Tall Ships, Big Lessons
Tall Ships, Big Lessons
I left feeling uneasy about the fumes. I also saw that the fleet was sailing into a low-pressure zone that was veering towards western France and into the English Channel. My apprehension was justified when the low pressure system began building into a full-blown gale the next day, into which the Etoile Polaire and the rest of the fleet were headed.
Three days after the start of the race, I was preparing to sail over the English Channel from Roscoff, France, to the Scilly Isles on a 27-foot French-made Feeling cruiser before the worst of the front hit. But just as we were getting ready to head out of port, I got a surprise call: I learned that Francois had suffered from sun poisoning and possibly an allergic reaction and was being airlifted by helicopter to a hospital in Brest. I was to alert his father, who did not have a cell phone and was on the boat with me about to leave for the Scilly Islands.
After driving Francois’ father to the hospital in Brest (the father was in no condition to drive), I was relieved to see that Francois was okay overall, besides his suffering from easily treatable first-degree burns.
But life onboard the Etoile Polaire had not been so rosy during the past couple of days, Francois said. Everyone on board, except for the skipper, had been very ill due to the diesel fumes and the motion of beating up wind in very choppy, low-period waves.
Francois also said that Bérangère managed to get everybody (who was able to) to grind the winches, steer the boat, prepare the food, and everything else without shouting once. She was very busy and did “seem stressed out,” but everything went okay, Francois said.
Then I saw what the Etoile Polaire was headed into the day after Francois had been airlifted to the hospital on the way to the Bay of Biscay: steady west-southerly winds of 30 knots with gusts of 40 knots and a rough to very-rough sea state. My thoughts remained with the Etoile Polaire during the next 48 hours, as I wondered how Bérangère was getting along. Meanwhile, we weathered out the gale in the relative comfort of the port since conditions had become way too nasty now to sail across the Channel to the Scilly Islands.
A few days later I breathed a sigh of relief when the Etoile Polaire made it safely to Lisbon, while three other boats in their class had to abandon the leg. The Etoile Polaire then continued on the next leg of the race, eventually arriving safely in Cadiz, Spain. But while en route to Coruna, Spain, from Cadiz, the helm suffered a breakage and the Etoile Polaire had to be towed back to port.
Other ships in the fleet fared even worse than the Etoile Polaire did later in the race, such as the Polish Kapitan Borchardt, a 90-foot schooner that struggled to arrive at the final stop in Dublin with a broken mast and no power following 60-knot gusts and up to 30-foot waves. Fortunately, no serious injuries were reported on any of the ships. The Cuauhtemoc, a three-masted ship from Mexico, won the overall race, averaging over 10 knots during the last leg from Coruna to Dublin.
I asked Bérangère what she took away from the adventure when I called her after the regatta was over. She conceded that the journey from Brest on the edge of the Bay of Biscay was the biggest test. It was especially challenging to motivate the youngsters to do what they needed to do in the cold and wet as they sailed over rough seas into the wind, which was indeed blowing a steady 30 knots and very gusty. But she also said that she was ready to do the entire journey again and was pleasantly surprised by the reactions of the youngsters.
“The kids remained cheerful, even during the worst part of the trip, and I was amazed by how fast they could adapt,” she said. “For me, observing them was a learning experience in and of itself.”
As for Francois, he said his overall experience had been a positive one, despite the sunburn incident and the rough passage. He said he was ready to give long-distance sailing, and even racing, another try, which is the kind of reaction that the organizers of the race probably want to hear about. Still, he did turn down the opportunity to race with his father on a seven-mile course the following month.