After 22 days, 14 hours, 29 minutes and 51 seconds, Ivica Kostelić and Calliste Antoine on the boat Croatia Full of Life entered the finish line of the Transat Jacques Vabre regatta as the 17th crew in Class 40. Here is their story:
It’s not even easy to write a blog for a 22-day regatta, let alone sail it! So much happened during that period that I decided to divide the text into three-part, each one of them corresponding to one leg of Transat defined by certain key moves and prevailing conditions.
I do not want to bore the reader with too long an introduction or too many details on my preparations for the Transat at the port of Le Havre. I will just briefly say that this is a big sporting event that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to the ‘race village’ in the week before the start. It is a great pleasure to see the elite of offshore sailing gathered together, and a large fleet of outrageously expensive sailboats and trimarans in one place automatically attracts the attention of many curious people.
Watching that fairy tale gathering, I wondered how many millions of euros were tied to the ‘Paul Vatine’ dock at that moment – there were Class 40, Imoca, Ocean Fifty and Ultimi … a total of 85 boats.
The ten days we spent in Le Havre before the start were very dynamic, full of things to do, things to repair and people to meet. Everything around us was teeming with shore teams, legions of servicemen tended to boats all around us, while logistics experts, visitors, sponsors and the media paraded through the village from dusk till dawn.
On ‘Croatia Full of Life’, it was peaceful. Calliste and I worked alone, like two diligent ants, without a shore team, without pressure from visitors and sponsors, in peace, as it should be. Having the smallest budget in the fleet also has its advantages! Here and there a serviceman borrowed from other teams hopped aboard, but only when we couldn’t solve a more complex problem on our own. The only pressure I felt came from the media: I don’t remember being in such demand during my skiing career!
Maybe back then I never felt pressured because someone else was taking care of the media relations, but this time they tore me apart. I was lucky to get help from my friend Miro for the last three days before the start, as well as to have Šimun and Marko arrive from Zagreb to take a couple of photos and recordings that we could offer to the press core.
Those guys supported this project driven by enthusiasm alone, thus fitting into our story of guerrilla sailing with a budget five times smaller than the next smallest budget in its class. I may really be rushing at windmills, but at least I have several Sancho Pansas with me!
PART ONE: LE HAVRE-BISCAY BAY
At the start, we had 20-25 knots of northwesterly winds, and steep waves, as the current interfered. The crowd was big but still smaller than during Fastnet. We started well. We tacked into the wind, direction north, and reached the first mark about 7 miles away placed about 15th.
After that, we dropped off towards another sign 3 miles away, near the town of Etretat. The coast was made up of vertical Normandy cliffs, and from the top of those cliffs, a large number of people followed the race. On that little 3-mile stretch, we proved we were a serious contender.
We were among the few to raise Code 0, and pass 5-6 boats on that short section. I will never forget putting Code on because I was working on the bow, submerged, trying to catch some air and remain standing on a slippery surface inclined by 20-30 degrees. Still upwind, we turned toward Barfleur point, at the top of the Cotentin peninsula. The night fell.
Barfleur and Raz Blanchard were the first two big obstacles in the race. That night surprised us with a ‘spring tide’, a big tide difference with a high current coefficient: 8 knots of the current. At Barfleur we had to face counter-current, and at Raz Blanchard, we had to battle the current. And so the game began. When faced with a strong current, you should go shallow, while down current, you should go deep. At Raz Blanchard, we caught 10 knots through the water, and 18 knots across the bottom.
The wind weakened in the second part of the night, and after the island of Jersey, we were greeted by calm seas. Before the tide changed, that is before the arrival of the counter-current, we needed to reach the northern coast of Brittany to enter the shoals. The first daylight revealed a few favourites around us, which was a good sign. It was cloudy most of the day, and in the evening it started to rain heavily.
The air was grey and visibility was significantly reduced. At the last minute, we managed to get closer to the shore and the game was back on. That time we only faced 3-4 knots of counter-current but also got very little wind. In a confusing battle against other boats, you never know why one moment you’re lading and another you’re falling behind. We crawled among the rocks. Along the coast itself, we even found a bit of favourable current. It was a game of nerves – who dares to get closer to the shore.
But all of that was nothing compared to what awaited us in the second part of the night.
After six hours of favourable currents, we arrived at the entrance to the Channel du Four, a passage between Brittany in the east and the island of Ouessant in the west, a canal sprinkled by cliffs and islets. The current was reversing direction and for six hours we had to fight it for every meter. The speed of the counter-current was 6-7 knots, as was that of the wind (at least in that leg). The sky was pitch black, it was cold and it was raining. Just wonderful.
Boats began to battle in places, stuck where the counter-current caught them. Most were just standing, and some were going backwards. The problems were rocks and shoals. Calliste proved to be a true master of navigation. After about an hour of standing still, we somehow managed to approach the shore and enter the shoals, getting away from our competitors little by little.
