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Route du Rhum 2010

My Transatlantic Race, Route du Rhum 2010
by Etienne Giroire

Route du Rhum 2010 My boat is a 40' trimaran, designed by Walter Greene from Yarmouth, ME. She is a strong, swift and seaworthy vessel that served me well in the 1992 OSTAR/single handed transatlantic from Plymouth, England to Newport, R.I. sixteen days, six hours and 45minutes / this record still stands.

I have entered the French single handed transatlantic race Route du Rhum. I am the only American in the race and at age 56 one of the oldest competitors. My class is the Rhum category, the only Open class of the race, where monohulls race boat for boat with multihulls, without handicap, just like the first edition of the Route du Rhum in 1978, won by Canadian Mike Birch, on a 40' trimaran Olympus, 98 seconds ahead of a 70' monohull Kriter 5. This very close finish, after 23 days of racing, did a lot for the legend of the race.

The Route du Rhum starts from St Malo, on the northen coast of Brittany, in the Channel, and finishes at Pointe a Pitre, in Guadeloupe, French West Indies. In the last 2006 edition, the winner Lionel Lemonchois finished in 7 days 17 hours, with a 60' Trimaran Gitana 11 at the average speed of 20.2 knt!

My start was not very spectacular: I elected to stay behind the very large racing fleet (86 boats), away from potential hits and mishaps… After dropping my nephew Herve and John (Colligo Marine) on my assistance inflatable, I unfurl the screecher and bear away toward the starting line: I cross it on a very broad reach 4 mn late: I am with a bunch of Class 40. Ahead of us, the horizon is full of multicolored spinnakers, as the big boats are powering away to the Cap Frehel, where several thousands of spectators, inshore and on the water are watching the start of the 2010 Route du Rhum…. The 105' trimaran Groupama 3 is already leading the fleet. She will eventually win the race, nine days later.

We are very lucky: the wind is from the East, helping us out of the Channel, traditionnaly, late in the year, the wind is from the West and often strong, so this is a Godsend for us and the very large spectator fleet….

The wind is dying down, I remain becalmed for a while, then the wind is back from the other gybe: I hoist the spinnaker and power West: as I clear Cap Frehel, in front of dozens of spectator boats, the spinnaker down haul lets go! No problem, the ATN Spinnaker Sleeve does the job and controls the flapping spinnaker down. I then unfurl the screecher and full sails up, we all have a gorgeous afternoon / evening of sailing, as the sun is setting down over Brittany, I am slowly catching up to a bunch of boats, the helicopter from Sea Events buzzed around me and made some great images, zeroing on the only American Flag of the fleet.

It is night now, the weather remains great, not even cold! We are now sailing around Finistere, the western end of Brittany, entering the Bay of Biscay, the last hurdle before the big jump, the run down to Guadeloupe… I am easily adjusting on the single handed sailing mode: hot tea, fruits, catnap.

But you can only go so far with catnaps, after a couple of days, your body needs a longer rest: the deep sleep cycle, It is not possible to prevent it from happening, your body shuts down for a while, recovering, it is said that the minimum length for deep sleep cycle is 45mn, from which you cannot suddenly emerge: this means that numerous catnaps of 5mn / 15mn will push the need of a deep cycle sleep later, but never replace it. Hence the need of Radar + alarm, AES ( radar Identifying and recording) and transponders ( radar target enhancing ), and of course full navigation lights from sun down to sunrise to allow the skipper some sleep.

We are doing great: slowly catching up with more boats, mostly Class 40 ( the Class 40 is the most populated class in the Route du Rhum: 45, and since my boat is of the same length, we have a similar speed)… there are a lot of boats in the water, I am surrounded by mast head lights and remember several close night crossings….

Next day, beautiful beam reaching across the Bay of Biscay: It is a day of maximum awareness for we are crossing a very busy body of water: they are lot of ships in the navigation lines, the AES keeps on beeping, identifying ships when their radar sweep over me….

Formule Tag Capsized
Spirit of Antigua, ex-Formula Tag capsized
I see something floating ahead of me, on starboard. As I get closer, I recognize the twin hulls of a flipped catamaran! I immediately think of a Route du Rhum competitor, to whom I should lend assistance: I drop the mainsail as I get near the capsized boat, and instantly recognize it: this is Formula Tag! Or Spirit of Antigua as she is now called: I know the boat very well since I have sailed a full racing season ( 1984) with Mike Birch. Mike had already told me that she had capsized while on a delivery off Brittany!

