<I>"It's the windiest race we've done since last year's Rolex Sydney Hobart Race,"</I> said Neville CRICHTON, having just steered his Maxi Alfa Romeo to line honours victory in the first race of the Giraglia Rolex Cup in St-Tropez yesterday.
Saturday had been a picture postcard day on the French Riviera, with beautiful blue skies and 5 or 6 knots of breeze. This morning dawned to very similar conditions, warm and windless - perfect for sunbathers perhaps - but hardly the stuff to get a sailor's pulse racing.
After a brief postponement, the 184-boat fleet headed out into a still windless bay in readiness for the start. It looked like wishful thinking by the race committee to imagine that a race could possibly take place at all, but within minutes the wind materialised and the Maxi yacht fleet were soon racing in 15 knots. The weather in this part of the Mediterranean is notorious for its unpredictability, however, and by the time the fleet was rounding the first windward mark the breeze had piped up to 35 knots, gusting 40. For some, it was time to run for home before any serious damage was done. For others the hard work had only just begun.
Alfa Romeo, at 90-feet long the fastest boat in the fleet, loaded up her water ballast tanks and soon started to power away from closest rivals, Raffaele RAIOLA'S blue Maxi Idea SAI, and Charles DUNSTONE'S Nokia Enigma. Crichton was one of many sailors to admit he had been caught out by the sudden and severe increase in wind. "We blew out two of our light wind spinnakers today. We probably shouldn't have run them but we had to if we wanted to stay in the race."
But the bigger error came when the New Zealand boat missed a mark of the course. "We had to go back,"
said Crichton. "We were running by it at about 20 knots and had to jack around and get back up to weather to go round the right side out of it. I'd guess we lost at least 15 minutes doing that, so that will have hurt us badly on handicap."
But for Crichton his main goal this week is to break the course record that he set last year for the 243-mile offshore classic from St-Tropez to Genoa. That race begins on Wednesday.
He knows that he and his team will have to be at the top of their game to better the 2003 time of 22h 13' 48". "We'd like to beat our record, that's what we're here for, although we won't do it if we sail the way we did today. But then that's the first heavy air race the boat's done since the Rolex Sydney Hobart, and it's the first time we've had to put a reef in. If we get the right wind, the record should be possible. We're lighter than we were last year, and the boat's going well."
With Alfa Romeo's unexpected excursion, Idea SAI finished close on the heels of the leader. America's Cup veteran Tommaso Chieffi was calling tactics on board the Italian Maxi. "It was a windy day and an exciting day at times."
He too was surprised by the severity of the wind. "We wanted to reef but we weren't prepared for it. We had no reefing lines. We were expecting just 5 to 10 knots. But we sailed well and we think we did fairly well on corrected time."
In fact they were later to discover that they had won the big boat division on corrected time, almost two minutes ahead of Nokia Enigma.
But the story wasn't quite that simple, because no sooner had Idea's afterguard stepped ashore than Alfa Romeo's tactician Michael COXON was questioning them about the course they had sailed. "We think you sailed the wrong side of mark 9,"
said Coxon, referring to the mark that Alfa herself had so nearly missed. The dispute has subsequently gone to a protest, although Chieffi believed the situation was not quite so cut and dried as their Kiwi rivals believed. "There was an amendment to the sailing instructions that could be interpreted either way,"
"Exhilarating, great sailing,"
was how Charles Dunstone summed up his day at sea. He had just crossed the line in third place, with his Maxi-sled Nokia Enigma having sailed the correct course, so like Coxon he was keen to see justice done in the protest room. Following close behind Idea, Dunstone said: "We had to do a difficult gybe inshore, in less breeze. They sailed out to sea where there was more breeze. We were nearly broaching to get down to the next mark. Missing the mark was certainly an advantage for Idea."
Nokia Enigma now has a sistership in the form of Black Dragon, the Reichel/Pugh 77 formerly known as Pegasus. But Black Dragon was another to fall foul of the elusive mark 9, and they also found themselves subject to protest. "It seems there was a mark we should have left to starboard,"
admitted a baffled Jesper RADICH, the Danish match racing star who is calling tactics for Black Dragon. It will be a huge disappointment if they are disqualified from the race, as they were pleased to have come through such testing conditions. "It was pretty tough because we've never raced in more than 15 knots of breeze and today we had 35,"
But Dunstone was predicting that many in the fleet would suffer from the amended sailing instruction. "We looked behind us and could see many boats missing out the mark, so we'll have to see what happens."
As it was, the strong winds took a heavy toll on the fleet, with more than 50 boats retiring for safety reasons or because of damage to equipment. While no masts were broken, a number of spinnaker poles snapped and many sails were shredded beyond repair. As the afternoon drew to a close, however, the strong winds started to evaporate and the slower boats in the Giraglia Rolex armada found themselves struggling to cross the line, not for too much wind but for a lack of it.
With protests yet to be heard, the outcome of the big boats remained uncertain, with Idea's race win hanging in the balance. But in the smaller classes it was Alberto Musso's X-119 Jaro VI that took victory on corrected time in today's epic race.
Inshore racing off St-Tropez continues today and Tuesday, with the long offshore race to Genoa due to begin on Wednesday 16 June. Full results are available on the event website at the address below.