I was in the cockpit and Calliste was at the computer. I heard the sea pounding ominously against the cliffs next to us, and strained to see their black shadow in the dark, just in time to turn before hitting them. Our boat moved away from danger just in time.
That night was not for the faint of heart, but brave sailing gave us an advantage that would prove to be crucial for the entire race.
Some luck and some skill pushed us through shoals and allowed us to ‘catch a train,’ as the French sailors say to denote the weather window of favourable sea currents in a limited area, especially around large capes or in canals. When you catch the train, the favourable current carries you with it, but if you are late for the train, you have to wait six hours for the current to change again.
In our case, we caught a train on the way out of the Channel du Four and hurried across the bay of the port of Brest to the next big cape, Raz de Sein. There we caught a train at the last minute and entered the Bay of Biscay with the leading group. The significance of these events is best illustrated by one image: we never saw any of the boats that were with us at the entrance to the Channel du Four until Martinique. They missed the train.
And then the party really started.
We had known for days that a high-pressure ridge and calm seas would be waiting for us at the entrance to the Bay of Biscay. The leading group split up there: some went closer to the coast, and a few of us decided to look for the wind in the west. It was late afternoon, the ship was just floating, Calliste went to lie down in the cabin. The sea was very calm, there were no waves at all.
I looked around and my Adriatic instincts kicked in. We raised the Code, which I dubbed Mediterraneo because the French – with a slight sneer – claimed it only useful in the Mediterranean. I splashed my cheeks to feel the airflow. I turned to the wind and Code started to pull. The breeze was so mild I could hold the mainsail trim in my bare hand. Then the wind changed direction and we had to turn endless times, but we flew razor-sharp. I was in my element.
Boats around us didn’t seem to realize it was possible to sail at such calm seas, so they just floated as if they had given up on. Such calm seas are rare around these shores and the French are reluctant to sail during such days, preferring to stay docked. But us Adriatic sailors are doomed to sail even without any wind, so I found myself in a unique situation where an Adriatic novice could teach French superstars.
During that night we climbed about 10 positions and briefly broke through to 5th place in the standings, also overtaking two Imoca boats.
After a whole night of easy conditions, it seemed that around noon the next day we broke through the high-pressure ridge, found ourselves in ever-stronger wind and under a spinnaker. Calliste joked we wouldn’t get rid of the spinnaker until Martinique, but I responded we could only hope to. The future would show he was right. During the night wind reached 15 knots, and we sailed at a relatively sharp angle. The sea was very choppy, so we lost control and sailed straight into the wind several times.
The night was cloudy, pitch black. In the morning we were already on the way out of Biscay and in front of Cape Finisterre.
PART TWO: CAPE FINISTERRE- CAPE VERDE ISLANDS
A little bird landed on our boat at Cape Finisterre. She was in a very friendly mood, she entered the cabin and even landed on Calliste’s shoulder. We gave her some bread crumbs to eat. We later learned that this friendly little fellow had visited several other boats in the same waters, and apparently filled her little belly really well.
We passed by Cape Finisterre surrounded by the elite: around us were some favourites who we’re only now catching up with us after they had gone closer to the coast at the entrance to Biscay. After Cape Finisterre, we entered the Portuguese trade winds area. The wind intensified to 20-25 knots and we switched to the small spinnaker. We remained in the trade wind are for the next two days, parallel to the coast of Portugal.
On the third day, the wind briefly dropped from 25 to 20 knots, so we raised the big spinnaker again. The sea was choppy and a 25-knot gust of wind tore our big spinnaker. Luckily, we had a spare one, because we expected one to get destroyed. Class 40 has a limited number of sails, so a selection of sails before the race is very important.
When the sea calmed down a bit after a few days, Calliste would start patching up the spinnakers. We kept the small spinnaker up for the following 24 hours, and the wind stayed between 25 and 30 knots anyway, so that was the right choice. We achieved high averages (the highest one-hour average was 16.7 knots), and we held our little speed competition between the autopilot, Calliste and me. In the end, the autopilot won convincingly with 22.5 knots, Calliste was second with 20.7 and I came in third with 20.6 knots.
Those two days along the coast of Portugal were quite difficult because we were at the helm the whole time, faced some very strong wind face on, and barely slept a little. One rainy morning we discovered we were pulling a large fishing buoy behind us. We barely managed to take it off of our keel.
As we were approaching Madeira, the wind weakened and the sea turned a beautiful blue shade that reminded me of the Adriatic. Our morale improved with the temperature rise. We didn’t need dry suits anymore. The first flying fish also appeared. Calliste started patching up the spinnaker, which would take several days. In the meantime, we raised the spare big spinnaker. I glanced at it anxiously many times as the wind picked up, reaching 25 knots.