I take a couple of pictures, hoist the mainsail back up and am on my way again... To see this great catamaran (110 x 45) flipped over took a great toll on me: I was shocked and it impressed me and made me doubt of all sailing decisions for the next days… a very uneasy feeling… it was very hard to shake off a feeling of doom.

And this is when the main halyard lets go! Just like in the 2005 Ostar! I cannot climb aloft then, it is way too wavy and bouncy. I decide to alter course to get to some protected water close to the Spanish coast: I get there at sun down, near the little Spanish harbor of Ribadao, the sea is calm, I quickly climb up with my Mastclimber, re-attach the deadend of the main halyard and immediately turn back. The wind disappear, and I remain becalmed for 3-4 hours, which I use to sleep deeply, and the wind comes back later that night from the West, in the nose! I tacked upwind all night, cursing my decision of altering course (if I had kept going after the main halyard broke, I'd have encountered light air anyway, closer to the Azores) and I lost a full day.

I clear Landsend next morning and I am not alone: a Class 40 Kogane is with me, trading tacks… around midday. I call Yvo, my loyal weather man and strategist: "Go for it Etienne, there is air all the way now!" Finally, I set the spinnaker and start the crossing, the big jump.

I am now in the southern route, around the southern edge of the Azores High: the risk remains however to be caught on the prevailing calms in my North. Not much air, but from the right quadrant, the weather is getting warmer, so is the water, the boat is flat, sliding easily: I fly the masthead spinnaker for several hours, dial down to the fractional spinnaker when needed, then screecher if the wind gets stronger or ahead: great reaching, the boat is flat, dry, all open, the solar panels are charging well, the autopilot does not strain, it is a pleasure to look at my boat slide effortlessly toward the setting sun… sometime, the wind pipes up, I remember some great ride at 20knts+, when it is better to steer: it is a pleasure to steer up, to get the wind just right, and when the boat starts to accelerate, bear away just so, to keep the apparent wind pumping, and multihulls love to create their own apparent wind! But ones need to steer for that: in flat water the properly trimmed boat will do okay, but as soon as the sea state changes, so does the tune, and to stay in the groove, it takes a careful helmsman…and even in high speed, my boat feels safe, very rarely burying the bows…. Every so often, the lee bow would bury a bit in the wave ahead of us as we are overtaking it, but it slides out with no hobby horsing, smoothly, safely.

Safety on a multihull is mostly about high buoyancy: my boat was designed 25 years ago, its amas (outside hulls) are displacing 150% of the total weight of the boat: if one ama is pushed all the way down flush with the sea, it would displace 4500 lb. This ratio was very modern at the time and allowed more sail area to be applied to the boat. Nowadays, a modern racing trimaran is designed with amas displacing up to 300% of its total weight, this means that its mainhull will come out of the water before the ama could be buried. Older trimaran or heavily loaded multihulls are unsafe for they are lacking this reserve of buoyancy and eventually tripping over their amas when pressed hard.

This is a very good part of the race: broad reaching with the prevailing winds, which farther south are stronger and are called the Trade Winds, and this should last until the Caribbean!

I have time to tune the sails, check for chafing, change halyards and sheets, work around the boat while she sails straight under autopilot, sleep a lot, cook and drink as needed, and I can leave clothing to dry outside as long as I attach them: my cockpit is surrounded by socks hanging in winch handles standing in winches... a happy sailor bumming around his buddy the boat, sharpening his weapon, grooming his favorite mount….

I receive emails at will: this allows me to know where my competition and how good they are doing, and I get lots of messages of good will from friends and family which boosts me nicely: The Facebook page that was set up by my nephew Herve is very active and gets lots of traffic.

We are 11 competitors in my Class: After a slow and hesitant beginning of the race, I am now catching up nicely: from 9th, I quickly become 8th when a 55 monohull (the only woman in my class) abandoned after a collision with a fishing boat, then 7th when the youngest competitor with a 39 monohull turned back to France with a leaky boat, then 6th when a 45 fast monohull stops in the Azores with autopilot problem, 5th for a while until a Open 50 Mondopticien overtakes me from the south: this a well known boat in America; 50 CCP CrayValley which skipped by JP Mouligne, won class 2 of the BOC in 1996…. This is a faster boat than my 40 trimaran, Open 50 usually do the Route du Rhum in 18-19 days, a boat like mine in 20-22 days, the best time ever for a boat of my kind is 19.5 days by Kriter 10 skipper American Jack Petith in 1982. I was planning on bettering this time.

