As the multihull fleet was attacking its second low since Monday's start of The Transat, wind speed has reached more than 45 knots (force 10) and seas have been very rough indeed, with squalls and driving rain. Visibility is severely reduced too with the exception of a pale light from a full moon. Fred Le Peutrec had reefed his main and had a small jib up front, ready to change tack in a wind which was veering from SW to WNW with the cold front. That was when the upper part of his Solent jib (usually used in 15-18 knot winds, force 4) unfurled without any forewarning. Strong gusts caused a pocket to form putting the boat in danger as she was immediately highly over-canvassed. Capsize becomes a real risk when that happens. In the last Route du Rhum 2002, Philippe Monnet turned turtle when the very same thing happened.
Not only did Fred have to demonstrate a great deal of courage but an enormous amount of energy to put the head sail back in place as buckets of icy-cold green water were crashing down on deck in freeing wind. Six hours later, Fred Le Peutrec had finally managed to furl the sail and get underway bound for Newfoundland. Gitana 11 had lost ground but Fred had managed to keep the damage to a minimum, to a loss of roughly thirty miles on the leader. The trimaran should have made it to the other side of the virtual half-way mark (1 400 miles) by the end of the day after just four days and a few hours !
The single-handers are currently making way in a steady westerly blow which should gradually lighten throughout the course of the day as a new low makes its way in for the week-end. At lunch time today, Friday, Gitana 11 was some 700 miles from the southern tip of Nwefoundland (52°N). Temperatures are very cold as Fred approaches the Labrador current which flows down from Greenland skimming past the ice floes which have parted company from the pack ice. There are lots of icebergs due west of Newfoundland which the soloists should be seeing tomorrow evening…
In any event, The Transat 2004 is shaping up to be nothing like any of its eleven predecessors. The high pressure system to start with on the near Atlantic followed by a series of lows coming form Newfoundland with a NE path has forced the race fleet to sail in extremely high latitudes indeed, most of the fleet sailing as far as 54°N at one point or another, 150 miles above the direct course (aka the orthodromic route). As a rule, this route is seldom opted for (except for Joyon in 1996) as it is rare for the boats to be able to get round the perturbations by the north. This time however, the fact that they had to lengthen their stride from the word go meant that the multihulls have crossed half the North Atlantic on a single tack ! At that rate, the first multihulls should be into Boston by 9th June, after just a little more than 8 days at sea… the reference time for the race being that set by Francis Joyon in the last edition in 2000 : 9 days 23 hours !
Gitana's base in La Trinité sur Mer
Meanwhile, back at the Gitana Team base in La Trinité, the shore team has been concentrating all its energies on the two top priority missions of the moment – routing Fred and getting Gitana X back into fighting form. On standby round the clock, Marc Guessard and Yann Guichard, Marc Guillemot's router, have stayed behind in the Team's offices with their computers to lend Fred a helping hand, taking turns to analyse the information by phone or e-mail sent by Sylvain Mondon of Météo France. Information and precious advice for single-handed sailors racing, but which cannot replace the yachtsman's instinct and the observations made by the skipper who is at the heart of the action.
As for Gitana X, there are sighs of relief all round. It has been possible to adapt Bonduelle's dagger board to the casing on Gitana X, at the cost of three days hard grind for Laurent, William, Jean Pierre and Léo. The boat is now ready to be put back into the water and set out on her delivery passage – planned for 18th June – bound straight for Québec. Two days later, Gitana 11 should be leaving Boston for the same destination. Both of the Gitana Team's trimarans should be in Québec at the same time.