(Le Havre, France)- Sailing on the northern coastline of France can be an experience many never forget, especially with famously powerful Lows rolling in off the chilly North Sea and slamming the western European coastline with gale force winds and massive 10-15 foot waves smashing into the beaches. Toss in 20 ft plus tidal range and massive amounts of current across the race courses and the conditions can truly be described as challenging. This year's Normandy Sailing Week participants had the best of all worlds, sunny skies for most of the event with NE winds in the 15-25 kts range with enormous seas topped by breaking white caps every single day.
The J/111's sailing their first European Championships saw some epic downwind surfing and planing conditions, much to the delight of the sailors. So did the J/80s racing in their last regatta before the start of the J/80 Worlds in Marseille, France. And, the lone J/133 sailing in IRC 1 Class also reveled in the condition.
The J/111s saw great competition over the course of the four days of sailing. In the end, the experienced offshore veterans from The Netherlands, John Van der Starre and Robin Verhoef sailing XCENTRIC RIPPER, were crowned the first J/111 European Champions! They sailed a solid series, starting strongly by leading the first day and placing all top three finishes for a 1-2-2-1-2-3-1-1-3 record and 16 pts net overall. The battle for the balance of the podium was fought between two champion English teams, SHMOKIN JOE and JEEZ LOUISE. Sailing fast and smart were Duncan McDonald's team on SHMOKIN JOE, posting a 2-1-4-2-1-4-3-1-1 for 19 net pts to nip their Solent friends for second overall. Taking the bronze was James Arnell's JEEZ LOUISE with a steady 3-3-1-4-1-2-2-2-2 for 20 net pts. Rounding out the top five places were David & Kirsty Apthorp's J-DREAM in 4th and Richard Barnes's BIELA MUNKENBECK in 5th.
The thirty J/80s sailing in the fourth part of their J/80 French Cup Series saw the two leaders run away with the series. With many of the top teams practicing for the J/80 Worlds in Marseilles, France in July, this event was going to be a good test for how well the various team's preparations were going. There was no question the J/80s loved the fast and furious pace of the sailing with prolonged surfs and planes in the big breeze. The conditions also may have had an impact on the outcome of the top five as many of the familiar faces on the French J/80 circuit were eclipsed by some newcomers-- some very experienced "newbies" at that! Winning the event with a clear demonstration of speed, boat-handling and smart sailing was Romain Bethune sailing MATCH THE WORLD. Starting out by winning the first four races in a row, they never relinquished their lead after the first day of racing. MATCH THE WORLD's record of 1-1-1-1-3-4-2-1 for 14 pts net was good enough to take the gold and win by five points. Second overall was a "new girl on the block", Maxime Mesnil sailing MANCHE BASSE NORMANDIE to a very strong 3-2-2-2-1-1-5-3 scoreline for 19 pts net! Third was yet another class newcomer, Alexis Henri sailing VADK ONE, coming on strong in the end to beat out current European J/80 Champion Eric Brezellec skippering INTERFACE CONCEPT on a tie-breaker at 36 pts apiece! Fifth was Frederic Hauville from the French Naval Academy, sailing ECOLE NAVALE CG29 to a solid series with most finishes in the five!
Finally, in IRC 1 Class, the J/133 PINTIA sailed by Gilles Fournier reveled in the big breeze and waves and sailed a beautiful series. Even with the fantastic record of 2-1-2-1-1-1-2-3, they lost the tie-breaker for the win at 10 pts based on who beat who the last race because of identical records! Unfortunately, PINTIA won on the water never finishing less than 3rd, in fact dropping their 3rd place while her competitor dropped an OCS!
To give you a better idea of the sailing conditions and the competition for the first J/111 Europeans, we received an excellent report from John Van de Starre, skipper of the winning team sailing XCENTRIC RIPPER. Said John, "At the end of the our 2012 sailing season we started to plan our races for the coming year. We heard in October 2012 that a European Circuit J/111 would be organized this year with the Europeans to be sailed during Normandy Sailing Week. After our successes in IRC last year and the pleasant experience of one-design racing during Spi Ouest 2012, our team unanimously decided to go for this one-design circuit with the main goal as winning the Europeans. So, in 2012 we ordered a J/111 Class Main at North Sails, which is slightly larger than our IRC optimized mainsail, and we sailed the 2nd part of the 2013 winter series of Grevelingencup with this Class Main. After winning the Grevelingen Cup we quickly put that main back into the bag again to save it for the Europeans.
Normandy Week is sailed at the end of the Seine River near Le Havre, so current is a very important factor in local tactics. Early on, current maps and information were gathered to be well prepared. Even some famous Belgian Laser sailors with local knowledge got us some extra info.
