Banque Populaire V: The biggest

Published on 07 may 2009 at 0h00

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It was waiting for us in Kéroman harbour, in Lorient. The harbour manoeuvres required the greatest caution and also a lot of organisation. A crew member at each side indicated to the helmsman (in this case Pascal Bidegorry) the distance remaining on each side of the floats. We were helped by no less than four semi-rigid dinghies, each with a minimum of 100hp, guided by VHF; they then recovered the huge rectangular fenders. Already, four men in the cockpit were operating the winch columns; they control notably the hydraulics and were to bring the mast to the vertical position. For harbour manoeuvres, it is inclined towards the quay, to keep the float on the water. At sea, it is adjusted so as to keep the sail plan vertical with respect to the sea. We noted the moderate dihedral (the angle formed by the arms with respect to the water).
It takes twenty minutes to hoist the mainsail, a maximum of eight crew members take care of it: "at first it is hard, after that you suffer, and at the end it is even harder,” is how this manoeuvre can be summed up – it consists of hoisting nearly half a ton of sail (its ‘dry’ weight), even though it is in Cuben Fibre (therefore theoretically absorbing less moisture), 47 metres above the waves. The tone is set: here the physical efforts are long and violent. Everything is enormous, and the least manoeuvre demands a lot of energy; the cockpit is the realm of big muscles, (they really are needed, to control this beast) and strong men. Whether in fast or slow speed, you really have to winch and not slacken. At that moment I thought about Ellen MacArthur, a small woman, who sailed her big trimaran (even though it was quite a bit smaller than this one...) around the world, singlehanded. Under the shelter of the cabin roof extension there were piles of cereal bars, apples, bananas and bottles of water.  

We were off


under jib and full main, on a reach with 10 knots of wind, we were already at 18 knots. Pascal was at the helm and he gathered his crew together, debriefed them on the previous day’s sail and presented today’s programme. A gust arrived, and Banque Pop accelerated to 28 knots. When the wind hit 20 knots, we were at 32 knots. The breeze wasn’t steady, and the crew were on the alert, four men on the coffee grinders ready to improve the trim, freeing off where they had to, taking in elsewhere. Along the beam carrying the mainsheet traveller, numbered reference marks allow them to find the adjustments again.
There were crew members permanently at the three strategic positions: one on the mainsheet, another on the traveller and finally another on the foresail sheet, whether it was the jib, or later the gennaker or the staysail, even if in intermediate conditions (in less than 12 knots of wind) the sheets can be made fast on the self-tailer. The daggerboard was lowered by half. The wind increased and to leeward, the Ile de Groix sped by. On the windward float, Ronan Lucas, who supervised the boat’s construction, monitored the arrival of the gusts: “pressure”, he indicated to the crew member in charge of the traveller, who freed it off by one number; the gust passed, immediately the grinders sprang into action and the traveller was hauled back up. Thus the trim is constantly being adjusted.

