The dockside scene this week in Le Havre, France is quintessentially French. A myriad of the fastest and most high-tech sailboats sit patiently tied to the dock, their bright graphics and space age designs on display to a huge throng who wander the quayside. The crowds, fifteen deep, ogle at the boats, seek out skippers for autographs and browse a race village filled with blaring televisions, pretty girls, and the heady smell of coffee and filterless cigarettes. And all for a boat race.
Offshore ocean racing is a big deal in Europe, especially in France. This past weekend almost 70,000 people came to Le Havre to view the Transat Jacques Vabre boats with a larger crowd expected this upcoming weekend when the two fleets get underway for their 4,500 mile sprint to Brazil. They come from all walks of life, both young and old, and they come because, for them, sailing is a passion that ranks up there with their love of soccer and fine food. The top sailors are heralded with ticker tape parades up the Champs-Elysees and while they do not pull in the multi-million dollar salaries earned by most professional sportsmen, they participate for different reasons. It may sound like a cliche, but these sailors do it for a love of their sport and a deep and intrinsic love of the ocean. It's yet another reason why offshore ocean racing is so interesting.
Against this backdrop, Joe, Josh and the Gryphon Solo team prepare for the Saturday start. There is still a lot of work to do and a wet, windy front blowing in from the Atlantic is not helping matters. Le Havre is not a pretty town, most of it cheaply reconstructed after the second World War, and on a rainy day it's almost depressing. The focus, however, is on the rest of the week when social engagements, a frenzy of media activities and last minute preparations will take place no matter the weather. On Friday night there will be an official presentation of the skippers to the public. This gala event, held in a nearby auditorium, is a production worthy of Hollywood. Lights, music, a large and excited crowd, and the stars of the show, the sailors, will all be on display. They will take to the stage one crew at a time while video of their boat sailing is projected onto a massive screen. For the non-European sailors who are accustomed to toiling in obscurity, spending endless hours trying to convince a skeptical public that sailing is a mainstream sport, this sudden glare of the spotlight will feel a little like coming home. For Joe, especially, it will be a revelation. The two years since he purchased Gryphon Solo have been a hard and expensive slog. Now, just under three days away from the start of his first major ocean race aboard the boat, he will see first hand what his all efforts have been for.
The weather forecast for the rest of this week is for things to improve. The wet front will move on being replaced by strong winds on the back side of it, but they too are forecast to subside and there is a tentative expectation for a bright and sunny day for the start. Once can only hope so; there is nothing worse than starting a long ocean race soaked to the bone and feeling queasy, and even the hardiest of sailors feel sick from the stress, nerves and prospect of a few weeks of tough sailing ahead. The monohull fleet start is 14:00 local time on Saturday. The multihull start 24 hours later. There will be an audio interview with Joe posted to the Gryphon Solo website on Friday. The next written update will come shortly after the start on Saturday.