Monday, 16 November 2009

Transat Jaques Vabre - Mid-term Report

It’s been a great first week in the Transat Jaques Vabre – after a fascinating ‘risk versus reward’ dilemma was set up for all the skippers as they left Le Havre eight days ago, bound for Puerto Limon in Costa Rica.

It was the kind of situation that makes race commentators salivate. And a week later, the pay-offs have been harsh, with two sailors pulled off a stricken boat (BT - Sébastien Josse/Jean Francois Curzon) in the North Atlantic, and with several others limping from damage.

The start last Sunday saw a weather map with a series of brutal low pressure systems traversing the Atlantic, but much further south than would be normal for this time of year. And all of them targeted the straight-line route to Costa Rica. We can split the fleet into three groups, according to their reaction to this problem:

Northern Exposure

1876 (Yves Parlier/Pachi Rivero) and Hugo Boss (Alex Thomson/Ross Daniel).

These two took the most northerly route, closest to the track of the low pressure systems. In theory, it was the fastest way to the Caribbean, but with lots of risk of damage in some pretty horrendous conditions. Alex Thomson has some prior for taking chances, and I vividly remember watching Yves Parlier pour it on in the Southern Ocean in the 2000-01 Vendee Globe, until finally, his rig came down. So, no real surprise seeing either of these boats take this option.

Walking the Line

Safran (Marc Guillemot/Charles Caudrelier Benac), Mike Golding Yacht Racing (Mike Golding/Javier Sanso), Groupe Belle (Kito de Pavant/Francois Gabart), Veolia Environement (Roland Jourdain/Jean-Luc Nelias), Aviva (Dee Caffari/Brian Thompson) and BT (Sébastien Josse/Jean Francois Curzon).

The largest group chose an option that also took them close to the low pressure systems, but attempted to dodge the very worst of the conditions – threading the needle between safe and fast.

South Park

Foncia (Michel Desjoyeaux/Jeremie Beyou), Akena Verandas (Arnaud Boissieres/Vincent Riou), Artemis Ocean Racing (Sam Davies/Sidney Gavignet) and W Hotels (Alex Pella/Pepe Ribes).

W Hotels were only just part of this group, after taking a while to make their minds up. The rest of this final bunch headed south early and hard, taking the long way around while endeavouring to stay away from the low pressure systems, and minimise the risk of damage.

The fleet have been re-converging quickly over the past 24 hours, and this is a reasonable moment to analyse how these choices played out. First, let’s look at the damage reports. I should add that this is just the stuff I’ve seen in the news, some issues might not have been reported, and others I might have missed…

The northern pair took a hammering, with 1876 doing six knots on the morning of the 16th November, after a long period of damage control. Hugo Boss escaped the storm in reasonable shape, but then had the misfortune of hitting something in the water - so at the time of writing, Thomson and Daniel had also slowed down to figure out their choices. Let’s call this a 50% attrition rate.

The middle group faired better, BT’s demise was spectacular, but Veolia Environnement also had to pit-stop in the Azores to make repairs - so that’s 33% of the group losing serious time to damage.

Meanwhile in the south, the only boat that I’ve seen report significant repair work has been Artemis – which sets the damage rate at just 25%.

It’s an old and very tired adage, but for all that, ‘to finish first, first you have to finish’ is still true. More of the southern group came out of the storm in good shape for the rest of the race, than did those to the north. But those who went down the middle and did survive in good shape saved a lot of miles, and now the top three from this bunch have a solid lead over the rest of the fleet – Safran, Mike Golding Yacht Racing, and Groupe Belle.

It’s a tough tactical decision – if you go north you are playing roulette with your race. The latest studies on rogue waves show how random and frequent these phenomena are – stick yourself and your boat in a place where these things can pop up, and you are throwing dice on the outcome. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, it’s game over.

But the statistical element of this also makes it a tough choice to go south. If a large enough number of boats take the riskier northern option, it’s extremely unlikely that they will all suffer race-ending damage. It was inevitable that the last men and women standing in the north would be leading, with a week or so of racing left for those in the south to play catch-up.

The most interesting aspect of this (for me, anyway) is that Michel Desjoyeaux chose to go south. The two-time Vendee Globe winner is probably the leading offshore racer of his generation. And I think the critical point to take away from this is that he chose to concede the lead, while retaining as much control as he could over the outcome of his race.

And what I’ll be watching for as we go into the second week is how much Mich Desj and his partner, Jeremie Beyou, can make up of the 300 mile deficit that Foncia has allowed Safran to establish. I still wouldn’t put it past them to make it onto the podium.

