At Les Voiles de St. Barth, Geography Plays a Part

Everyone can see the islands. It’s what the wind is doing behind them — in the shadow or “lee” of the land — and how each team reacts that can determine the winners at Les Voiles de St. Barth.

Most regatta racecourses are set on open water employing movable buoys — set in line with the wind — as their turning marks. These windward-leeward courses create tactically engaging racing that tests each team’s ability to sail fast at two wind angles: upwind‚ or into the wind, and downwind, or with the wind.

Les Voiles de St. Barth Richard Mille, which begins on Sunday off Saint Barthélemy, whose nicknames include St. Barth and St. Barts, in the Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles, instead leverages the island’s coastline, its numerous satellite islands and rock outcroppings, and a few buoys to create often serpentine courses for the competing 74 teams.

These courses often include reaching legs, where yachts sail roughly perpendicular to the wind.

“It’s unusual,” said Susan Glenny, skipper of Olympia’s Tigress, a Bénéteau First 40, about the regatta’s use of nearby islands and rocks, but not unique. Other races use geographical turning marks, she said, but Les Voiles often requires deeper experience.

“You need to have some navigational seamanship skills,” she said, pointing to the regatta’s often-challenging winds and seas. She described this race as the world’s best regatta, but said you couldn’t just put sailors accustomed to inshore windward-leeward racing on its courses.

St. Barts is about nine square miles, making it one of the Caribbean’s smaller islands. But, said Luc Poupon, the regatta’s co-founder and race director, St. Barts is fortunate to have 12 nearby islands that can be used to create 28 courses that vary in distance and scenery.

The trade winds, which typically blow 12 to 22 knots in April, reach the island’s eastern — or windward — shores first, with some north-south variance.

“One thing that makes the regatta great is how predictable the trade winds are,” said Jonathan McKee, a two-time Olympic medalist and the tactician aboard Fujin, a Bieker 53. But this isn’t to say that the wind blows evenly across a given course. “It’s not so much that the trade wind is changing direction, but it’s going around lots of rocks and islands,” he said.

The current, which generally pushes saltwater toward St. Barts from the east, is another factor. When the wind runs with the current, the seas usually flatten, making for fast and fun sailing. When the trade winds oscillate, the seas can build.

Geography, trade winds, and current can create tactically challenging lees. “The game is to avoid the light-air zones,” McKee said, adding that boats sometimes need to sail longer distances to maintain airflow over their sails.

“The islands have a unique role in the racecourse,” said Dave Welch, owner of Flash, an HH 66. “There are wind holes, shadows, and gusts off the hillsides. The anticipation of these elements makes for a more strategic racing strategy. It’s much more challenging than open-air racecourses,” in which air moves freely over the water, without influence from nearby land masses or rocks.

Stu Bannatyne, a four-time Volvo Ocean Race winner and previous class winner, described Les Voiles de St. Barth’s challenges as managing traffic, meaning looking after one’s racecourse position relative to the other yachts, navigating and anticipating the wind.

Racing yachts typically carry an inventory of sails. Each is designed and built for a specific range of wind angles and velocities. This allows crews to match the prevailing conditions. Hit this range squarely, and boats will perform well; sail outside this window, and performance will suffer.

Given that most of Les Voiles de St. Barth’s courses bend through every compass point as teams race around the islands, crews will see wind coming from all quarters during a typical race.

“You have to be good at transitions,” McKee said, referring to sail changes.

But changing sails can cost time and introduce unforced errors, especially if yachts are sailing into stiff headwinds and rough seas, so it’s critical for skippers and tacticians to nail their cost-benefit analyses.

Patrick LaRoche, the navigator aboard Triple Lindy, a Cookson 50, said that it’s fun to weigh the pros and cons of changing sails for different legs. “We have the sails for all angles, but sometimes it doesn’t pay to do all the work on each scenario, especially when things may go wrong,” he said.

This is particularly true if a leg only represents five or 10 minutes of sailing out of a three- to four-hour race.

“You need to make a call if it’s worth a few sail changes,” Bannatyne said. “There’s never one right way to do this.”

This is where experience, and the ability to foresee what’s happening in the lees and around bends, matters.

“You need to have a higher degree of meteorological-navigational awareness,” Glenny said. Racing at Les Voiles de St. Barth, she said, has “less to do with shifts and more to do with topography.”

Given St. Barts’s trade-wind conditions and that the race organizers post the next day’s course (or courses) each evening, preparation sometimes begins early.

“The cool thing about geography-based racecourses is that you can plan things out in advance,” McKee said, in regards to position and sail choice. “You can predict wind at the corners and make a game plan.”

There are also reefs and rocks.

“A couple of the islands and rocks are not quite accurately charted — or at all — so the challenge is to do your homework,” Bannatyne said.

While the regatta’s rules require yachts to round all course marks in certain directions (e.g., clockwise or counterclockwise), crews can sometimes cut corners to save distance. This typically works best where the land is lower and the lee is smaller. McKee said there was an art involved in knowing how much to cut a corner, and “a little luck.”

For example, LaRoche said that near Pointe Toiny, on the east-southeastern shoreline of St. Barts, boats can cut inside a rock that’s visible just below the surface. While he said this was common strategy, “it keeps me up at night.”

GPS-based chart-plotting technologies can help. “I also overlay our tracks from previous races to see where we have successfully not hit things,” LaRoche said.

While Les Voiles de St. Barth can test a team’s mettle, it can also test each sailor’s fitness, especially with numerous sail changes. “It can beat-up the crew quite quickly over the week,” LaRoche said. “You have to manage everyone’s energy and focus each day.”

The result is a day-sailing regatta that some veterans said was more reminiscent of the challenges of distance racing rather than those of a standard windward-leeward race.

But, given that Les Voiles de St. Barth unfurls off one of the Caribbean’s most exclusive and French-flavored islands, sailors can expect some upscale twists.

“For us, this is more of a compressed offshore race where you get to sleep in a nice villa every night instead of a hot bunk,” LaRoche said, referring to the practice of sailors rotating bunks with their off-watch shipmates during offshore races.

McKee said sailors were tired at the end of a day that typically involves six to seven hours of intense sailing.

But then, he said, “you’re in the pool at a spectacular villa, overlooking the sea, with a drink in hand.”

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