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4 May 2004 11:22 GM

Carnage in the Mini

From Pornichet, France Alex Haworth reports on the first even in the Mini calendar

The start of the Pornichet Select 650 kicked off the Atlantic Mini season yesterday and with it 'Le dash' for qualification into the Mini Transat 2005. With almost all of the reserve list sailors from last year's Transat returning to gain early qualification most of the fastest Prototypes were present.

The course was set as the Mini class' version of a windward-leeward: 300 miles solo - up around Belle Ile, south to Ile d'Yeu, back up to Ile de Groix before returning south to finish in Pornichet.

The big news on the dock was the return of maxi cat guru and The Race impressario Bruno Peyron in his new Pogo 2, Mini Explorer. Peyron was a competitor in the original 1977 race and intends to sail the 30th anniversary Mini Transat in 2007. He announced his presence by port tacking the entire 70 boat fleet off the start line in 12 knots of breeze. Picking up a 10 degree shift and two minute lead however was not enough as Peyron promptly sailed to the wrong windward mark taking most of his port tack associates with him.

There was an even split at the top mark with the first ten boats all adopting a straight kite hoist for the run out of the bay up the French coast. The Series boats had good upwind pace aided by larger genoas and only two prototypes - Alex Bennett on Fujifilm and Adrien Hardy on Karen Liquid - managed to round in the lead pack. The mid-fleet Prototypes, buried with the left shift up the first leg, decided to split with a gybe-set to gain clear air and more pressure.

This worked wonders for Chris Sayer on his Wildcard and Nick Bubb on Kenmore as their massive 120+ sqm masthead kites quickly pulled them through the fleet to join Karen Liquid at the front. Alex Bennett and Tanguy de Lamotte on Set Environment crossed back from the right and a five-way gybing duel commenced with the leaders just metres apart. Bruno Peyron had recovered on the run moving up to 6th as the fleet left the bay.

Eight hours into the race the fleet had undergone two major shake-ups with Charles Lorieux, leading in his Pogo 2 and Chris Sayer in second leading the Protos just ten minutes behind. Alex Bennett (4th), Nick Bubb (5th) and Adrien Hardy (6th) were all within two minutes of each other as the boats worked up to Belle Ille.

A major T-bone collision between the highly rated Aloys Claqin on Vecteur Plus and Xavier Haze's Le Tour du Monde resulted in Haze being dismasted and Claqin forced into La Trinite-sur-Mer with a hole in his boat. Peyron also retired with pilot problems, a common issue among the fleet.

The downwind blast round Belle Ille saw the fleet charging along with some monster wipeouts among the leaders. Alex Bennett was clearing the foredeck for a gybe: "I was doing ten knots and with me on the leeward side of the boat doing the jockey pole it broached out with the mast head trying its best to get into the water," he commented. "It was a big one and I had to get the kite down for a tidy up and to sort the damage to my pilots. About 20 minutes later I had the kite back up and saw Nick have a massive wipeout."

Nick Bubb, in third place, was at full pace doing 15 knots under his masthead kite when the central pivot pin on the tiller system sheared in half. With no control over the rudders the boat wiped out instantly. Remarkably no damage was done to the sails or the new wingmast which survived its first encounter with the water.

After dropping the sails Bubb had to drive the boat holding the rudder linkage system at the stern, sailing under wing mast alone. He entered the small harbour of Le Plenais on Belle Ille for a marathon all-night fixing session. He plans to continue the race but is now up against the time limit of midnight Sunday.

After rounding Belle Ille the leaders were headed by the new breeze with an all-night beat south to Ile d'Yeu. The latest report has Corentin Dougent leading in his 2003 Manuard proto Amazigh, with Chris Sayer and Tanguy de Lamotte close behind. After rounding the island there is a major charge north again to Ile de Groix with the wind set to build .

The retirements have mounted all night with almost a third of the fleet having encountered a variety of problems including pilot malfunction, electrical failure and torn sails.

One of retirement reports simply said 'fatigue'.

Alex Bennett was holding third position when flooding problems forced him to retire just short of Ile d'Yeu. British newcomer Clemency Williams is still racing and has rounded Ile d'Yeu in the top fifteen.

The fleet is due to finish on Sunday afternoon.

Published:1 May 2004