Daily Transat Jaques Vabre Updates on TWITTER

Mark Chisnell ©

Sunday, 1 November 2009

A Golf Day

Ian Walker - one-time skipper of the mighty Green Dragon - offered me the poisoned pill of speaking at the recent North Sails Golf Day, a fundraiser (to the tune of over £7k, a few hundred of which came from auctioning Spanish Castle to White Night) for the John Merricks Sailing Trust. As an incentive, 'you can plug your book' he said, 'and take the piss out of me, if you like...'

So, I think I found a way to do both, here's a short extract from the speech - I should preface this by saying that Ian was one of the better (if not the best) of the writers in the Volvo fleet:

I’m going to tell you about one of Ian’s rather less successful email efforts, one that should have made it into the book, but didn’t. It started well enough, in fact, I was quite excited when I first read the email, and I quote (a slightly edited version):

'Before my Grandfather passed away he gave my mother some handwritten letters written about his shipwreck on the Falkland Islands as a boy, probably around 100 years ago.

'I keep copies of these letters and from time to time, I read about how he had to swim ashore as the ship went down. Well, this morning at first light, we were tacking to pass around the Northern edge of the Falklands, and I found myself dodging the unmarked reefs. Every mile we had to sail on starboard tack to clear the island was a mile lost to the opposition as we needed to head east.

'Wouter (Verbraak, the navigator) and I checked the chart and found a very tenuous passage inside some islands and through some reefs that would cut 10 miles off our course. Wouter was very confident in the accuracy of the charts - saying that the British Navy would have surveyed every inch of these islands - and after consulting with Damian and Neal we decided to take it on.

'I have to admit, the thought of explaining how a second member of the family had become shipwrecked on the Falklands had crossed my mind, but with some short tacks and some weaving we safely found our way through.'

Fantastic, I thought, what a great story for the book – I was always looking for stuff a little out of the ordinary that would give us some background on the sailors, a little insight into the personality - this spoke of generations of hardy Walkers traversing the South Atlantic and struggling against the travails of the sea. And all tied together by the coincidence of Ian narrowly escaping the fate of his ancestor on the rocky shores of the Falkland Islands.

It even had a nice visual touch - if I could get hold of the original letter, then perhaps we could scan it in, and use it as an image in the book. So, as soon as I got to Rio I got in touch with Ian, discovered that the original was in fact in the possession of his mother, who was tasked to bring it out to the next stopover.

And when I got sight of the letter in Boston, it was everything I had hoped for - Ian’s great-grandfather was Captain Albert Wadsley. As an 18 year old cabin boy, he’d sailed south with a cargo of Welsh coal on the Fonthill, a wooden, three-masted schooner.

The letter was written on the 12 April, 1897, about three days after the events related. It was an amazing hand-written account of shipwreck, and I quote again, this time from Albert.

‘Our Captain, seeing she was too far gone, ordered the yards to be squared in so she would drive high and dry up on the sands… taking a pretty heavy list to starboard breakers curling in on top of us, smashing in most of the starboard bulwarks and carrying things off the deck…’

Gripping stuff, except for that bit about treacherous sands…

Now I’ve been to the Falklands and from the bits I saw, you’d be pretty hard pushed to find some sand to run aground on. So I read a little further, and low and behold, it turned out that those treacherous sands were in fact the coast of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul.

Not the Falkland Islands at all.

In fact, it’s over a couple of thousand kilometres from the Falklands, and you’d have to go about 500 kilometres out of your way on the rhumb line to Rio to hit it.

So, needless to say, that was the one that got away – the email didn’t make it into the final cut for the book.

The one other thing that Ian suggested I could do today, was to say a few words about Johnny Merricks, the reason we’re all here, and hopefully the reason we’ll all be gathering for many years to come.

There’s always one particular moment I remember about Johnny. It’s not the best story, and let’s be honest, there are some crackers. And it’s certainly not the funniest, nor is it going to tell us why he was so blazingly fast upwind in a breeze. But it might give us a tiny bit of insight into why we’re all gathered here.

It was the autumn of 1996, back in the day when I was still drinking in the King and Queen of a Friday night. I’d had a busy summer, been away most of the time sailing, and had topped it off by achieving a very long-standing ambition, with my first novel published by Random House a couple of weeks earlier.

I headed down to the pub to catch up with people as you do, and found Johnny propping up the bar, as he did. I hadn’t seen him since he and Ian had won their silver medal in Atlanta. I fully expected him to bask in the glow of congratulations as people rolled into the pub – as most of us would have done. But not Johnny, as soon as he saw me come through the door, and before I could get a word out about silver medals or Olympic Games, he said with that unique grin of his…

'Hey I heard you got your book published, congratulations, how’s it going…?'

And that, I think, is the reason we’re all here, it didn’t matter what he achieved, Johnny Merricks had that first thought for other people.

Mark Chisnell ©