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Apr 19, 2002

Transat: St-Barth is in the race

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We never seem to tire of the Lorient/St. Barth transatlantic race. It’s a sailing competition that has all the right ingredients for attracting public attention. The vehicle, identical for all teams, is a 30-foot Beneteau Figaro monohull. Each team is composed of two experienced sailors, some of whom are among the most highly skilled- and most recognizable-skippers in the world. Finally, the race is broken down into two parts. The first portion of the course runs from Lorient, a western seaport in Brittany, to Madeira and includes the hairy passage through the Gulf of Gascogny. The latter portion goes the distance, from Madeira to St. Barth, and requires knowing how to dodge or deal with the doldrums until hitting the clement trade winds.
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The race was first held in 1992. By obliging all competitors to sail on one standardized sailing boat, it factored out all differences and reduced the competition down to a matter of sheer skill. The race has occurred every other year since, and has often been used by some of France’s best sailors to catapult themselves into higher ‘ground’. Michel Desjoyeuaux, Jean Le Cam, Roland Jourdain, Catherine Chabaud, Karine Fauconnier are some of the young sailors to have been initiated into the race’s inner circle, joining more experienced skippers like Philippe Poupon, Florence Arthaud, Yves Parlier, Isabelle Autissier. Occasionally, the skippers sail in, though on more modest vessels than the ones they navigate professionally.
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For St. Barth race fans, this year is particularly exciting because there are two local entries. One is St. Barth Assurances, navigated by Markku Harmala, a young Finnish man who has settled on the island and married a local woman. His partner, Richard Ledee, is the grandson of Hyppolite Ledee, one of the island’s buisness pioneers. Markku and Richard are sailing together in this race for the second time.
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The other St. Barth entry, Avis Isle de St-Barthelemy, is being helmed by Luc Poupon, who used to be a member of Eric Tabarly’s crew, and Jeff Ledee, one of the youngest, and greenest, participants in the race. He is making his virgin Atlantic crossing.
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Ask the people here, though, and you'll find that there are actually two races: the official race, and the race within the race, which boils down to the duel between the two local teams. "One of our objectives is to get to St. Barth before Lucky and Jeff", admitted Markku the night before the start of the race, on April 14. "And, we want to get there ahead of the second place winners," retorted Lucky Poupon, who has sailed across the Atlantic more times than he has toured the island. Aside from the surface rivalry, there is also a deep bond between the four St. Barth sailors, not the least of which is the intense ambition to win or place well. Just before the race, their boats floated peacefully side by side on the pontoon just, waiting to hit the high sea.
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Aside from its athletic component, the AG2R Lorient/Transat race is considered an important marketing tool, an event capable of attracting tourism and promoting St. Barth as a travel destination. Hotels got in on the ground floor, and throughout the year, have participated by offering free hotel rooms to race sponsors and members of the press. This year, at the start of the race, the St. Barth Tourism Office had set up a stand within the race village to provide practical information about the island and treat visitors to the local rum drink, the ‘ti ponch. A one-week trip for two to St. Barth was also raffled off as part of a promotional event sponsored by French travel agencies and the two municipal race sponsors.
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Now that the boats have set sail, the entire island is preparing for their arrival, estimated in Gustavia Port sometime between May 10 and 12. One of the great perks of the race for the skippers, once they’ve completed their job, is to hang out for one week in the Caribbean with family and/or friends. For our St. Barth sailors, it’s even better. Its the joy of coming home to their island and being embraced by their people as local heroes.

Yves Bourel

Yves Bourel


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