Yesterday was the kick off of the Tour de France à la Voile 2003. After the previous day's Prologue, a tune up non-point scoring race, the 38 Mumm 30s were to line up for the first two inshore races off Dunkerque-Dunes de Flandres.
Today, the fleet departed for Dieppe, first stopover of this month-long sailing marathon along the French coastline.
The 26th edition of the Tour de France à la Voile will finish in Antibes on 28 July. The 2003 programme includes 11 offshore races and 23 inshore races. Altogether, the competitors will cover 1,005 miles in the Channel, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and visit 13 different French towns.
The Tour de France à la Voile has built up its reputation over the years as being a very demanding and high standard competition. This unique one-design European regatta mixing inshore and offshore racing requires a wide range of sailing skills. Therefore, the Tour de France à la Voile gather sailors with various backgrounds such as offshore racing, single-handed racing, Olympic racing and match-racing. Most of the big names of French and international yachting have sailed a few legs on the Tour de France à la Voile.
This very special event also gives the opportunity to student and amateur teams to compete against some of the best professional sailors. They all line up on the same start line and are ranked in the overall ranking. But on top of that, the amateurs and the students have their own division and ranking, which gives them extra motivation.
The Tour de France à la Voile 2003 is very promising and should once again produce exciting tight and fierce racing. Among the most serious contenders are the Italian killers of Joe Fly Sailing Team, skippered by Federico Michetti.
Vasco Vascotto and Flavio Favini are among the crew as well as America's Cup sailor Morgan Larson. Last year¹s winner Pierre-Loïck Berthet and his crew onboard Bouygues Telecom should also be a threat as well as Marc Audineau and Julien Farnarier's Ville d'Antibes NEC. Brittany's Jimmy Pahun, a familiar figure on the Tour de France à la Voile, is back once again onboard Région Ile de France. Former winner, Bernard Mallaret, co-skipper of Cap Sport, is also among those French sailors who are addicted to the event.
For the first time, there is an Australian entry. Southern Sun Team Australia, co-skippered by Michael Smith and Kirwan Robb, is a highly motivated team from Melbourne. Kirwan Robb was part of the student winning team Force EDC last year. The Aussies will have the experienced Brit Mike Broughton, who sailed on the Tour de France à la Voile before, to do the navigation and help them with tricky Brittany.
This year, there are 12 teams competing in student division. One of them is Southampton Institute-Alfa Laval and comes from the UK. Nantes-St-Nazaire, skippered by Adrien de Belloy is among the serious contenders and will have at some stage the help of former solo racer Bertrand De Broc and of Loïck Peyron, one of the most famous French sailors.
Among the 12 boats of the amateur division are some teams that have been on the Tour de France à la Voile for many years like the Belgian T-Service Interim Région de Bruxelles Capitale, the Swiss on Bienne Voile or the French CSC Essec and many others.
As always, the Tour de France à la Voile will be as lively ashore as at sea with the different Villages. The 'Animation Village' will provide many attractions for the public when the teams will have a chance to socialise at the 'Club des navigateurs' on the Official Village and at the Village Assistance where they all eat at night.
"The prologue was a good warm up,"
commented Pierre-Loïck Berthet, skipper of Bouygues Telecom, winner in 2002. "Though people did not push as hard as they would in a scoring point race, we have a fairly idea of some of the boats we will be fighting with like Ville d'Antibes-NEC, Région Ile de France or Joe Fly Sailing Team."</<br />
Michael Smith, manager of Southern Sun Team Australia, gave his perspective:
"Our aim with this campaign was to bring new young dinghy sailors and introduce them to a well organises keel boat event. We are a group of friends from the Royal Yacht Club of Victoria (Melbourne) who are used to sail together. The club, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year is giving us a lot of support. We hope to do well enough this year to be able to come back next year with a full sponsor."
Kirwan Robb, skipper of Southern Sun Team Australia added: "Yesterday with the prologue it was the first time we sailed against another Mumm 30 . We feel our boat is good and the whole crew is keen on doing well. It¹s hard to tell who will be the favourites. Our aim is to try finish in the top 10".