Composing the right crew was not an easy job for us. In IRC we normally sail with eight men, but as the J/111 Class Rules state that the joint crew weight may not be more than 650kg we have a problem. With the average stature of a Xcentric Ripper crew member coming near a healthy viking, our only option is to sail with only 7 men. This naturally gives some disadvantage in handling and in addition you have only 5 man in the rail next to the mainsail trimmer and helmsman in the cockpit. In particular, when there is strong wind this is a disadvantage. How we solved this problem I will tell you later on.
The positions of the crew did not seem optimal, normally Berend Jan Edens is helmsman and with myself as tactician/navigator, this works the best for us. Because Berend Jan could not sail this event, I slid into the helmsman spot. Since it's important to have an experienced tactician with good knowledge of boat-on-boat tactics, we chose Richard van Rij, a former crew member on our J/109 and is a top Dragon class sailor. He was very enthusiastic for this adventure, sailing with us during the Grevelingen Cup for practice.
Eventually we came to the following optimal team: Robin Verhoef mainsail, Richard van Rij tactics/pit, George Etty genoa trim, Bart van Pelt genoa/spinnaker trim, Maarten Ruijtenberg pit/mast and Pascal van Doornmalen on the foredeck and myself on helm. So the team is ready, the boat prepared as good as possible, ready for the battle.
The J/111 Europeans were sailed over 4 days, twice north of the Seine River (Course Charlie) and twice right in front of the river (Course Bravo). The weather forecasts from Thursday till Sunday were for northeast winds between 15 and 25 knots, so perfect J/111 weather! Over 20 kts of breeze downwind means we can go planing very fast, sailing higher angles, and make big gains. Upwind in over 15 kts of wind you have to hike seriously, everybody as far out as possible to get as much sail power as possible. However, we initially had the disadvantage of only five men in the rail. Then, at some point during the pre-race preparations we saw an M34 with only the helmsman in the cockpit and the rest of the crew in full hike. That’s it! So, we decided we would also go in 'solo’ mode. Shorthanded, I always sail with the fine tuning of the mainsheet in my hand, so we tried and copied it. After the start or after a tack, Robin trimmed the mainsail as quick as possible in the optimal mode, then gave the fine tuning to me and ran with his 100kg to the rail. That adjustment seemed to add about 0.15 kts increase in speed and I'm sure this played an important role in the final victory. Upwind with all that added power, we were one of the fastest boats and our tactical game became much easier too.
Thursday we had three races. In the first race, we had a clean start, a couple of good tacks and were first around the top mark. Downwind we found it difficult to keep up, especially “Shmokin Joe”, so far the strongest English boat with many victories-- goes like hell and is able to sail much faster than us and passes us downwind. Also, “Jeez Louise” is very fast, the Englishmen clearly have more power and speed downwind. Only our handling appears to be a little better at the bottom mark and eventually we managed to get closer. Again, we rounded first at the top mark. This time, on the second downwind leg we sailed more aggressively, and managed to just beat Shmokin Joe to finished first. What a battle, we really have to go all the way every second, otherwise we will not manage. That day we managed to get a 1-2-2 with Shmokin Joe getting a 2-1-4 and Jeez Louise a 3-3-1. After one day we are 2 points ahead of our nearest competitors. A good position, much nicer than we could ever imagine!
Friday there were three more races on Course Charlie, right at the end of the Seine. With the NE wind, predicted between 15 and 22 kts, you can sail in the lee of the city of Le Havre and the coast. The wind is very shifty and therefore not easy. The night before Richard and I studied all the data and looked at all tactical possibilities. Around 1300 hrs there would be a change in current with an extra strong outflow of the Seine which would reach the competition area.
First start at 11.30, again two laps, still less wind, 12 knots just before the start. It appears the left side of the course is more favored than the right. So after the start we stay on starboard tack and go left for more wind. Our speed is good and we round the top mark just behind Shmokin Joe. With less wind there are no planing conditions and the slightly deeper sailing pays much better. Downwind we lose little and the next upwind we catch a few good shifts again and are 1st at the top mark. Last downwind we consolidate and wham another first place! Shmokin Joe is 2nd, J-Dream 3rd and Jeez Louise 4th-- this means we increase our overall lead.
