Transat Jacques Vabre: Britannia Rules The Waves

A windy week finds British teams out front and others heading to port.

CANARY ISLANDS-The Transat Jacques Vabre is a French race, organized in the usual manner, which has attracted the cream of French short-handed sailors, but today the Union Jack flies proudly over the leaderboard in all three classes. After shaking off the terrors of the Bay of Biscay, the case-hardened Brits have decisively taken over the front-running to lead in both of the monohull classes, the 50s and the 60s, and more remarkably in the multihulls with Ellen MacArthur looking, at this stage in the race, remarkably good for the FICO-Lacoste Offshore Skippers Championship--a top three placing would be good enough.

The traverse of the Bay of Biscay was difficult in 30- to 40-knot winds, with boats broaching out of the race and leaving a trail of shredded spinnakers. Rudders were heavily loaded and the brand new trimaran, Sergio-Tacchini of Karine Fauconnier and Franck Proffit was the first terminal casualty. On the second day out from Le Havre, the crew ran into trouble.

They were in the bows, furling the gennaker, when a 40-knot gust hit, the boat luffed violently, cracking the bowsprit, which hit Karine on the head and holed the bow. It ripped the gennaker as well. Proffit managed to push the bowsprit back so the boat could continue downwind sailing, but then the gennaker unfurled at the top and the boat took off on a surf. Immediately Sergio-Tacchini stopped dead as the bows planted straight into the wave in front. The mainsail filled out suddenly as the boat stopped, jibed, and in doing so broke all the battens. Fauconnier and Proffit slowly made their way back to Port La Foret.

They were challenging for the lead at this time with the other new generation trimarans, Jean-Luc Nelias’ Belgacom and Loick Peyron’s Fujifilm, along with Jean le Cam in Bonduelle, but in what may be a race winning move (it was in the Volvo), Alain Gautier and Ellen MacArthur in Kingfisher-Foncia went farther west than the others as they approached the Canaries and the four-year-old boat went into a 10-mile lead.

Mike Golding and Marcus Hutchinson in Ecover (formerly Team Group 4) made this move much earlier. They had been on the right wing of the fleet from the time they left Le Havre and lately it has paid off handsomely. By midday today, they were 32 miles in front and had considerable boat speed advantage over old rivals, Roland Jourdain and Gael le Cleac’h in Sill Plein Fruit.

Hutchinson expressed some concern, however. "It’s complicated ahead," he said, "We’re wondering if we’ve gone too far west." His concern was that in the short term the weather might go against them, but added, "In three days we should be looking better."

No such need for optimism from Alex Bennett and Paul Larsen on the 50 foot One Dream, One Mission, formerly Pete Goss’s Aqua Quorum. They have a prodigious 65 mile lead in their class and have passed to the east of Madeira with 3,000 miles to go to the finish at Salvador da Bahia in Brazil.