We had to be very careful and not tear it, because, without it, we’d be in trouble.
We discovered a leaking fuel supply pipe connected to the engine block and tried to improvise, but we couldn’t fix the problem. We had to give up the engine. During the day we charged our batteries with the help of solar panels, and during the night with the help of hydro generators. At least we were on-trend and very green: our CO2 footprint was almost non-existent.
About 150 miles north of the Canary Islands we ranked about 15th. Going around or through the Canary Islands – that’s usually a widely discussed topic. The islands are high and have a great lee. The vast majority of boats that passed through the area before us decided to pass through the canal between Tenerife and Gran Canaria.
Only one boat passed west of Tenerife, through an area feared by most. Tenerife is very high, with the highest peak Pico del Teide standing at 3.715 meters above sea level and thus having a very high lee. But going west has unquestionable benefits – if you’re willing to swallow a bitter pill or two.
Going west, generally known under the motto ‘west is the best’, offers a better position in relation to weather systems that usually come from the west, and in this case offers a better wind angle from the Canary Islands to the Cape Verde Islands. Two ships had already selected the western option before Madeira, but they got stuck in the lee of the island and fell behind.
As we approached the Canary Islands, we planned to pass between Tenerife and Gran Canaria, like most. However, we were faced with unexpected gusts of east-northeast wind. Boats around us now switched from spinnakers to drifters in order to catch an angle to the canal. Only ‘Guidi’ next to us kept the spinnaker and progressed nicely southwest.
After some thinking and observing their route, we weighed our options and finally decided to keep the spinnaker up and take that free ticket to the west. The wind was constant at 10-15 knots and we moved easily to the west of the leading group. That night we broke through the channel between the islands of La Gomera and Hierro, constantly competing with ‘Guidi’ in about 20 knots of NE wind, which was mutually beneficial because we pushed our boats to the maximum. The leeward we feared was not that scary and that night we took a strong position west of the leading group.
Thanks to this move, on that 750-mile section between the Canary Islands and Cape Verde we broke through to the top 10. We were very lucky and it was a generally speaking nice part of the race. The trade winds blew between 10 and 20 knots, the sea was a bit wavy, the days were warm but not too hot yet, the nights were clear and pleasant, and the Moon was full. We were immensely proud of our placement and the course of the race up to then. We surprised ourselves and others. Our old boat was racing shoulder to shoulder with favourites.
PART THREE: CAPE VERDE ISLANDS – MARTINIQUE
The turning point was the island of Sal in the Cape Verde archipelago. Around the archipelago there hung was a low-pressure field with a light wind that brought on compression of the fleet. We entered the area fourth, in the same group as the leading boat, in the western group of the fleet. Most of the fleet decided to bypass the archipelago in a wide arc from the east and south to avoid the fickle lee. We planned to break through to the south as soon as possible and avoid approaching the central part of the archipelago.
Cape Verde marked roughly halfway through, so we held a mini ceremony on board, indulging in sweets we had set aside for the celebration in advance. Our storage of sweets and snacks had already shrunk greatly by then and it was certain that we would soon be left exclusively with dehydrated, the food so we ate chocolate with almonds and pear compote with special delight, and drank two small glasses of Calvados, the only alcohol on board.
After passing through the lee of the island of Boa Vista, which we left to the east and our left, a strong gust of wind arrived from the southeast. If we were to follow our original plan, that was the time to replace the spinnaker with Code 0 and head south, but it looked like we got a free ticket to the west – just like in the Canary Islands – so we went west.
Looking back, the situation was somewhat similar to that in the Canary Islands, but it definitely had different consequences. Now our move to the west pushed us into the archipelago from which we had to get out through the lee of the high islands in its western part.
Race leader, Redman, also moved west, but they went very far to the west to avoid the lee and with a little luck slipped through and seamlessly rejoined the southern group. We got stuck in dead waters and watched them sail away south at 10 knots.
The other thing that gave us headaches for the next few days was the constantly weaker pressure north of 15° – we knew that sooner or later we had to descend further south, where our competitors had been constantly sailing about 2 knots faster than us. It was the second bitter pill we had to swallow after the one in the lee on Cape Verde. But when we descended to the south, we lost less than we expected and managed to join the rear of the leading group.
We still ranked pretty high. Among other older boats near the top of the group, there were #135 ‘Tquila’ and #101 ‘Milai’. Many were surprised to see our old boats compete with scow designs. But if you study the meteorological conditions of this edition of Transat a little closer, you’ll find there were good reasons for this. Scow boats are most dominant with the wind to the side, when they are as much as 2 to 3 knots faster than the previous generation of boats. The advantage is slightly smaller at angles downwind, it is smallest when sailing in the wind, and without wind, older designs are faster because they have a smaller underwater hull area.
