Francis Joyon lined up at the start of the 7th Route du Rhum in November 2002 bathing in the success of his triumph two years earlier in the other major solo transatlantic race from Plymouth – Newport. Now called Eure et Loir, his 60-foot ORMA trimaran launched in 1994 was still to be feared and many experts placed Francis among the favourites to win in Pointe-à-Pitre. Few would predict that this edition would remain in the annals for reasons other than the race result with a massacre of the fleet of ORMAs, which appeared to have so much to offer. Francis Joyon would be among those retiring, after capsizing in heavy weather when he was just behind Yvan Bourgnon aiming for the top spot.
15 boats retire, 6 capsize
With eighteen 60-foot trimarans setting sail from Saint-Malo, the ORMA class promised an unprecedented battle with the top names of ocean racing all competing. A weather bomb hit the fleet of extreme boats leading to some being forced out while the consequence was disastrous for others. 15 trimarans retired from the race, nine for structural reasons with masts falling, hulls splitting open and floats breaking off, while six boats would capsize in the first few days. “From the second day of racing,” explained Francis, “I was battling it out with Yvan Bourgnon in the front of the fleet and in spite of the strengthening winds and heavy seas, neither of us wanted to ease off, although I had reduced the sail as much as I could with three reefs in the mainsail and the storm sail up, but the boat was still doing fifteen knots upwind.” Franck Cammas capsized on the first night, before being struck by Jean le Cam. Francis did not see the gust coming that would knock his boat over. It was pitch black with monstrous seas and the boat was smashed in just a few moments. Francis contacted his team ashore and refused to leave her. Yvan Bourgnon suffered the same fate the following morning.
An epic rescue
There was no way Francis was going to abandon his upturned boat. Christophe Houdet, the most loyal supporter, did all he could ashore to attempt to find a tow. They chartered a trawler from Le Guilvinec, the Eric Vincent, which reached the area two days later after the worst of the storm had passed over. The seas were still heavy and the upturned boat was surrounded by bits of broken mast and sails. It was when they approached the boat that the huge propeller on the fishing boat got caught up in the mainsail bringing her to a standstill. The rescue boat needed rescuing now too. The diver who was with Christophe spent several days freeing the sail from the propeller. Once that was done, an attempt could be made to right the boat and tow her and her skipper, who had been waiting for five days in his flooded cockpit.
Goodbye ORMA, hello IDEC
The pictures of the overturned boat in the storm will always be remembered. The logo of one of the partners of Eure et Loir, the IDEC company was clearly visible on the hulls and its president, Patrice Lafargue wass both intrigued and concerned, wondering about this strange sailor, who refused to leave his boat in spite of the conditions. He showed such determination and simply had to bounce back. “Things were very clear in my mind,” said Francis. “The time had come to move on and leave this senseless circuit behind. The idea of sailing around the world non stop without assistance, sailing solo on a multihull was what I was going to have to do.” At a moment in history when the world of sailing was looking inward on race circuits, championships, bright lights and big shows, Francis Joyon was thinking of the round the world voyage, a completely different vision of what sailing meant. As the chatter died down and the death knell sounded for the ORMA class, one man was prepared to listen to hem. One man heard what he was saying. Patrice Lafargue.
See you next Wednesday for the story of Francis Joyon attempt in the 2010 Route du Rhum