Sunday, January 13, 2008

Thank You, Francis

Francis Joyon is fun to watch.

There are some tremendous characters in the European shorthanded sailing scene, but only a few shine through vividly to me here in my outpost in California. Francis Joyon is one of those. Another is Ellen MacArthur, whose 71-day, solo circumnavigation took away from Joyon the around-the-world record that he appeared poised to recapture until incipient shroud failure threatened his mast.

Joyon may yet get his round-the-world record back, but there's no more breathing easy. The speeds he was making were dramatic enough. Now the drama has a new, darker face.

Ellen MacArthur I've met only once, but I was impressed that, up close, she is the genuine article, not the product of a PR machine. "Ellen," a one-word phenomenon in our world, has an uncanny knack for being the right thing and saying the right thing at the right moment, and I guess I don't have to remind you that the lady is good on a boat.

Francis Joyon I've never met, but even following him from half a world away, who could resist the man's underdog, underfunded performances. Holding the round-the-world solo record that Ellen took away. Setting a transatlantic solo record and then falling asleep, exhausted, and sailing the boat onto the bricks and losing it. Keeping his sponsor and going again in a new boat, this time, a bigger, more powerful IDEC and for the first time (for him) with shoreside weather routing. Not quite so underfunded anymore. And when he set out 52 days ago (where were you on November 23, and what have you been doing since?), Ellen predicted, "If he doesn't break the boat, he'll break the record."

Photo by JM Liot/DPPI/IDEC

Twenty days out, Joyon set a new, solo, 24-hour record of 616 miles that fell a month and change later to Thomas Coville and Sodeb'O at 619 miles, also 20 days out but only a few hours short of hitting something that opened up the crash box on the starboard float of Sodeb'O, forcing Coville out of his own record attempt and back to port.

It can be a challenge following these matters—Joyon's sponsor has no international ambitions, so they don't bother to offer an English language version of the web site—but it's well worthwhile. When Joyon discovered a rigging problem on IDEC, the odds shifted. He's on his way up the Atlantic now, clear of the doldrums on the final leg but with thousands of miles remaining.

Imagine. He can smell the barn, but the distance remaining is more than most sailors will ever cover in a single voyage.

Imagine. His shore team sent out the following statement. "Last night was a quiet one with no major incidents except a violent squall shaking IDEC about in the middle of the night."

Imagine, indeed.

An upper attachment for the starboard shroud was unscrewing itself little by little, until Joyon discovered it, and he does not have the tools for an ideal fix. "Merely" jury-rigging an interim fix left him exhausted from climbing the rig in difficult conditions, taking a body beating, and suffering an injured ankle. Let's let his people pick up the thread:

After spending 48 difficult hours getting out of the Doldrums, then having to deal with the starboard shroud fixation, Francis Joyon finally managed to take it a bit easier and get some rest, which was certainly something he required. With the trade wind strengthening, it is now the sea state, which is more 'aggressive' in the words of Francis Joyon, which will make the trimaran’s headway tougher, with some violent slamming into the swell, which is becoming increasingly high.

Then, there is the additional stress, knowing that his weakened mast is going to be put under more strain. There is no way for the moment he can carry out the 'strapping operation' around the damaged part at the start of this 52nd day at sea. There are now just over 2,500 nautical miles to cover.

'The wind was steadier during the night,' explained Francis, 'I managed to keep her going at an average of 16 or 17 knots, while getting a little rest.'

The shaft holding the starboard shroud in place was blocked with the meager means Francis had at his disposal on board IDEC. Following talks with the boat’s designers, Nigel Irens and Benoit Cabaret, and the sailmakers, Samuel and Dominique Marsaudon, one final attempt to secure the part is still possible. The idea is to wrap a belt around the mast, which would be strapped around the shroud fixation, limiting the strain on the spindle.

It is therefore planned once again to go back up the 32-metre mast. But certainly not in the conditions Francis is experiencing today. He will have to wait for calmer seas.


America's Cup legal teams return to court today in New York to ask again, how many angels can be impaled on the head of a pin. This is the clubhouse of the Supreme Court YC . . .

In merry England, meanwhile, the Collins Stewart London Boat Show proceeds with associated events I'm not accustomed to in staid American climes. A fashion show, for example, that appears out of season for London in January, but merry, so very . . .

And down toward Cape Horn, we have two boats around and in the Atlantic, homeward bound toward the finish of the Barcelona World Race, with three more still in the Southern Ocean and getting kicked around pretty fierce. Paprec-Virbac 2 is the runaway leader. Here are Damian Foxall and Jean-Pierre Dick as they rounded Cape Horn in the night . . .

The doublehanded Barcelona has not produced the excitement we might have hoped for, but don't kid yourself. For the people out there, the experience is about as humdrum as it was for the crew of Apollo 13 (people were taking space missions for granted, remember?) before things went wrong.

I repeat myself. Imagine—Kimball