Managing Expectations.

From Team Concise….

The chance to race in the renowned Route Du Rhum came late to Philippa Hutton Squire. Bearing in mind some of the professional French teams had boats designed and built specifically for this event and up to two years to “work them up”, then the few months Pippa had to prepare always meant she would be at a huge disadvantage.

It’s a measure of her determination, that when the chance came along to charter a boat she was familiar with, and initially with just the support of her Mum and Dad, she went for it. Taking part in this classic race and completing the 3500 mile single handed course was her first objective. It was well within her capabilities and now it was within her grasp.

Sunday 2nd November saw the weather for the start deteriorating.  A depression was blowing in from the S.W. bringing with it rain, cold winds and seas up to 5 metres high. The worst possible scenario for a Class 40 boat which is designed for reaching and running and goes to weather (towards the wind ) about as well as  a Transit van. What is always a tense time psychologically for the sailors was even tougher as they knew they were in for a real battering.

1400 hrs saw a clean start of 10th edition of the Route Du Rhum.  No one wanted to risk being over the line at the “gun” when they had 3500 miles to go. The monster trimarans Spindrift 2, Sodebo and Banque Populaire VII got off to a “flyer”, followed by a swarm of attendant press helicopters. The IMOCA 60’s and Multi 50’s following.  The Class 40’s, with 43 entrants, the biggest fleet of all, jostled for position with Pippa and Swish right in the middle of the pack. The seas around them churned to a white froth from the wake of nearly 1000 spectator boats.  As the yachts raced westwards towards the Atlantic Ocean ominous black clouds on the horizon foretold a little of what was to come.

As night fell the winds increased to 40 knots, seas built up and the rain lashed down. The first major incident report was from the 120ft trimaran Sodebo. She had tangled with a container ship and lost part of her main bow and starboard pontoon. She was limping back to port. Game over.

At race HQ in Haslemere and on our computers and phone apps we monitored Pippa constantly. She had gone for a more offshore position and was keeping out of trouble.

It wasn’t long before the alarm bells were ringing again. The Class 40 President’s boat (Team Sabrosa) was transmitting an automatic distress signal. Francois was not answering his satellite phone, so the search helicopters were sent out. Monsieur Le President was found clinging to his upturned boat, his keel having broken off.  He was winched up and flown to hospital where he is doing well.  Shortly thereafter Sabrosa’s newly built sister ship’s AIS stopped transmitting.  Cap West had also lost its keel but this time its skipper managed to limp to a safe harbour.

The attrition continued throughout the night. Seven more boats retired either for repairs or “abandonment” as they say in France. Remember, all of these yachts had only recently completed a 1000 mile qualification race (Pippa included). None of them were exactly new out of the box. It’s telling that four of the retirees were on account of personal injury and none of these guys give in easily. They were hurt bad. Broken bones and the like!

At 3 am we saw that Pippa had made a major course change, heading back down wind. Despite calls to the boat there was no answer. However, we were not unduly concerned as she was obviously still afloat and making way – albeit in the wrong direction. Eventually, contact was made and the sad story unfolded.

Pippa had purposely taken Swish up to weather where she thought she would have more sea room and best stay out of the way of other yachts during what was a black, nasty night. Suddenly, from above her, out of the pitch dark, came another Class 40 Les Conservateur, one of the race favourites’ who proceeded to slam into her. It’s painful to recount here in detail but as a consequence Pippa lost the top part of her mast and has had to retire. Most important neither skipper was hurt. Yannick Bestaven the Les Conservateur skipper ironically was able to carry on, notwithstanding a hole in his topsides.

The latest information is that Yannick has acknowledged that he was on the same tack as Pippa, was “weather boat” and effectively bears the blame. Gentlemanly conduct in the circumstance, but small consolation?

On no account of her own Philippa Hutton Squire and Swish’s Route du Rhum is over this year, but there is no doubt that she will be back on the race course soon having gained  the admiration of a great many fellow sailors and observers.

Tony Lawson

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