Gennaker, reefing and gybing

The wind was blowing at 13 knots and we were speeding along at 27 knots, at 100° to the true wind, when Pascal asked Kevin (Escoffier, Franck-Yves’ son) to prepare the gennaker. The leeward foil was lowered. Hoisting the gennaker requires a lot of energy, but after the mainsail, the operation was a mere formality, and the swivel rapidly reached the hounds. Many people would be surprised by the calmness which reigned aboard. This allows the crew to listen to the boat and to remain very reactive when they have to intervene. Crew member aboard a racing boat is an occupation which is finally quite different to the activity of a leisure sailor. Everyone is relaxed and very concentrated at the same time, useless words are avoided; even the articles in the sentences disappear when orders have to be given: PYM, are you traveller? Roll staysail. Etc.
The helmsman bore right away, we were travelling very fast (30 knots ++), the eight winchers gave it their all and unrolled the gennaker. Everything has to be done very quickly. The boat was then brought round so that the wind was dead aft, and nearly ready to gybe, to reduce the pressure on the mainsail. At 15 knots it felt as if we had stopped, but this allowed the crew to sheet in without using too much energy. The sheet (each of them is brought back to one of the huge Harken 1135 winches, to windward) was trimmed, we luffed and off we went again. The wind was still blowing at 20 knots, white horses were starting to form as we sailed further into the Bay of Biscay, away from Brittany; the sea state became that caused by the wind. Banque Populaire V was now sailing at 140° to the true wind, at approximately 30 knots; however it was at just 50° to the apparent wind. Even downwind, it receives the wind from ahead! Astounding! We would check this in a few moments, when we took in a reef. This is the advantage of the big cabin roof extension which protects the crew whatever happens. Less exposed to the elements, a rested crew is always more efficient. And the risks of an accident are reduced even more.
Pascal was at the helm, and gave the order: we were going to gybe, under gennaker. Kevin then ordered the crew; each person took up his position and got down to work: some at the coffee grinders, others on the sheets and the ‘dead’ sheets. We were surprised to see the huge wing mast, with its maximum chord of 1.2m, held up by just one shroud and a cap shroud. It was completely inclined to windward; the daggerboard was raised. The runner was taken in. Off we went: we felt a bit of tension, in the crew, as well as in the lines: when a sheet or a line that is much tighter than a tennis racket string is freed, the very stiff boat responds with a vibrating groan which is both virile and sinister, that of the Dyneema on the winch’s carbon drum. The gybe took place gently, the mainsail changed tack; the huge gennaker passed ahead of the forestay and also changed tack.
The following exercise was to consist of taking a reef (the crew were training!). The running backstay was freed, as well as a bit of traveller, then the mainsheet. I had forgotten that we were sailing downwind, yet the mainsail was emptied of wind, as if we were sailing to windward aboard a cruising boat. We slowed from 32 knots to...27 knots. We’re dawdling, messieurs! The mainsail came down, the first reef was hooked, the reefing pennant taken in and the halyard hauled taut. All that remained was to take in the traveller, the sheet, the runner, and we were off again at more than 30 knots.
At sea, Pascal remained concentrated, listening to his boat; he went to the bow, had a look at the mast, evaluated the wear on the equipment, imagined improvements; his attention and concentration never wavered from his aim: optimising the boat and making it more reliable. He will have to lead thirteen men around the world, as quickly as possible. We didn’t exchange one word all day, until night fell and the mainsail was ready to be stowed on the boom.

To windward again

We had covered a good fifty miles, and BP V was now in the middle of the Bay of Biscay. It was time to return to Lorient, to windward. We bore right away and the pressure on the gennaker disappeared; it was quickly rolled up. For those who know Geronimo, which had a sail locker (into which it was difficult to pass the rolled gennakers); here they are rolled into a circular sail bag and remain on the trampoline. The advantage of this formula is that the sails are damaged less, and they can also be stowed to windward. Under main with one reef and staysail, the VPLP-designed trimaran was never at less than 20 knots, sometimes 22. Like a 60-footer, the central hull comes out of the water. The contact with the liquid element is limited to the leeward float, and above all, its foil and rudder. On this point of sailing, the platform’s movements are really impressive; I noticed at least one metre deflection from the extremity of one bow to the back of the other. But what was most surprising was that compared to a few moments previously, downwind, we were sailing at almost the same angle to the apparent wind, between 45° and 50°. Sheltered from the wind under the roof extension, I was fine. Elsewhere it was a bit of a battle, in the sense that the apparent wind is always strong. But in the conditions we had, and except for on the extremities of the leeward float, the boat remained dry.
Finally, you get used to sailing fast, and what is more, the speed is maintained with surprising regularity, despite several small variations in the wind speed, a small acceleration and off you go again! But speed has its price, and there are lots of control lines everywhere, between the rotating and canting mast, the daggerboard and its trimmer, the foils, the running backstay... To go round the world faster than Orange 2, Banque Populaire V will have to maintain a high average speed. For this it must have winds which cooperate and blow in the right direction. Often with these boats it is necessary to cover a lot of ground to go looking for the winds and the angles which will give it the best VMG.

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