© 2013 – Troy Gilbert
ISLAND OF GUADELOUPE – “We were trimming in and I had a boat above me and a boat to leeward of me and I had to go right then. I’m screaming Choquer! Choquer! So my mainsheet trimmer is easing when I meant trim. He goes almost all the way out with it and now I’m really screaming Choquer! and then I realize I’m screaming the wrong thing. Oh no! Border! Border!” It didn’t bode well for New Orleans racer and sailmaker, Benz Faget, competing in the Zoo Regatta on the island of Guadeloupe this past January.
In a race peppered with America’s Cup sailors and more than a few Rolex’s getting wet, it’s safe to assume that being forced to race with a pick-up crew who only spoke French and starting out with a 6th and a 4th in the Championship round – the odds were pretty insurmountable that he could win.
Having his regular crew back in New Orleans standing down because of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Benz remembers telling them, “Don’t worry about it. This is going to be a total shambles anyway.”
Luckily, the race organizers cobbled together a mish-mash of crew for him made up of a charter boat Captain who had only raced twice and three others who had crewed on boats that didn’t even make it into the Zoo qualifying round – only two of them had ever raced together before.
Meeting them for the first time as he walked up the dock at the marina in Gosier, he was promptly handed a hastily typed up French to English translation of sailing terms and then ferried out to the course for their only practice before the qualifying rounds started the next day.
Onboard one of the six identical Jeanneau Sun Fast 37′s that the 12 teams would be swapping between, Benz split his time trying to learn French and feeling less and less confident as they worked through the four-hour practice on the mile long course.
Benz details their first experience together on the boat, “With the winds pushing 25-30 knots, some of the really good teams had America’s Cup people onboard and they were having troubles. But that was nothing compared to us. As we were rounding the first mark, I needed one of the crew to pull the guy back, but he had no idea of what I was saying, so I mean I had to look at my cheat sheet and find the translation. The paper was already soaking wet. My crew didn’t understand a single word I was saying.”
“That first practice we couldn’t even get the spinnaker up.” Benz continues, “I’m watching the Italians and they’re out there putting it up and doing a couple of gybes and a douse at the bottom mark, and I said we’re in deep shit.”
“We started to figure it out though.” With the crew especially weak working with the chute, Benz took it upon himself to fly it while helming the boat. He explains, “The winches for the spinnaker were right by the helm. From there, I could more or less just manhandle the sheets. I could at least hold it, trim it and sort of steer under the chute. That’s how we ended up getting around the race course. They kept wanting to grab the spinnaker and trim it, but there were just too many jobs to do for only four people, even the good people. As it turned out, it ended up being a little lighter over the weekend, it was blowing 18 or something. I don’t think I could have pulled it off for the practice, but most of the conditions for the weekend were a lot lighter, although we did get some pretty heavy squalls.”
With two classes of six, Saturday’s qualifying races would determine the top three finishers of the two classes who would then compete on Sunday in the Gold Round with the bottom six finishers racing in the Silver Round. The two classes would alternate racing as they traded off boats, with the first crew retiring to the shore after completing two races.
After the practice day turned out to be a total disaster, Benz smiles as he describes the racing on Saturday. “The first day I got in there, the very first race, we won. There was this huge 30 degree wind shift, and I was the only one who went that way. I was watching this squall, and it went outside, and I went towards the squall, and the wind came over 30 degrees to the right and I tacked over and reached in to the weather mark while everyone else was sitting in light air.”
After the first two races, Benz was standing even with skipper Chris Rosenberg with a first and a second. When they traded off boats with the second class, they retired to shore and he and Rosenberg, as the two leaders, were swarmed on the dock by the foreign press.
In the second two race series, Benz was able to chalk up a third and another first placing him easily into second behind Rosenberg who came up with another first and a second. Benz describes how after four, it was now impossible for him not to qualify for the Gold Round, so he relaxed a bit and pulled down a third and a fourth in the final two races to finish second overall behind Rosenberg in the qualifiers.
Benz was charged for the final day of racing as was his crew. He states, “They were pretty excited to be in the Gold Round. This was a big, big deal happening on their home turf. Before this they weren’t even going to get to crew in it. Now suddenly they can crew in it, and here they are – crew for some dumb American, who can’t speak – much less speak French! You know I mumble both languages. But I had won a lot of their confidence that first race day.”
Unfortunately, the day started disastrously. Benz explains, “The first race I was over the line and I didn’t know what they were saying over the radio because it was in French. The crew finally was able to explain it to me, but we were already 100 yards down the course and I was pinned in between two boats. We had to go back. It was awful, but we almost caught the 5th boat.” Benz and his crew finished the first race with a 6th.
The second race was almost as bad, as they ran into topping lift and even more language miscues. They finished 4th, swapped off their boat, and headed to shore to wait for their next two race series.
