I first started noticing them at the Charles de Gaulle airport and then again at the Gare Montparnasse. Onboard the TGV train cruising through the Loire Valley and enjoying a beautiful glass of Quincy sauvignon blanc that my handlers will likely not let me expense, I caught glimpses of them again. Gaggles and pods of collegiate sailors in matching Helly Hansen team vests or wearing heavy weather gear, head to toe, to lighten their luggage from the cruel airline baggage fees, and all headed to Les Sables d’Olonne.
“Centered on the harbor, a massive race village has been erected and supplies everything a college student could want: bungee jumping, mechanical bull riding, and the strategically stationed bubble machines and foosball tables (known in France as “Little Feet”).”
For seven days at the home of the Vendée Globe, 180 collegiate sailing teams and crews are competing on the dusty milk green waters of the Bay of Biscay for the annual EDHEC Sailing Cup in France. Fifteen hundred sailors from throughout Europe and North America, including the sailing teams of Drexel, Tufts, the University of Chicago, and the fourth ranked Georgetown Hoyas have descended on this tiny coastal village like some conquering Visigoth horde in 1980s style sunglasses and earbuds.
The EDHEC Sailing Cup is the largest collegiate sailing event in Europe and unique in that the regatta, which started in 1969, is completely organized, marketed, and executed by MBA students as part of their core curriculum. Bouncing between Les Sables d’Olonne, Brest, La Rochelle and Lorient on the western coast of France each year, the regatta is associated with the French Sailing Federation and is making a concerted effort to lure in more North American teams by partnering with the Storm Trysail Foundation and their Intercollegiate Offshore Regatta. It’s no easy or inexpensive feat: Tufts sailing coach Ken Legler estimates that, all told, it cost nearly $28,000 to field two seven member crews, all through private donations.
Sailing J/80, Grand Surprise, and Longtze One design classes, as well as a French handicap class, all between 8 to 16 meters, the regatta consists of daily buoy racing with a two-day offshore distance race to the island of Saint Denis d’Oleron.
Centered on the harbor, a massive race village has been erected and supplies everything a college student could want: bungee jumping, mechanical bull riding, and the strategically stationed bubble machines and foosball tables (known in France as “Little Feet”). It’s a true carnival type atmosphere with students sporting neon face paint and the periodic giant bear costume, but don’t let it all fool you: This is a very serious regatta. In partnership with the Intercollegiate Offshore Regatta, the overall winning crew is awarded a berth at the Larchmont YC event in October.
The connection to the Vendée Globe adds another level of excitement with reminders of the 2012 race throughout Les Sables d’Olonne. In a few late evening conversations at the local pubs, I’ve learned the beverage of choice for many of those solo sailors: Sir Robin Knox-Johnston apparently enjoys his Kilkenny beer when in town.
The weather so far has not cooperated, with the practice races cancelled Sunday due to heavy winds and the distance race cancelled due to too light winds. After one day of racing, Georgetown holds a strong 13th position and Tufts is at 17th in the 38-boat J/80 class. In the Grand Surprise class of 40 boats, Tufts second team holds 20th, and Drexel follows in 32nd. It’s early yet, though: five days of racing lay ahead.
In the meantime over in the international club in the village, Sara Makaretz who worked the jib yesterday on Tufts’ J/80 crew asked her coach for the day off to finish a paper due Wednesday, ” I needed the day off so I could work on my Sturge-Weber Syndrome caused by a sporadic mutation paper.” Outside the tent with its little porch and picket white fence, French sailing crews parade past enjoying their spring break here in Les Sables d’Olonnes.
To follow the teams and see more, check out the EDHEC Cup website.