lake geneva 368
In the previous two hours, we have moved 200 meters, maximum. I’ve seen my share of dead spots, but there is something particularly discouraging about this one, at the northeastern end of Lac Leman. Maybe it’s the ring of mountains that circle that end of Switzerland’s largest lake like a rough-hewn bulwark. Or the absolute absence of any kind of movement on the water or in the hills. No ripples, no waves, not even the occasional flash of a fish. Or perhaps it’s the goose eggs that have been tattooed on the speedo for the past 30 minutes; or the boats on the other side of the lake inching forward in a downdraft off the steep French hillsides. Or maybe it’s the simple fact that a few hours earlier we’d been enjoying a glorious run down the lake and I’d started dreaming of a late evening finish and a few drinks at the Societe Nautique de Geneve.
Whatever the reason, the net result is I am beginning to lose my mind. I look toward the shore and wonder how far off it is. It’s tough to say, the shores are steep, which I know can be deceiving; 50 miles can look like 5. I table the idea of swimming ashore, for the moment.
In an effort to regain a grasp on my sanity, I slowly run down all the people who’d played a hand in landing me in this time and place. Finding a ride for any famous distance race is never easy. This one was a particular challenge. After all, from my perspective, this race isn’t just out of town or out of state; it takes place on a whole other continent. It took a lot of people. So I develop my list and I visualize their faces in my mind’s eye and to each, I say, “Thanks for nothing. This sucks!”
The Bol d’Or Mirabaud captured my attention in the spring of 2006, when I received a press release from the race organizers and a photo-hundreds and hundreds of boats filling the viewfinder of some professional photographer.
But really, this race, which twice traverses the length of Lake Geneva-or as the locals know it, Lac Leman-has been my destiny since birth. I was born a mile or so from the lakeshore and lived there until I turned five. Given how much of the years since I have been spent sailing, it seemed inevitable that I would sail the race at some point.
When it comes to getting a ride, however, inevitability isn’t much of a booking agent. So I called my uncle. He’s not an active sailor, but at least he lives in the right country. He’s also retired and was eager to take up my cause. He called my cousin, who lives in the Swiss alps. She knew a couple that sailed quite a bit before moving to the mountains. They had a friend who often did the race. He didn’t have any room, but his cousin had a boat, a firm grasp of the English language-my French is poor at best-and most importantly, the willingness to take on, site unseen, a foreign journalist.
Standing a shade over 6 feet tall with bright red hair and an ample girth, Dr. Patrick Meredith doesn’t look like a typical Swiss. He’s not, he tells me. His grandfather was South African, was injured during the First World War, and recuperated in a hospital not far from the lake. There he met Meredith’s grandmother. Meredith himself has spent time in Great Britain and elsewhere. But he’s settled here, not far from Geneva and has managed more than two dozen times to sail across the starting line for the Bol d’Or.
Two and a half days before the race, we meet at the marina where he keeps his boat, a 30-foot wooden sloop called Tamara. The design is a larger version of the Toucan, a sleek daysailor that was the hot boat on Lake Geneva a few decades ago-it took line honors, and the Bol d’Or, each year from 1971 to 1978-and is still quite popular. This design didn’t quite catch on, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of grace. It is every inch a Lake Geneva boat, with a flush deck, a cramped rear cabin, a towering rig, and twin trapeze wires on either side. Sailing in Lake Geneva’s predominantly light air has fostered a love of excess sail area. Tamara was one step along the path to the lake’s current rocketships-the Psaros 40 monohulls, which augment a canting keel with numerous trapezes, and the ultralight Decision 35 catamarans.
After a quick tour of the boat, Patrick pours a dram of whiskey into a slim pewter shot glass. He doesn’t race often, and when he does, he doesn’t set his sights much beyond having fun.
Saturday morning we meet at 7 a.m. After a short breakfast, our crew of six hops on board Tamara, fires up the engine, and casts off. It’s peaceful on the lake, there’s no wind-though some is forecasted to fill.
The trip to the starting line is a rapid descent into bedlam. There are 500 or so boats milling around in the nonexistent breeze like a pile of crabs at the bottom of a bait bag. Law and order? The closest thing is a crew wearing oversized foam policeman caps and meting out justice with water guns.
