Some might say Le Defi AREVA was destined for a difficult existence. A sponsor whose primary business is generating nuclear energy for Europe, a fluorescent yellow boat sent to nuclear free New Zealand. Where they asking for trouble? Probably.
Its been a tough road. We were quite late in getting our funding secured. This delayed the building of the boats, rigs and sails. Fortunately, the triumvirate leading this adventure had secured some money at the conclusion of the last Louis Vuitton Cup from one of its 2000 edition sponsors. Quite wisely, they made the difficult decision to dedicate what money they had entirely to the design of 2003-generation boats. As a result, other areas suffered. The mercurial, but immensely talented, skipper left to join Team New Zealand, a few talented crewmen went to other syndicates and still others became more involved in ocean racing: an area of our sport the French have dominated for many years. The result, a young team comprised in part of “veterans” from the 2000 edition of Le Defi, some small boat sailors with Olympic experience and some offshore sailors. The team was assembled just last November and the first boat was launched quite late. Before it even sailed, FRA 69 was back in the shed, the result of a ramming by a Greenpeace rib protesting Arevas sponsorship.
Since that time, like each of the other syndicates, we found our routine: grueling early morning workouts with the team trainer/torturer, loading the boats and towing out for long days testing, towing back in, fixing what broke and starting again the next day. We were quite fortunate to have had a magnificent base built for us by the community of Lorient, Brittany. However, in April and early May, the depressions crossed the Atlantic and made an unrelenting assault on the northern coast of France costing us many days on the water. When at last the weather gods smiled, we went from famine to feast. Nearly six weeks of uninterrupted steady thermals: 12-15 knots straight from the West. Lorient is far enough north that, even in the early summer, it stays light out until 10:30 at night. We would work on the boats all morning, tow out at noon to catch the afternoon breeze, often returning to the base at dusk, hauling the boats out in the dark at 11:00 pm, dinner at the base at 11:30, back at 7:00 am the next day for workouts.
We were the last team to arrive in Auckland. Again, we faced a difficult decision regarding when to transfer our operations to New Zealand. Go early and be subject to the vagaries of the Southern Hemisphere winter or stay and test in Lorient. We chose the later and, as a result, were a bit rushed in finally setting up shop here on Halsey Street and getting in tune with the Hauraki Gulfs fickle weather. As the saying goes here, if you dont like the weather, wait twenty minutes it will change.
We started the first round robin with a blank slate and heaps of expectation. When it drew to a close, the blank slate was replaced a blank stare. Eight consecutive losses. How could this happen? Shoddy crew work and poor tactical decisions were the two main culprits. We are fortunate enough to have a relatively quick boat upwind and have since been working hard at optimizing it and improving our weaknesses (there are many).
Each day, our shortcomings were driven home. On the corner of Gaunt and Beaumont Streets in Westhaven, Auckland lies a Louis Vuitton scoreboard, which is updated each evening. I pass this scoreboard on my bike heading to workout each morning. The sign is a glaring reminder of our deficiencies. Each morning it showed only losses besides our name. Moreover, each evening the tally in the loss column increased. Throughout the first round robin, and well in to the second, we appeared to shoot ourselves in the foot with astounding regularity. Poor starts, broken gear, kites in the water, bad maneuvers, being out of phase with the ever-oscillating breeze and poor tactical decisions. You name it, we probably did it.
How is one to keep motivated through it all? There is a good core group within this team and over time its gotten tighter. We rely on each other to continue pushing through morning workouts and getting the most out of the evening performance briefings. We have done an assessment of where we are, where we want to be and the formidable obstacles that stand in our way. We made some crew changes in the afterguard and attempted to shore up our weaknesses. Time on the water here has been invaluable. Casual observation of the other syndicates has also generated new ideas for refining our boat and crew work. We are fortunate enough to have the means to dedicate some people and money to doing development work and throughout the round robins transformed some of these ideas into reality.
During the break between rounds one and two, we made some planned modifications to our boat, nothing revolutionary, merely evolutionary. Our efforts have finally begun to bear fruit as we are starting to eliminate some of the unforced errors. We attacked the second round with renewed vigor and finally sailed a clean race. We lined up against One World and sailed relatively well. We rounded the last leeward mark and tacked on to port. Its at this point in the race where after several gybes, hoisting the headsail, dousing the kite and winding in the headsail from a broad reach to tight on the breeze and throwing in a tack for good measure that your heart is thumping and feels like its about to leap out of your throat. While trying to catch my breath and cleaning up the brace and sheets, I shot a quick look over our port primary and, much to my surprise saw OneWorld trawling their kite. Coming into the last leeward mark with only a boat length lead, they held their kite quite long and things went downhill from there. Predictably, with the kite in water, the 300+ meter sea anchor drew them to a virtual standstill and seemed to be caught around their rudder as the crew frantically yanked on the last vestiges of cloth remaining on the deck. I believe I know exactly how they felt. For once, the proverbial shoe was on the other foot. Eventually, they cleared their gear and despite continuous pressure from OneWorld, we managed to stay ahead and win our first race in thirteen. Finally, things had started to come together for us and we began to see the fruits of our labor.
Just as quickly, we reverted to our old ways. It seems that given an opportunity, we will dig ourselves as large a hole as possible and then, without regard to the consequences, jump straight into it. The aforementioned fickle Auckland weather has forced us to a two-race-a-day schedule and our second race of the day was against GBR challenge. After a good start, we crossed ahead midway up the beat and held the lead on the run. We then rounded the leeward mark ahead by the smallest of margins, but clearly ahead. We went one way, and true to match racing form, they went the other. Inexplicably, we failed to cover. This vital mistake was to be our undoing. We split tacks and got on the wrong side of several shifts. When at last we converged, they were slightly ahead, we went to dip and took a twenty-degree lift. We then found ourselves in a most compromising situation, unable to cross, unable to dip, converging at a combined speed of 20 kts. and we feebly tacked away. They cracked off, walked over us and spat us out the back. We limped into the weather mark behind and suffered yet another humiliating loss.
Our long awaited redemption came against Mascalzone Latino. In the deciding race for both syndicates, the stakes could not have been any higher. The loser would be packing their bags, the first team eliminated from the 2002-3 Louis Vuitton Cup. We sailed a clean race, won the right pulled ahead and lead at every mark. At one stage, we showed the slightest hint of our old ways and over stood the starboard layline at the second leeward mark. In what could not have been worse timing, we took a 20-degree header and ended up reaching into the mark cutting our lead in half. Much to our good fortune, we had been over two hundred meters ahead and despite our errors, maintained our lead and won by a minute and change. Against another opponent, this would have been the death knell. Today, however, we managed to stay ahead and won our second race in as many days.
The playing field is extremely elevated since the 2000 Cup. There are no weak teams. Le Defi went from being a Quarter finalist in 2000, to being at the bottom of the fleet in 2002. This despite two new boats and a budget twice the size of the last campaigns. There is a lot of talk about the amount of money being spent for this cup. While money is important, it is not the be-all-end-all panacea. Money, if it comes early enough, however, does allow a syndicate to be more efficient with its scarcest and non-renewable resource¿ time. Have we improved over where Le Defi was in 2000? Probably. However, the other syndicates have made exponential gains through efficient preparation, use of resources and many, many hours on the water.
We have now qualified for the quarterfinals by the slimmest of margins and will be racing Swedens Victory Challenge. While the win against Masclazone certainly felt good, it is merely a stage win giving us the right to keep racing. The scoreboard on Gaunt Street remains a constant reminder and will continue to tell each passerby where we stack up in the 2003 Louis Vuitton Cup.