First of all, during this edition of Transat, there were no cold fronts in the North Atlantic, so there was no need to sail the wind to the side, characteristic of the weather bringing in strong winds from the west.
As a result, scow designs lost their advantage.
Furthermore, the race was characterized by VMG sailing with the wind into the stern or passing through windless areas in Biscay, which were all situations in which older designs can match scow boats. But as soon as we started the race across the Atlantic, scow boats and derivatives (older generation ships with a subsequently rounded bow) were the only ones at the top of the fleet.
I will never forget the large fields of seagrass – sargasso seaweed – which made our lives hell in the western Atlantic. It was grabbing our rudders at such a speed that we couldn’t even clean them. We were constantly bent over the rudders and removing the grass with our hands because the grass removal stick was no longer effective. Pushing your hands under a boat speeding at 10-14 knots is everything but comfortable. Out of curiosity, one morning I started counting the number of interventions – times we had to free the rudder: after three hours, Is topped counting at 63. My palms began to peel.
The second part of the sargassum delight were major interventions: cleaning by pulling a rope under the boat, diving or stopping the boat in the wind, meaning it floated backwards a bit. The resistance created by the accumulated grass reflected not only on the boat’s performance, but also on our safety: the grass created great resistance on the rudder bearings, and the resistance on the keel created additional pressure on the spinnaker, not to mention adding the propensity of the boat to turn into the wind. Interestingly enough, when the boat managed to sail faster than 16 knots, we caught almost no grass.
During the day it was very hot in the trade winds. We joked that during the day we had two options: staying outside and roasting or staying in the cabin and boiling. Our boat has a completely closed cabin and apart from the front door – which isn’t always open, there is no other ventilation. Stacking during the manoeuvres was a real sauna workout. Luckily, there weren’t that many.
On the ocean, we passed by some catamarans that were struggling to sail at 6 knots of speed. One curious fellow so was thrilled to see us fly past him at 15 knots of speed that he called us on VHF. He informed us they were a rally – the ARC plus to Grenada. I have to admit I didn’t envy him at all, and it made me remember Šutej’s solo crossing of the Atlantic on Hir. One has to have an endless supply of patience for seemingly endless lulling across the ocean under the equatorial sun at 6 knots of speed.
The last few days we sailed through the zone of Brazilian trade winds, a stretch of about 500 miles along the coast of northern Brazil and Guyana. We sailed the final 900 miles almost without changing anything, as the wind was benevolent and we managed great daily distances. On the 21st day of the race, we covered 323 miles in 24 hours, which is my personal daily record. Since this phase of the race was akin to a horse race, we could not match the scow designs and derivatives.
We overtook the only boat older than us and were the best placed old boat. We got stuck in the 17th place and were happy about it, with Barbados insight and the knowledge that fresh fruit and ‘ti punch’ were waiting for us. The highlight of one day was a fresh-water shower: we had a few extra litres left, so we could afford to wash for the first time in 22 days.
We crossed the finish line at Fort de France during the night.
Calliste’s family welcomed us on the dinghy of the organizing committee. While we were racing on the ocean, a public revolt against vaccination broke out in Martinique. After the protesters began to block roads, destroy property and blackmail race hosts and tourists, the police allegedly used firearms. The situation had not calmed down by the time we arrived and curfew was introduced, so we had to wait until the morning for the official welcome, tied to one of the buoys in the port.
Until then, we had a pleasant time with the crew aboard ‘Leclerc’, that passed the finish line in front of us, and then we went to sleep those few remaining hours until morning.
Completely exhausted, we fell asleep immediately, on a boat that didn’t move for the first time in three weeks. Suddenly everything stopped: we no longer had to trim sails, analyze weather forecasts and satellite imagery, struggle to remain on our feet or ponder tactics and strategy. Instead of the endless roaring of the ocean, the cabin was silent. Calliste told me in the morning that before dawn, in a daze, I jumped out of bed into the cockpit and shouted at him that we were stranded! I don’t remember that. That’s how confused the brain is when movement suddenly ends.
Over the next few days we spent in Martinique, we received countless congratulations. As much as we were surprised with good placement, our competition was even more surprised. We allowed our impressions to settle slowly like dust in that dreamy tropical landscape that seemed to not know what time was. The wind is mild there, and the sea warm… Kayaking through empty coves, I couldn’t help but wonder at the thought that in a week I would be in the Alps, in the cold and snow.
French offshore sailors sailing between the North Atlantic and the Caribbean seem to have found the ideal balance in life, something I first experienced thanks to sailing. To paraphrase Baza Luhrmann: live in Normandy once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in the Caribbean once but leave before it makes you soft.
Text Ivica Kostelić
Photos Croatia Full of Life, Jean-Louis Carli / Alea
Video Transat Jacques Vabre, Croatia Full of Life