Sail Racing - Transat & Yole
Position: 14:35.898N 61:04.154W
Date: Sunday 7th April 2013
We had found out that the reason for the waterfront being set up as a festival was that Fort de France was the finishing point for this year’s Transat. This is a single handed trans-Atlantic race from Brittany to Martinique. There were about 10 boats due to arrive over the next few hours/days, each a single design Figaro Beneteau II at just over 10 metres in length.
The winner was Erwan Tabarly (it’s that name again) and he sailed into the port at around 7:00 on Sunday morning. I am afraid that we were still sleeping and missed his arrival. He had covered 4,455 miles in 20 days, some achievement. However we were able to catch the second and third arrival, each being greeted by a small fleet of boats and much cheering and horn blasting from the anchorage and shore side.
Although there was a decent crowd to welcome the race winners it was apparent that a much larger crowd was forming at the other end of the anchorage, under the castle walls, some 300 or 400 metres away from us. Something was happening on the beach, but we weren’t quite sure what. We could see hundreds of people milling around with excited chatter, large lorries on the road next to the beach and some very bright fabrics waving from poles. Some of the anchored boats were being asked to move to clear a space in front of the beach, although there were still 30 or 40 boats in the anchorage, including us.
I decided to get in the dinghy and to go ashore to take a look, but I was less than half way to the beach before I was buzzed by several guys on jet skis talking vary quickly (and loudly) in French, which I could not fully understand but whose body language made it clear that I should go back to my boat.
I had barely climbed back on board before there was a horn blast from a conch shell ashore, loud cheers from the crowd and signs of frenetic activity on the beach; some sort of sailing race was underway. But this was unlike any race I had seen before.
The boats set off at speed and as I watched them I could see that rather than sail through the space cleared from them in front of the beach they were sailing frantically through the anchored boats.
And these were big, heavy, inherently unstable, wooden boats each with a large crew. One part of me could not believe the irresponsibility of what they were doing, the other part was exhilarated by the spectacle in front of me (and rapidly getting extremely close to me). The racing crews were equally hyped and fuelled their boats with a heady mix of adrenaline and testosterone and heaven knows what else. They passed very, very close to us:
In fact one of them passed a little too close. He tried to pass inches in front of our bow, but was hit by a gust just as he crossed us. As he took the force of the gust and leant over the top of his mast clipped our forestay about half way up. Fortunately his mast was a flexible bamboo pole and our forestay was cushioned by the jib wrapped around it and no damage was done (as far as I am aware!).
After about half an hour the boats returned, this time spread out by the rigours of the racing course. The weather was quite squally and the leader with a white sail was a good ten boat lengths in front of the next boat, with a red sail. White sail chose a route that passed too close to the walls of the fort and lost the wind, allowing red sail to romp past him to finish first. It really wasn’t white sail’s day as a squall then hit them just yards from the beach and they capsized.
This was the most exciting sailing race that I had ever seen, and our vantage point, being right in the middle of the start course, gave it an even sharper perspective. I felt quite sorry for the Transat competitors who had each accomplished amazing feats of seamanship; but their sport just couldn’t measure up to this other type of sailing as a spectator sport.
We subsequently found out the event was called Yole Racing and it is a major event in Martinique with regular meetings. It is semi-professional with the biggest teams having annual budgets of several hundred thousand dollars. The most successful skippers enjoy a kind of a rock star status on the island.
The Yole boats are open, round bottomed, wooden boats around 35-45 feet long with no weighted keel. They have no ballast and no fixed rudder. They are steered by a large sweep/oar that is handled by up to three crew at a time. They have lateen type rigs flying ridiculously oversized, spectacularly coloured, rectangular sails. The unsupported mast is made from bamboo spars re-enforced with fibreglass (or I believe sometimes with carbon fibre). They have around 15 crew and it is they that provide the necessary balance to the oversized sail by climbing out over the side of the boat on long poles that protrude from the hull. These can be shifted from port to starboard as the boat changes tack.
The whole arrangement is very unstable, which is one of the elements that makes the event so exciting. The crew have to respond quickly and as a team and if they get it wrong then the boat capsizes, and once this happens the boat cannot be righted again without external help. Those that we saw capsize were just towed back to the beach.
The start to each race is spectacular with a Le-Mans style sprint from the beach with additional helpers whose job it is to get the boat sailing as soon as possible.
After a suitable lunch break (this is French territory!) there was another race, but this time the sun shone throughout.