Gryphon Solo 2 skippered by Joe Harris participated in this year's Normandy Channel Race. Shortly before the start, Harris announced that he was entering in the Class40 round-the-world Global Solo Race, set for 2013-14.
On Sunday 22 May, American solo sailor, Joe Harris, crossed the start line of the 1,000 mile, Normandy Channel Race on his new Akilaria RC2 Class40, Gryphon Solo 2, racing in this demanding double-handed event with Global Ocean Race 2011-12 (GOR) Race Director, Josh Hall.
For Harris, a highly-experienced solo sailor, former commercial fisherman and boat builder who is currently running his own real estate investment, development and consulting firm, the Normandy Channel Race (NCR) was only the second time he had seen the boat since its arrival in France from the MC-TEC yard in Tunisia.
Due to work commitments in The States, Harris arrived at the NCR’s base in Caen, Normandy, via Paris and a flight from the US just 24 hours before the start gun and immediately began the final preparation of the boat with Hall and the campaign’s shorecrew, David Thomson.
For Harris, his first race on the new Class40 was to be against 15 boats with highly-experienced double-handed teams from France, Britain, Germany, South Africa and Belgium. The scenery, too, would be fresh for the American sailor, leaving from the port of Ouistreham on the Normandy coast, racing across the Channel to the Isle of Wight and east-west through The Solent, then along England’s South Coast to Land’s End before heading north-west across the Celtic Sea to Tuskar Rock, eight miles off the south-east coast of Ireland.
Leaving the rock’s lighthouse to port, the fleet would begin the return leg across the Celtic Sea and the Channel to Guernsey, before bending around the Cherbourg Peninsular and on to the finish line off Ouistreham.
With barely time for Harris to acclimatise, the start on Sunday was a blustery introduction to upwind Class40 sailing with the first leg to the Marcouf Islands in the lee of the Cherbourg Peninsular: 'It was very lumpy going dead to windward,' Harris recalls. 'Not a good first leg for us as we had the wrong sail combo and the boat was going slow against the competition.
We should have made changes earlier, but we were dealing with a number of issues like minor leaks from the ballast tanks and so on,' he explains. In the approach to Marcouf, Gryphon Solo 2 was lying in 15th after five hours of pounding upwind. 'The fleet left us in the dust pretty quickly!' admits Harris. 'However, once we turned the corner at Marcouf, we hoisted an A3 gennaker, and smoked downhill across the English Channel towards Isle of Wight, hitting 15 knots on a beam reach with 18 to 20 knots of wind.'
Within a few hours of the start, Harris and Hall began to climb the rankings: 'We passed three boats and were feeling a bit better about life,' he says. Under the cover of darkness during the first night at sea, Gryphon Solo 2 overhauled the French female duo of Stéphanie Alran and Caroline Vielle on Ocean’s Eleven; Britain’s Andrew Dawson and his Norwegian co-skipper, Rune Aasberg on Spliff and the Anglo-German, all-female GOR team of Hannah Jenner and Anna-Maria Renken on 40 Degrees. At first light on Monday morning, Harris and Hall had risen to 12th place:
'We entered the Solent at daybreak and had a very fast and cool passage around the Isle of Wight and past the famed Cowes with a big tide behind us,' says Harris. As Gryphon Solo 2 reached the Needles at the bottom of the ebb tide, conditions became increasingly tough: 'When we re-entered the Channel by the Needles, the wind went right on the nose and the seas were short, steep and stacked closely, making for a very nasty passage southward in the English Channel,' he continues.
This forecast and prospect of continued, strong, upwind conditions caused the retirement of Cristophe Coatnoan and Sébastien Figue on Partouche in 10th place, 13 miles ahead of Gryphon Solo 2.
'After a long night of upwind sailing in 20 knots of wind and bad seas, I was about ready to hang a hard right and head for pint in a dry, warm English pub!,' admits Harris. 'But daybreak comes and things look better. The wind abated and we had a great sail down to the southern tip of England.' Gryphon Solo 2 rounded Land’s End in 10th place at mid-afternoon on Tuesday after 48 hours of racing, trailing the ninth place South African duo and GOR entries, Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire on Phesheya-Racing by 40 miles.
However, after rounding the south-western tip of England and crossing the Celtic Sea, Harris and Hall met horrific conditions:
'After a lovely day touring the South Coast of England and a fast reach up the Celtic Sea, we rounded Tuskar Rock at dawn and it was pure, upwind hell, fighting against a 30 knot cold front with 15-foot vertical seas,' reports Harris.
'The boat was slamming horribly, pancaking its flat forefoot as we ejected through waves and launched into mid-air, only to land with a bone-jarring crunch that rattled your fillings and crunched back discs and vertebrae. There are many better things to do with your time - like getting a root canal or swimming with sharks!' Despite the discomfort and relentlessly harsh conditions, the duo re-rounded Land’s End in 10th place, but passed Pheshaya-Racing on the way to Guernsey to move in to ninth place, and held that position until the finish line.
The 2011 Normandy Channel Race will probably be remembered for the relentlessly close racing by the leading pair of French boats, Initiatives Saveurs of Tanguy de Lamotte and Sébastien Audigane and Port de Caen-Ouistreham of Fabien Delahaye and Bruno Jourdren, barely separated by single digit mileage throughout the six day race in ferocious conditions.
Lamotte and Audigane finished in immense style on Thursday shortly after midday, sailing with a mainsail torn in half for the final 70 miles of the course, crossing the line 24 minutes ahead of Delahaye and Jourdren in second who squeezed across the line eight minutes ahead of Damien Seguin and Yoann Richomme completing the podium on Des Pieds et des Mains. Yet for Harris, the race was a vital, first step in preparation towards the Global Solo Race 2013-14.
Harris and Hall have collaborated on numerous racing campaigns, winning the 50ft monohull class together in the double-handed, 2005 Transat Jacques Vabre on the American skipper’s Finot Design Open 50, Gryphon Solo, but the NCR presented a fresh challenge and a steep learning curve for Harris on an unfamiliar boat: 'Gryphon Solo 2 withstood a punishing first test and I am very pleased that everything hung together despite the incredible pounding,' explains Harris.
'The boat seems to be exceptionally fast downwind, so our challenge is to refine the onboard systems and sail the boat closer to its maximum performance all-around, but particularly upwind, where we were not on the pace. I have much to learn about this boat, but this race was a vital first step in preparation towards the Global Solo Race in 2013-14.'
Harris was also impressed by the quality of his opposition:
'The Class40 fleet in Europe is exceptionally deep and talented, with many great pro-sailors pushing their boats to the limit, so the performance bar is high,' he concludes. 'It will not be easy to win silverware over here in Europe in this class, but I look forward to trying!' Overall, Harris is an eager convert to the class and the circuit: 'The Normandy Channel Race goes down as a ‘must do’ for any Class40 owner,' he believes.
'The tour of the French and English and Irish shorelines is spectacular and the sailing competition is superb. I am very pleased to be back in the short-handed sailing world with a great new boat and look forward to competing in the classic, Rolex Fastnet Race starting August 14th in Cowes.'
Global Ocean Race website