Race 2, just before the start we see the strong river current coming in from the right, so after the start we tack immediately to the right. Looks like almost everyone else chooses more wind on the left side of the course and do not sail in our direction. The moment we are in the other current we tack and immediately take advantage of the incredible lift we get. With ease we go first around the top mark! Now we are going for the windy part and also become 1st at the bottom mark, on the second beat we managed to keep the profit but in the last downwind we loose. The Jeez Louise knows better how to hold the planing conditions and finishes just in front of us, a bit of a drag. Third race about the same, we are king upwind, and downwind sitting duck- 3rd place. I don’t like this at all! As helmsman I can’t get the boat downwind fast enough to beat those bloody Englishmen. We should really change something. Nevertheless after this day we still are in first position with 2 points leading, so everything is still possible.
For Saturday's racing we go back to Course Charlie. The predictions are for heavy wind. There's more wind predicted than previous days. Especially in the afternoon, it could really be violent. When we leave the dock and I look at our English competitors I see something in their eyes: today we are gonna get you! With us on board it is much quieter, will we be successful today? I hope this silence is because of increased focus .. In the team briefing after yesterday’s races, we have decided that today on downwind legs we only go on speed and pressure and not too much on depth. I realize that this will be the my main point, and therefore how we get through the day. Also we have discussed the boat-handling, especially the drops in high winds, everyone knows what to do.
Start of the first race, two laps, 20/22 kts wind, with three boats within 5 seconds to the top mark, now target on speed and pressure! Fortunately it works what we had planned. We accelerate much better by steering the boat very aggressive and with everyone who can, in full hike in the back of the boat and sailing at a higher wind angle. At the bottom mark we even gained something! Without too much interference from other boats but hard work by all of us and no risks we sail a very clean 1st place. Shmokin Joe we see behind us making a few mistakes, in the end they overstand the finish line under because of a bad gybe and had two more boats pass them before they can finish.
2nd race same story, again a clean one. This really gives a kick! When after this finish the committee decided to cancel all races for the remainder of the day due to the rapidly rising wind conditions. The team is in a great mood headed to shore. Today we really did it, the European Championships are close at hand! In the evening, after some calculations it shows that only the Jeez Louise can still threaten us if we would screw up tomorrow. So if we keep our heads clear and do no crazy things like black flags, OCS, not checking in/out, no spinnaker rips or shrimps, no man overboard, it could really work out for us! As a result, that night I sleep a bit restless ..
For Sunday's racing we're back on Course Bravo, sailing in the lee of Le Havre. Windy, gray and cold. We heard on the jetty that one of the crew of the Jeez Louise broke his collarbone last evening and when we leave the harbor we still see little activity with our competitor. Has he given up already? We previously calculated in what position we and Jeez Louise had to finish to win the event.
At the start, off course Jeez Louise is there and the fight begins. We start in the middle of the line, on time, but safely without risk. Left side of the course we did prefer due to current and more wind. Jeez Louise, immediately goes extreme right after the start into an all or nothing attempt to take the lead. Halfway through the beat, we are in second position behind Shmokin Joe and we cross just in front of Jeez Louise. We tack immediately above him, we put them in our dirty wind, they change tack again, we follow. So, we sail them back in the first beat to 6th place and we round 5th at the top mark. Downwind, as we discovered yesterday, we put the turbo on! When we enter the next beat, we see Jeez Louise still in 6th position, beautiful. That beat we win another place and go third, just behind number two for the second time around the top mark. Then I hear Maarten shout after the hoist: TEAR in the gennaker ! No please, not now, not this kind of problems just when we are winning! The genny probably got stuck on a genoa batten. After rapid communication and assessment, it turns a snag just before the leech about 15 cm, we decide to go on safely, do not let the gennaker collapse, gently jibing and pray. We put the A5 on deck just in case. We still manage to finish in 3rd position and see Jeez Louise coming in 5th. Tremendous happiness aboard! We have the cup! We are European champion! What a feast, the high fives and hugs are all over the place.
As a result, we do not have to sail the last. But, after consultation with the crew we decided to go for a last win. But then we all see how far we had to go these days, adrenaline is gone, that little extra power is not there anymore, no more extra in the hike, you are now different in your head, so this is really not working. When the wind further increases and it starts to become a demolition of boat and sails, we decided to bear away and return to the harbor. Job well done by the crew, time to preserve body, soul and sails!
What a great regatta this was, we did really great, everyone had their share in it, the team was fantastic-- Pascal (from Doornmalen) foredeck, Maarten (Ruijtenberg) pit/mast, Bart (van Pelt) gennaker, George (Etty) genoa, Robin (Verhoef) mainsail and Richard (van Rij) tactics / pit-- many thanks to all!" Thanks for this contribution from John van der Starre, skipper J/111 “Xcentric Ripper”. For more J/111 Europeans and J/80 Normandy Sailing Week information