Since the start, the Open 50 Vento di Sardina skipper Andrea Mura is leading on the Northern route, my friend Charlie Capelle with the 40 trimaran Acapella is following him, and Luc Coquelin Pour rire Medecin ketch Open 50 is 3rd on a median route. The third trimaran of my class Eurosanit skipped by JP Froc is 10th, on the same route but further south. The leader is now 170 miles ahead of me: I chose the option of the southern route because it is better suited for my boat, since it is mostly downwind and warmer weather too, it becomes evident toward the end of the race since the southerners are running with the trade wind, when the Northerners are beating against it, but for now, the Northerners are powering away from me on a shorter route….

The weather warms up every day, the water as well, it is now 75 / 80 Fahrenheit and I am south of the Azores, progressively entering the tropical part of the Atlantic Ocean… I am seeing every sunrise and sunset, hoping for the green flash. I sail through squalls every so often.

I am entering a cloud and the wind increases up to 25-30 knots, overcast and driving rain, which is great for showering: I usually drop the mainsail all the way down, and keep the working jib trimmed flat, ready to drop it if need be. The squall usually last 5-10 mins, and leaves behind a clean boat and skipper!

One night, I get caught in a squall with the screecher up: I drop the mainsail and bear away to diminish the apparent wind when the tack of the screecher rips away from its furling drum! The sail is now unfurlable and flaps violently, shaking the rigging! The only way is to bear way downwind, and do a water drop: meaning to drop the sail forward of the boat in the sea: it will act as a floating anchor and when the boat stops and starts spinning around it, I must get it on deck and secure it away. I execute the maneuver with no problem, hoist the working jib and get going again….

This is not good news: the screecher is a great, very polyvalent sail, this will slow me down until I fix it. It's not a small job, the tack of the sail is a very heavy reinforced corner, I have to use the electric drill to help the needle through and it is a slow job, but I am moving forward, stitch after stitch….

Next morning, the mainsail falls down unexpectedly: the dead end of the main halyard broke again: some recurrent chafe that I didn't catch last time and the halyard falls inside the mast! I must get to the masthead and lead a outside main halyard as soon as possible but it is now too wavy and bouncy, the weather calms down a bit, I dress myself with several thicknesses of clothing to prevent banging and climb up with my ATN Mastclimber: it is very very difficult, it is one of the most difficult thing I have done in my life (that and quit smoking): it takes me 45 mn to get to the masthead, holding the mast and the rig with all my strength when the boat swings aroung, climbing up when it is steady…. Once finally all the way up, as I reach back to get the halyard that I fastened to the chair, I realize that it has fallen in the shaky climb! Very very upsetting! I climb down, rest spread eagle on deck for some time, but I have to do what I have to do, so up I go again, 30mn later, I reach the masthead again, reattach the dead end of the main halyard, and finally climb down, reaching the deck exhausted and beat, but satisfied and very relieved. I can hoist my mainsail all the way up again, the boat is going again beautifully, close reach, 9-10 knts, I am catching the 40 trimaran Acapella, my friend Charlie Capelle who is on the Northern route and paying for it now, I should be 4th pretty soon.

It is a beautiful night, I am doing great, ready for the last stretch, the boat is in good shape, the screecher will be ready in a few hours, I feel ready for the finishing sprint: the last 3rd of the race is ahead, I fixed the main halyard, I went all the way up the rig twice, this is the Route du Rhum, I must keep on pushing the boat… the wind comes up a bit, I take one reef, dinner time, relax a bit, the wind seems to go on the increase a bit, I take a second reef in prevention because I feel like taking a nap: the night is clear, I go below to lay down a bit, to get a better rest than in the cockpit.

The motion of the boat accelerating woke me up: I was in a deep cycle of sleep. I hurried down the bed and just before I could step up through the companion way onto the cockpit, the boat rotated around me, barely stopping when the sails hit the water… I never fell and found myself standing water waist high, with everything falling around me, the boat suddenly stopped.

Now what?!

