Outside Online Archives

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Courtesy of The Race

By Tim Zimmermann

Sixty-two days, 6 hours, 56 minutes. That's how long it took Club Med to sail from Barcelona to Marseilles and win The Race, circling the world and crossing the Southern Ocean in between. Along the way, the 110-foot catamaran with the blue hulls and mermaids on her bows sailed 27,408 miles at an average speed of 18.3 knots, making her the fastest ocean-racing sailboat—no need for qualifiers—ever.

"It's great to be here in Marseilles and we've annihilated the opposition," skipper Grant Dalton exulted as Club Med was greeted at the finish Saturday night by 15,000 cheering fans and a flotilla of 400 boats that threatened to incinerate the Old Port with a steady drizzle of blazing red parachute flares.

"Annihilation" is hardly too strong. When Club Med sailed across the finish at 20-plus knots, she had led The Race for more than 15,000 sailing miles. Her nearest pursuer, Innovation Explorer, was hundreds of miles from entering the Mediterranean and two days behind. The rest of the fleet—including Team Adventure, which had battled Club Med bow for bow in the initial descent to the Southern Ocean until skipper Cam Lewis pushed too hard to keep up and broke the boat—was more than 5,000 miles and an ocean away.

From the comfort and safety of shore, Club Med's victory seemed almost effortless—an homage to diligent preparation, an abundance of globe-girdling experience, and near-flawless tactics and routing. But as the crew slept off their hangovers Sunday, the light of day revealed a battered boat that was kept racing at high speed thanks to a lot of creative repair. At least a half dozen padeyes (metal fittings used to anchor rigging and rated to 30 tons or more) had been ripped from the boat's carbon fiber skin or fractured, requiring makeshift replacement strops made from spare synthetic fiber lines. A thru-hull valve used to siphon water into ballast tanks in bad weather had cracked in the Southern Ocean, threatening to flood the boat until the gusher was stanched by gobs of epoxy and bandages from the medical kit. A brutal upwind pounding on the last leg in the South Atlantic had started to fracture both hulls where they connected to the main beam. That sort of structural problem might have meant a stop earlier in The Race. But with only 5,000 miles to victory, the crew scavenged a number of carbon fiber plates from the watertight bulkheads inside the hulls and over two days used bolts, epoxy and prayer to splint the fractures so Club Med could press on. By the end of The Race Club Med's onboard repair team—known as "The Army of Three"—was reduced to scrounging bolts for repairs from any fittings that did not require a full complement (the engine room fans now hang by a single fastener). "You can create almost anything out of nothing," says Club Med's Ed Danby, a ranking Colonel in the Army. "You win The Race with a minimum of downtime and ours was minimal."

Club Med's sprint around the globe won't be recognized as an official round-the-world record by the World Speed Sailing Record Council, which demands a start further north than Barcelona (to meet theoretical minimum distance requirements). But the official circumnavigation record holder, Olivier De Kersauson's "Sport Elec," in fact in 1997 sailed fewer miles, took more than nine days longer, and sailed at an average speed that was almost 4 knots slower than Club Med. To dispel any remaining questions, during The Race Club Med also set a new 24-hour record and smashed Sport Elec's "Equator to Equator" and "Cape Horn to the Equator" records. De Kersauson himself knows where he stands: he is about to complete a 130-foot trimaran so he can keep up with the new generation of mega-cats.

The truth is that no one's records—not even Club Med's—are safe for long. After surveying Club Med at the dock, Yann Pennfornis, one of the boat's principal designers, came away with plenty of good ideas. "The next generation will be 5 percent faster," he predicts.

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