clarke Design just 16 miles behind the leader.

Meanwhile, Bernard Stamm had taken Cheminées Poujoulat south, closest to the Azores High, dropping back to 11th place. Although the majority of the Class40 fleet had opted for the northerly route around the high pressure system, the gamble of squeezing between the high and the coast of Portugal was beginning to pay for the ten boats at the head of the southern fleet led by hot-favourite Nicolas Troussel on his brand new Pogo S² Crédit Mutuel de Bretagne holding 11th place, trailing the fleet leader by 64 miles in terms of distance to finish.

While Ruyant and the northern group ploughed upwind into 19 knots of south-westerly breeze heading out into the Atlantic on port tack averaging around 8-9 knots, Troussel was making over 11 knots downwind on port gybe in 18 knots of north-easterly breeze spinning off the front edge of the high pressure system with British solo sailor Pete Goss on the new Akilaria RC2 DMS and Damien Seguin on his 2007 Rogers Design Des Pieds et Des Mains in hot pursuit.

North or South?

Despite the favourable speeds for the southern fleet, Ruyant was content with his tactic of heading north towards a cold front: “The weather is not very simple and even in the medium term, it is not clear,” he reported on Thursday morning. “At the moment I’ve made a tack which gets me closer to the front and away from the high as fast as possible.” For Ruyant, the southern option did not seem a viable short cut through to the the North East Trade Winds: “Nico will try to make a ‘Troussel’ with his choice,” he continued. “There are small depressions which stop the formation of the trades, so I don’t really think that the southerly option is the way, but we will see as we finish in Guadaloupe.”

Major setback for Stamm

Meanwhile, Bernard Stamm’s track on the race tracker had become increasingly erratic and late on Thursday afternoon, the Swiss skipper revealed a problem with the autopilot-rudder link on board Cheminées Poujoulat: “The only way I can sail is to tie-off the helm and balance the sails,” explained the 46 year-old Swiss skipper. “I can’t race upwind or close hauled. So, that explains my course.” Stamm, who suffered similar problems on his IMOCA Open 60 in the early stages of the 2000-01 Vendée Globe and was forced to retire, attempted some running repairs, but a pit stop 580 miles to the south-west was mandatory: “I have begun to try and do something, but it won’t let me keep on the pace,” explained Stamm. “I hope to keep the wind and to make it to the Azores without using the engine. It’s a shame, because I had been going well and it was an interesting race.”

Blistering Pace for Conrad Coleman

Throughout Friday, Stamm became increasingly isolated on his lonely voyage towards the Azores in the widening gulf between the northern and southern divisions in the Class40 fleet. In the northern group, Ruyant continued to hold the lead with the new threat of Yvan Noblet – who took 6th place in the Route du Rhum Class40 fleet in 2006 – climbing into the leading trio with Appart City, while gain-of-the-day belonged to GOR entry, Conrad Coleman on 40 Degrees on the northern fringe of the leading group moving from 13th-7th place and polling 13.1 knots in the afternoon – the highest average in the fleet – as the 26 year-old New Zealand skipper found the best breeze in the front and closed down to within 79 miles of the leader, swiftly gaining the sobriquet PacMan from the French sailing media for his relentless consumption of ranking places. “I have my shift and am now heading south-ish finally under spinnaker after nearly a week hard on the wind,” reported Coleman during his rapid ascent through the fleet rankings. “I had an incident with my big spinnaker, so the pilot is now driving over and the through the waves while I’m busy down below in Mr. Fixit mode.”

While Colman enjoyed downwind sailing in the north, fellow GOR entry Tanguy de Lamotte and Novedia – Initiatives in 8th place continued upwind averaging 8-9 knots further south, choosing a route closer to Azores High and away from the northern group with just Fabrice Amedeo and his new Akilaria RC2 Geodis for company. De Lamotte explained the tactics: “I’ve been looking for a transition zone to get the spinnaker up in some north-easterly breeze to help us get down to the south,” he reported. “It’s taking a bit of time to arrive, but little-by-little I’m dropping south to keep in touch with group already there.” However, the delay isn’t causing concern on board Novedia – Initiatives: “I think that because I’m further south, the transition is going to be quicker,” De Lamotte commented. “Up in the north, I don’t reckon it’s going to be so clear-cut.”

