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Transat Québec Saint-Malo – Belugas in the mist
Transat Québec Saint-Malo – Belugas in the mist © Steve Deschenes

Transat Québec Saint-Malo

There’s a truly poetic quality to the Transat Québec Saint-Malo that garners precious little media attention. Fortunately, the sailors at the mercy of the river and her whims are there to remind us, recounting with starry eyes the magical experience of a misty sunrise, with barely any visibility ahead of the bow and navigating on their sense of hearing alone, the blow of beluga whales emerging amid the sounds of the fog horns.

Caught in a nightmarish trap of windless seas and a strong current since passing the island of l’Île aux Coudres, the four Multi50 yachts and 20 monohulls (19 Class40 boats and the 50-foot monohull Guadeloupe Dynamique) cross paths without seeing, their crews hearing one another without making sight, each blindly fighting a lonely battle, trimming their sails to the puffs of wind that breeze through, ready to drop anchor at any moment to avoid drifting backwards.

Such a common occurrence in this first leg of the Transat, this situation is expected to persist for much of the day, ahead of a forecast southwesterly flow that promises to see spinnakers flying as competitors make up for lost time, forging toward the first mark they are required to round at Rimouski.

Roucayrol and Bouchard blazing the trail
“I woke up surrounded by belugas!” said Louis Duc, who, like his fellow competitors in the Transat Québec Saint-Malo, was happy to enjoy a brief moment of quiet contemplation after the first day of the race. As the racers crossed the starting line—yesterday evening, French time—they faced conditions more akin to a Route du Rhum sendoff than a hot summer’s day in Quebec City.

Drizzle, a low cloud ceiling, and a brisk northeasterly 20 to 25-knot wind made for a very different backdrop than usual in the first few hours of the race. It was a fast start, with all the crews wanting to make the most of the conditions, well aware that by nightfall Quebec time, the wind would be deserting the St. Lawrence. Lalou Roucayrol, at the helm of his trimaran Arkema, took the bull by the horns and for a long time it seemed he would be able to sustain a lead. Sadly for him, the incessant tacking upwind toward the mouth of the river began to take its toll, with the easing winds helping Thierry Bouchard and Ciela Village to draw back alongisde. Caught out by the brutal switch in the flow of the current, Gilles Lamiré (French Tech Rennes Saint-Malo) and Pierre Antoine (Olmix) are working like mad barely 10 miles behind to avoid being overtaken by the pack.

Front-runners already emerging
The strong wind at the starting line helped the process of natural selection, with the key players in the Class40 battle emerging following the first twenty hours of the race. Phil Sharp (Imerys) admits he slaved away all night long and was happy to see he had secured a lead of nearly nine miles.

The British skipper and his crew members Adrien Hardy and Milan Kolacek can even take comfort in knowing they’ve left two of the Multi50 boats in their wake, in spite of the thick fog. Also pleased to have avoided getting stranded or drifting backwards in the current—so far at least—Thibaut Vauchel-Camus (Solidaire En Peloton – ARSEP) is still one of the front-runners, together with another Mach40, Eärendil skippered by Catherine Pourre, who had a fabulous start to the race.

Transat Québec Saint-Malo – Belugas in the mist

Day one action – Transat Québec Saint-Malo 2016 © Steve Deschenes

The rest of the fleet remains tightly packed, with the exception of the two daring boats Montres Michel Herbelin (Christophe Souchaud) and Sirius (Stéphane Bry), whose decision to sail to the north of Île aux Coudres went unrewarded. That same decision paid off, however, for young skipper Jules Bonnier (Cora Moustache Solidaire) who gained some solid ground overnight, working his way up to eighth position. The first mandatory mark at Rimouski is still more than 50 nautical miles away.

Here’s what the competitors had to say:

Stéphane Bry – Sirius
“Hi there, it’s been nothing but surprises here on the St. Lawrence. We got off to a flying start with more than 25 knots of wind, then it was dead calm for part of the night and we had to drop our anchor. It was a short night for all of us. And when we woke up, we were greeted by something we’d pretty much forgotten about—the fog! We’re going to try and stay close to our stablemates, but it seems we really don’t all have the same kinds of boats!”

Mikael Ryking – Talanta
“It’s always a little tenuous, the relationship we have with the St. Lawrence. So far, the river has only shown us a little bit of love, but a great deal of anger. 25 knots of wind at the starting line against four knots of current made for some pretty brutal chop. With the short cross-swell and current it was really wet and chaotic on board. We had a very bad start, but we quickly caught up wiith the fleet one boat after another. The conditions were fantastic around Quebec City until the wind and the current made our lives a misery. Then the wind died and the tide turned. Sudddenly it was all about not going backwards and lots of boats switched positions. But when the wind disappeared, the sun finally came out again for the first time in days. We had a superb dinner that really helped rekindle our love story with the river.”

Maxime Sorel – V and B
“It was a fantastic start to the race right in front of the Château Frontenac! We had a great day and managed to stay somewhere between second and fourth place. Then the wind dropped right off and pretty much died when the tide turned. That meant we had to drop anchor for ten minutes or so, since the boat was just going backwards! Then the wind fillled in again, but not from the south. Because of our position, we ended up sailing in lighter winds than our rivals, so we slipped down the rankings a lot. We’ve learned our lesson. Now we have to wait for the wind to return so we can get back on track. The St. Lawrence has lots of surprises in store and we haven’t seen the last of them. The boat is doing pretty well, and so are the crew. We’re sleep-deprived, though—none of us has slept for more than 15 minutes since the start of the race!”

Brieuc Maisonneuve – Ellipse
“What a phenomenal start to the race! Now it’s like we’re starting all over again at daybreak. Everything is calm. The start of the race was perfect, and we really had a blast here on the boat. Since then we’ve been working hard, trying to stay on the right tack and avoid getting caught in a lull too close to the cliffs. We hope we won’t have to drop anchor when the tide turns. We can hear the belugas and the cargo ship props turning.”

Louis Duc – Carac
“We intentionally took it steady at the start because we wanted to avoid going overboard with the ballast. Now we’re back in the game after clawing our way back overnight. We’re happy with our good timing in terms of the sails we rigged and when we rigged them. Now it’s Code Zero time and we’re waiting for the wind to fill in again. We’re ready for anything—gennaker, anchor, you name it! It’s pretty funny. We can’t see one another. We know our rivals are really close by, but we can’t see them. We always have one guy sleeping and one on deck. For the time being, I’m enjoying watching the belugas swim around our rudders. It seems they’re attracted by the dayglo colours.”

Karine Fauconnier – Arkema
“We’re really happy with the start we had. We got the timing right and crossed the line in the lead. It was pretty wet on deck, but the water was warm and it wasn’t salty, which makes a change! After the first few close reaches though, we had a technical issue with the mainsail halyard. Etienne Carra repaired it. We quickly switched from the mainsail to reef and staysail, to full sail, then alternating foresails. Ciela Village has really caught up. She’s close by, somewhere in the mist. We’re listening to the blowing of the beluga whales as we wait for the southwesterly wind to fill in.”

by Marie-Michelle Gagné

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