My first thought was for the ditch bag, which has all you need for survival: Iridium satellite phone, GPS, VHF, radar transponder… around me were floating all kind of bags, food, bottles, survival suit, the valise of the liferaft, fruits, I could only identify by touch, being in the dark… I gathered the ditch bag, survival suit, liferaft valise and opened the escape hatch to exit the upturned boat: I was still in a squall situation: 25-30 knts of wind, driving rain and choppy seas: I could not leave anything alone for fear of seeing it drift away rapidly: so I pulled the rope of the liferaft and it self inflated. I fastened it to the upturned boat on the net, I then had a place to rest and keep the bags I salvaged.

I dove back inside the boat a few times, but there was nothing there: the boat emptied itself very quickly, the only things left inside the boat were the floorboards hitting each others. When the trimaran in upside down, it acts like a membrane pumping on the sea surface, and when the escape hatch is open, allowing air in, whatever is inside the boat is expulsed outside very quickly, wave after wave.

I did feel very dumb and numb, upset of producing so much waste and slowly accepting the idea of abandoning my boat: I was 1350 miles away from the West Indies, too far away to organize a rescue operation.

The Route du Rhum race director, Jean Maurel, called me 45mn later:

"Etienne, where is your Epirb?" "Sorry, it is stuck behind the chart table, still wrapped in its original packing!" "The Cross called me one hour later: "We know where you are, we are looking for a boat to pick you up." The survival suit was keeping me dry and warm, I slept a bit, spoke on the phone and around noon, the Cross called me again, a boat 28 miles away is coming to your position at 22 knt, be ready to be picked up.

Route du Rhum Capsized One hour later, I see this huge square shape coming out of the horizon, in a squall: they contact me by VHF, "We don't see you, do you see us?" I guided them to me: I am downwind of you, 5 miles away”, they soon spot me, and slowly get around me, I drift onto them, the whole crew is on deck, taking pictures and lending a hand to the rescue, they throw me a line, I release the liferaft from my upturned trimaran and they hauled me all the way to the middle of the 600' ship to the pilot's ladder. I send my two bags up and climb up the ladder at 1445, then climb up the 6 flights of stairs to lead up to the bridge to meet and thank the captain: from the bridge you can see clearly the white halo of the trimmed sails through the sea under my yellow capsized trimaran. We then resume course at 1500, direction Pointe a Pitre which was my original destination: and I see my boat getting smaller in our wake, soon disappearing: bye bye / Up my Sleeve my yellow trimaran, my tool, my weapon, my toy, my buddy… a difficult moment.

The container ship is the CMA-CGM Fort St Georges, 200m long, crew of 28, Cdt. Angelo Bouyer. They treated me really well, like a favored guest. I lost everything, passport, credit card, phones… I only have a couple of T-shirts, shorts and shoes. For 2 1/2 days, I live like a guest: great food, easy company. I visit the ship, catch up with Emails…. I receive a great amount of touching messages from family and friends, try to answer them all, which is when the Facebook page, vas y Tonton, is very useful and really finds its justification.…

We reached Guadeloupe early Tuesday morning, at sunrise: it is always a great moment to see the Island emerge from the horizon after a crossing, and the switch from sea mode to land mode is always a bit odd after so many days at sea…. Once docked, the local TV station is there, waiting for me: first interview on the bridge with the Commandant, then I am being chauffeured around to the race office, then the police station for a declaration of loss of passport… back on land and its requirements!

One of the biggest differences between my Ostar 1992 and this Route du Rhum 2010 is the ability to talk to anyone, anytime, and the knowledge that the rest of the world knows where you are very precisely at any moment: this induces a feeling of security which made me take my guard down: In 1992, I was very aware of being alone, completely alone, I could only rely on myself in case of dismasting or capsizing, knowing that no one knew exactly where I was, so I was very cautious and sailing much more conservatively.

It useful to remember that my boat capsized in fair weather, it was not very stormy, although a 30 knots squall does qualify as a localized storm, what flipped my boat is the amount of sail area, I had 2 reefs in the mainsail + working jib / solent up: I was fine with 15-18 knots of wind, when it increased to 25 + knots, since I was on a close reach, the boat accelerated, its own speed added to the real wind, and very quickly I had 30 + knots on deck: the boat was overpowered and under autopilot, kept the same course, lifted the main hull, then tipped over. She was a swift boat, light with a large rig, I sailed faster than the wind often, but then again, this was the Route du Rhum, not a delivery.