In the southern group, SSE of De Lamotte, the earlier downwind speed began to evaporate throughout the day with the pack leader Nicolas Troussel on Crédit Mutuel de Bretagne dropping from 11th to 14th throughout Friday as his average boat speed wavered around 8-10 knots. Despite the rapid speed increase for the northern group, Troussel remained pragmatic about the southern option: “I’m going to wait and see what happens when they exit the front,” he explained on Friday afternoon. “It’s a very delicate piece of timing for them and almost anything could happen,” predicted the French skipper. “For the moment, I’ve got 15-20 knots of breeze and it’s just a real pleasure to drive the boat in these sort of conditions.”

North Atlantic bar-brawl for Criquioche:

Meanwhile, 68 miles off the overall fleet leader’s starboard quarter, a three-boat scrap was developing between GOR entry, Jean-Edouard Criquioche on his new Pogo S² Groupe Picoty in 7th, Rémi Beauvais on the 2006 Philippot-designed Routes du Large in 8th place and Thierry Bouchard in 10th place on the 2009 Akilaria RC2, Comiris - Pôle Santé Elior with just 13 miles separating the three French skippers: “We’re not doing badly in the rankings at the moment, but not too much importance should be given to the overall positions just yet,” wrote Criquioche. “However, I’ve got Rémi Beauvais and Thierry Bouchard stuck to my backside right now,” continued the 41 year-old skipper. “If you’re going to get into a brawl, it’s entertaining to have a scrap with two mates and if it ever kicked-off in a bar, I’d really want these two on my side as none of us are conceding an inch at the moment,” noted Criquioche. “In fact, since the start of the race, the front ten or 12 boats have kept together like this and looking at the boatspeeds in this group, I’m happy to say I’m on target,” he adds. As for the competition to the south, he had no immediate concerns: “I’m not convinced about Troussel’s trick to the south as I don’t think it’s going to play out, but I’ll certainly keep an eye on the bunch down there.”

Into the front and into the weekend:

Between midday Friday and midday Saturday, Ruyant kept the pace on in the northeasterly breeze, putting an extra 12 miles distance between Destination Dunkerque and Sam Manuard and Vecteur Plus in second leading by 32 miles with Yvan Noblet in third on Appart City trailing the leader by just under 40 miles. “The wind has started to drop and I’ve got 20 knots of breeze right now, although we had 30 knots last night,” Ruyant reported on Saturday morning with Destination Dunkerque averaging 12.5 knots 300 miles NNW of the Azores. “The problem at the moment is a chaotic sea state from the old south-west breeze,” he adds. “It’s just not practical to push the boat hard and I’m letting the pilot do most of the work while I get some rest and look at the weather information.”

Behind the lead group and catching the northeasterly breeze in the early evening, Eric Defert on his brand new Verdier Design Tyker40 Drekan Energie - Groupe Terrallia, Damien Grimont on the newest boat in the fleet, the Pogo S² Monbana and the German Mini sailor Jörg Riechers on the 2009 Owen Clarke Design consistently traded 4th, 5th and 6th place throughout Friday with Grimont embedding in 4th place overnight and holding a ten mile lead over Riechers by noon on Saturday.

Leading the southern group in 19th place, Nicolas Troussel and Crédit Mutuel de Bretagne continued south on port gybe until midday on Saturday, before changing onto starboard and heading westwards although the continuing, southern gamble had cost the French skipper five places and a loss of just over 100 miles on the Class40 leader in 24 hours. For British sailor, Pete Goss on the chartered Akilaria RC2, DMS, trailing Troussel by 69 miles in 25th place, the benign conditions for the southern group north of Madeira came at a price: “ ‘Goss Removals and Mining here',” reported Goss on Saturday morning. “It felt like it last night for we had a fractious wind that was up and down, meaning that I had to move all the ship’s stores four times,” he explained. “If it is very light, they go forward to stop DMS dragging her bum and if the wind picks up, they go aft for power. It's quite a task and I say ‘Mining’ for it feels like it when crawling around under the cockpit shifting big cans of fuel.”