Apparently, it used to be a lot worse. For many years, the Bol d’Or, which has had more than 600 entrants, set one long starting line, a complete free-for-all that the Swiss sailors attacked with uncharacteristic aggression. With ultra-light, over-canvassed catamarans capable of 30 knots or more, and plenty of old keelboats that sail one race a year, it was a recipe for disaster. So the race committee now divides the main starting line into four parts, and sets a fifth line, just slightly ahead of the main one, for the multihulls.
Still, with the wind just beginning to fill, there is only so much that can be done. We bounce off a boat to starboard, then another to port, yell at a few others, and miraculously pop out with a front row start. We work toward the western shore and catch the first bits of a building westerly breeze with a gigantic Code Zero. Soon we pop the spinnaker-another monster-and we’re off. I take a moment to marvel at all the boats in our wake; there must be 400 or more, an entire summer’s worth of vanquished competition in one glance.
After a few hours I get a turn on the helm. We’re smack in the middle of the lake, with a fresh breeze right at our backs, the sun warming our shoulders, and the speedo occasionally tickling 9 knots. This is what I came for, and it is every bit as good as I imagined. I allow myself to think when we might finish should this keep up.
Of course, therein lies the problem. The wind on Lake Geneva rarely keeps up. By mid-afternoon, it’s on the nose and it’s dying. We need to get closer to a shore, says my host. The Swiss shore has lower hills and generally more consistent breeze, while the French shore offers a shorter path to the only turning mark of the course, a buoy not far from where the Rhone River empties into the lake.
We aim toward the former, and are soon regretting the decision.
At least I’m regretting the decision. While I’m taking transits on the boats on the opposite shore and trying to determine whether they’re moving, the rest of the crew is catching up-Patrick’s daughter Valerie is with the Red Cross and rarely home.
As it turns out, this sort of thing happens nearly every year. Douglas Mowat, an ex-pat Scottish chemist who has done the race 18 times, recalls the time they crossed the starting line four times one Saturday morning. “We celebrated the fourth, at noon, with champagne,” he says with a laugh. There have been knockdowns in lake squalls and too many becalmed moments to remember. One annual tradition for the crew of Tamara is to make Saturday evening reservations for fillet perch, at a restaurant in Yvoire, France. If the mighty Tamara hasn’t made it past this point by sunset, it’s off to dinner.
There has also been some thrilling sailing. One year, they did the return leg from Le Bouveret to Geneva in less than four hours. “That was incredible,” says Patrick. “That’s what makes you come back.”
It’s early evening by the time we inch around the two-story lake boat that is anchored off Le Bouveret, and packed with VIPs enjoying a tantalizing barbeque. We are far from alone. It seems like half the fleet-the slow half, to be sure-is rounding with us. A four-hour return trip would have us at the club before midnight. But that’s not going to happen. The wind is behind us, but it’s light. We toast the accomplishment with champagne and some hors d’oeuvres and then set the spinnaker. Once again we have a choice. We aim for the Swiss shore and a few boats follow suit. Most, however, seem content to hug the French shore, hoping for an evening downdraft.
The wind moves forward during the night, forcing us to drop the spinnaker and go to a genoa. At times there’s enough breeze to go out on the trapeze, something I haven’t done before in the dark. I stretch out, put my hands behind my head, look up at the stars, and listen to the water running past the hull. Like the start, it’s a moment I will savor. Dawn finds us a few hours from the finish and surrounded by slower, smaller boats. I scan for the boats with whom we parted ways at sundown. There’s no sign of them, they must’ve found the downdrafts they were searching for and have probably finished. I do, however, find the boat that spent the prestart wearing the foam hats and brandishing squirt guns.
We finish a few minutes after 9 a.m., 24 hours to sail, as the crow flies, 93 nautical miles. I try not to calculate our average speed in my head and fail. It’s less than 4 knots. Ugh. The lake behind us is all but empty, a few stragglers still to finish. We douse the sails, turn on the engine, and head for port. On the way back I take stock of the experience and, despite our miserable result, my mood brightens. It may not have turned out exactly the way I’d hoped, but how many distance races do? I think again of all the people who played a hand in helping me realize a dream and I unequivocally retract what I said 12 hours earlier. This was pretty darn great.
Moments before we turn into the harbor, the lake offers up a final farewell present: a line of spinnakers on the horizon, stretching from shore to shore. I guess that French shore never did pan out.