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The Transat: Girl Racer


For boy racers, there are few more gripping experiences on the ocean wave than roaring along in an ORMA trimaran. 60ft long 60ft wide and with their towering 100ft tall wingmasts, these ocean dragsters are capable of sailing at 18 knots upwind, 30+ knots off the wind and are by far the fastest sailing boats of their size. Racing them single-handed without their normal 12 crew is one of the biggest challenges available in yachting.

Among the twelve brave ORMA 60 skippers taking the start line of The Transat on Monday, is a lone woman. Although this will be her first time in The Transat, Karine Fauconnier, 32, is no stranger to the race. Her father Yvon won it in 1984 aboard the 53ft long trimaran Umupro Jardin V and this year the Fauconnier family are celebrating the 20th anniversary of his win.

In 1984 the young Karine was in Newport for the finish of The Transat and helped her father deliver the boat up to Quebec for the start of the Quebec-St Malo race, standing watches despite being just 12 years old.

“It was really wet and really fast and really uncomfortable, but a good boat,” says Karine of her time on her father’s race winner. “Now it is still wet, still uncomfortable but it is faster. It is less wet at 20 knots than it was before. Then extreme high speed was 20-25 knots and it was really exciting. But now we can go at 35 knots and sometimes you don’t even notice it when you are only sailing at 20 knots.”

Sixty-foot trimarans such as Fauconnier’s Sergio Tacchini are terrifying boats to sail, particularly single-handed. “This boat doesn’t accept any mistakes,” says Fauconnier. “You cannot have too much sail. You cannot make a steering error. You cannot hit something at 25 knots. You can capsize and not come back like a monohull will with the keel. Anything can very quickly become a big problem.”

The skill in racing fast boats single-handed is a complex one. Firstly, skippers must find the correct level of compromise between driving themselves and the boat to the maximum, while maintaining the minimum of risk. Normally in a fully crewed race a boat is pushed to 100%. Single-handed the skipper has to find time to sleep, eat, drink, navigate, look at the weather forecast, communicate with the shore and a multitude of other tasks and whenever they focus on these rather than trimming or steering, the boat will not be sailing at the optimum. “When you are on your own you are tired and you have to rest,” says Fauconnier. “Sometimes you have to leave the boat on it’s own. So the most frustrating thing is you cannot drive it to the full potential.”

For example, on The Transat Fauconnier says that she will survive on two hours sleep each day, although admits four is better, but in a fleet of 12 competitive boats getting that extra two hours is certain to cost her places. While she will be verging on exhaustion, sleep will still be far from easy. Sixty foot trimarans are fast but exceptionally uncomfortable especially upwind in waves when their three hulls can be passing over wave peaks at different times and the whole structure feels like it is shaking itself apart.

There is also the ever present fear that if her autopilot fails while she is asleep her boat could go off course, pick up speed and capsize.

Her energy expenditure is also an issue. Sixty foot trimarans are highly complex boats with foils in their floats, trim tabs on their centreboards, wingmasts that rotate, cant and move fore and aft aside from their numerous sails. While it is possible to handle all this efficiently with a full crew it isn’t single-handed. Thus again Fauconnier must prioritise, manoeuvring her boat as quickly as she can on her own and in the fastest but most efficient manner. Sergio Tacchini has been tailored to her size, but she employs a host of techniques to conserve her energy. For example, if she anticipates the wind is going to increase to reduce sail earlier than later when the wind has built.

While Sergio Tacchini is competitive with a full crew how well Fauconnier is able to manage herself on board is likely to have a more profound affect on her result. She has sailed considerable miles single-handed both on Sergio Tacchini and in other classes such as the Beneteau Figaro one design and is well versed in the necessary techniques.

Fauconnier also holds the advantage over her competitors in the ORMA class that, like her father, she is sailing a British designed boat. In this case her boat is the only one in the fleet drawn by Nigel Irens who, with his colleague Benoit Cabaret, has designed every race winner in The Transat since 1988.

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This entry was posted on Friday, May 28th, 2004 at 12:15 pm and is filed under Main Stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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