Pulling down a 6th and a 4th for the first two races was a devastating way to start, but Benz was loathe to come all this way and finish last in the Gold Round. He explains, “I was like, I’ve got to try something. I’ve got a 6/4 and I have to finish more reasonable than this. I’m not going to finish last in the Gold Round.”
Benz started making adjustments to try and increase power and explains, “We were going to move the jib lead forward, but I kept trying to find vice grips. I couldn’t explain vice grips in French. I figured I could vice grip off the genoa car, to where there was a big hole further forward. Everybody else was pretty much using the same hole. It was a huge move, like six inches, we moved it forward and I told them if I say ‘No, No’ to move it back after the start.”
He further details the adjustments, “We were also not quite as tight on the jib, lead forward, twisted mainsail, and a lot of headstay sag.”
“I was in last after the first two races. I was in the worst possible spot. It was so critical to get away from the line.” Benz explains further, “But all of a sudden I had speed to burn. I started the next race, it wasn’t a great start, it was ok, but I just climbed off of everybody else. I realized man do I have a huge pedal here. I finished like a half leg ahead, maybe 3 quarters before everyone else.”
The next two races were more of the same according to Benz, “I just had speed to freaking burn. What I had set up was just so much faster, you could visually notice that we were going faster upwind, and of course, we’re out of the pack. They’re all fighting, and we were gone. I mean we were gone. Nobody blocking our wind downwind, we were far enough ahead at both weather marks those next two races that there was no one on that wind – we were free sail the whole run on it. Just go at the mark, go back upwind and there was no way these people were going to catch us – just keep sailing away with speed. On the downwind leg, we’d move our leads back again, tighten the headstay back up, ease the foot of the main, change our settings. I was hiding my tricks because we traded off the boats after each race.”
Going into the final race of the Gold Round, Benz was now sitting with a 6th, 4th and three 1st place finishes, which placed him again in a strong second behind Rosenberg. The only way Benz could now bring home anything better than second was if he finished three places ahead of Rosenberg.
With helicopters and cigarette boats lined with media creating near havoc, the six boats racing in the Gold Round jockeyed around for the start and knowing how critical the start was for this short course, Benz enthusiastically relates the battle at the start between himself and Chris Rosenberg, “He goes out there and jumps me. He attacks right off the bat. He starts match racing. Remember there are on the water umpires, so they were watching us closely. He does a reversal on me, and I reversed at the same time, but I was coming at him on starboard, so he had to swing up. I now sat there luffing, head to wind, but way above layline for the committee boat, and then he trimmed in to try and get over me, and I trimmed in and luffed him up again. So at the start I had him pinned down on the wrong side of the Committee Boat sitting in irons, and I bore off and started. Mind you with all of these maneuvers I am calling out orders in French, but it was starting to get natural by this point. I’m sure all of my pronunciations were incorrect, but my crew were getting the point of it.”
Benz continues, “Chris couldn’t get up to the line. He started like dead last, and again it was pedal to the metal for us. I put almost a half a leg on him. Well he very brightly, he’s a very good sailor, works his way up to third place in that race. So now we’re looking at I’ve got to win and he’s got to finish fourth. So it was still almost impossible.”
“We’re winning again, but he was fast to the weather mark. He ended passing two boats heading downwind, and then passes up the third place boat, a quarter way up the beat. So I’m like screw this, I had to go back to him. I turn downwind, my crew starts flipping out. Going into this last race, my crew was just losing it. They were so pumped that they had the potential of winning and now here I was doing this.”
“I got to him and kind of pinned him and the second place boat going out to the left. Now the guy who was in fourth comes up and he crosses into the lead. I pinned these guys out and sat on both of them. They were both over the layline, and I’m cramming them both. I push Chris back to fifth. I ended up passing the last weather mark in third place and he was in fourth, but I was right there with the other two boats, and I went right in between them. One guy jibed away to starboard, and that really helped me out because I would have been squeezed. Chris rounds, trying to get on my wind. I luffed up the guy on my left side, he lost his chute when I did that and I knew now that he’d be slow.”
“Meanwhile I got Chris trying to get on our wind, and I’m hoping that this other guy is able to come up and beat him too, which he does because Chris is trying to follow me around on my air, trying to slow me down. All he needs to do is get one of these other boats to beat me.”
“As we came into the finish line it was so freaking close, we had a boat coming in from the other side, it was so close, then we hear our boat number get called on the radio for the win. My crew was out of their minds because we knew Chris had come in fourth. I mean talk about your hair standing up on your arms.”
Within minutes, Benz’s boat was flooded with the press, cameras and a case of Mumm’s champagne, which was quickly spraying everywhere. They then went and did a flyby of the beaches filled with thousands of spectators, spinnaker up and Benz readily admits that by that point he and his crew were trashed on champagne.
Benz easily chalks this race up as one of his greatest wins, but was more amazed at the amount of press coverage, spectators and energy of the whole regatta. “It was a whole different world down there. It was like a sailboat NASCAR race. At the after party, I got to judge the bikini contest – that was pretty damn sweet.”