Big gusts and big speeds in the northern group

While Pete Goss spent Friday night rearranging the movable ballast on DMS, in the heavily-bunched middle of the northern group, GOR entry, Marco Nannini on UniCredit, had a profitable night breaking into the north-easterlies mid-evening: “Surfing at 12.5 knots average sustained over eight hours in total pitch-black darkness with a top speed of 21 knots in winds of 30-35 knots - top gust 38 knots – is just mind blowing,” reported the Italian skipper in a breathless blog on Saturday morning. “I can't complain with 100 miles in just eight hours and a jump into 15th place,” he continued. “To be fair, the two guys behind me are so close that we'll probably swap places several times,” admits Nannini, casting an eye over his shoulder at Arnaud Daval on Techneau and Olivier Grassi on Grassi Bateaux less than two miles astern. “Most importantly, I'm in the right pack of wolves,” he added, before confessing to a less-than-stylish luxury on board: “I have to admit to be wearing slippers again, just as I used to do in the OSTAR.” Nannini’s choice of footware carries no shame: a well-known, British, solo sailor and veteran of three Vendée Globe races has admitted to stowing two pairs of slippers: one set for north of 40 degrees South and one set for below 40 degrees South.

In the southern group holding 27th place, Jouni Romppanen, was faced with persistent electronic problems on board Tieto Passion and with the prospect of crossing the Atlantic without an autopilot, the 46 year-old, gybed away from the group, retired from the race and headed his one year-old Akilaria towards Lisbon, Portugal, leaving 41 Class40 racing in the North Atlantic.

Unstable future for the northern group:

However, the focus for the front runners in the northern group was the mid-Atlantic high-pressure system squatting and distending to the west. With weather models suggesting the system’s centre could drift southeast towards the group’s path, decisive action was needed. At mid-afternoon on Saturday, Ruyant and Destination Dunkerque and Louis Burton with his 2005 Pogo, BG Yachting/Bureau des mers, in 8th place, 115 miles east of Ruyant, both gybed, swiftly followed by Yvan Noblet in thid place on Appart City and Jean-Edouard Criquioche and Groupe Picoty in 6th with the majority of the pack joining-in later in the evening.

Too busy to check the position polls, Ruyant concentrated on speed and weather information: “I’ve no idea if I’m still in the lead, but I think so, which is great,” said Ruyant on Sunday morning. “There’s more pressure in the south and I’m trying to get down there as quickly as possible, but the conditions are really strange and constantly changing,” he reported. “I’m on port gybe and making good speed and it’s vital that I find the right angle and the correct sail combination and there’s loads of trimming to do,” Ruyant explained. “For the moment, I’m going to stick with this route. In the long term, I don’t know what’s developing, but I’ll keep monitoring the weather as the conditions aren’t easy or stable.”

Mid-morning on Sunday, bad news arrived from Novedia – Initiatives as GOR entry and winner of last year’s, double-handed, La Solidaire du Chocolat, Tanguy de Lamotte, in 19th place, reported a large rip in his mainsail sustained during his passage through the front. With a gennaker ripped in half earlier in the week, De Lamotte’s chances of a competitive race were now removed completely and with huge disappointment the French skipper will attempt repairs underway or divert to the Azores: in either case, De Lamotte is determined to sail his Class40 to Guadeloupe.

Meanwhile, boat speed in the northern group began to decline with Ruyant slowing to 10-11 knots as Troussel at the head of the southern pack of 12 boats maintained 11-12 knots. In 14 place on 40 Degrees, 233 miles behind the fleet leader in the northern group, the significance of these numbers was not lost on Conrad Coleman: “The high pressure zone that lies before me continues to swell, blocking the route forward and forcing us all to dive down to the Azores in light airs instead of the heavy running we had counted on in the forecasts,” explained the New Zealand skipper at midday on Sunday. “Now it’s looking like the southern option, taken most notably by Nico Troussel and Pete Goss, will be faster than the north as well as being a lot more pleasurable!”

At 14:40 GMT, the Class40 Route du Rhum leader, Thomas Ruyant on Destination Dunkerque, held a 196 mile lead over Nicolas Troussel and Crédit Mutuel de Bretagne in 10th place with around 550 miles of North Atlantic separating the converging pack leaders as the Class40 fleet straddles the Azores.

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