Published – Sailing World
©2015 – All Rights Reserved – Troy Gilbert
It’s a brilliant idea. Invite roughly 1,500 college coed sailors to come race on the lumpy, aquamarine waters of France’s Bay of Biscay and let them go at it in chartered sportboats, the likes of which some have never sailed. Get them pumped every night with wine, food, electronic dance music, laser shows, a village carnival, and escapes into Les Sables d’Olonne, the holy city of offshore sailing. And as it should be, it’s a tough regatta to win.
Four American teams have air-vanned across the North Atlantic to face crews from Canada and Europe. There are 176 teams, which makes it the largest collegiate big-boat regatta in Europe. Sailing in J/80, Grand Surprise, and Longtze One-Design sportboats, as well as a French handicap fleet, the regatta consists of seven days of buoy racing, including a two day distance race for the big boats. First run in 1969, the EDHEC Sailing Cup is organized, marketed, and run by 50 MBA-level graduate students from France’s prestigious EDHEC University. It’s part of their curriculum, and there is no professorial or adult supervision whatsoever. What these exhausted student organizers pull off each year, rivals the efforts of any other international regatta: it has very real corporate sponsorship, professionalism, and most importantly, a village full of collegiate energy with serious racing cachet.
It was Thomas Gazeau, the regatta’s 21-year-old manager of international relations, who barnstormed U.S. colleges and coaches in 2013 and came back with commitments from Georgetown, Tufts, Drexel, and University of Chicago. But his biggest success was in a meeting with the Storm Trysail Club, organizers of the EDHEC’s American equivalent— the Intercollegiate Offshore Regatta. Winners of Storm Trysail’s gig now get an automatic invitation to EDHEC, as well as assistance with travel and expenses—as does the winner of the EDHEC Cup with a trip to Larchmont in 2015.
Tuft’s sailing coach, Ken Legler estimates that it costs nearly $28,000 in private donations for him to field fourteen seniors to France. His charges have exams in early May when the event takes place, but they have laptops to finish papers after each day’s racing and Legler even proctors an exam away from the throngs of the race village one afternoon. “First the seniors had to convince me that, academically, they could pull this off before I got onboard,” says Legler, a man who lives and breathes college sailing, but knows academics come first. “But I thought the value of this regatta was tremendous as many of them hadn’t done ocean racing before.”
Georgetown freshman skipper John LaBossiere describes his experience after the first few days as really intense. “For all of us, it’s our first time on a J/80, let alone sailing together offshore,” says LaBossiere sporting a Hoyas crew shirt and chubbie shorts. There was no mistaking some of the Americans. “I’ve never seen this many boats on the line, and some of these French and Swiss teams are stone cold good.”
In the early stages LaBossiere and his teammates struggle through jetlag, the weather cancelled practice races, and language barriers. “None of us onboard speak a word of French,” he says. “We’re like, ‘Wait, is that guy protesting us?’”
“We didn’t even know how to say our sail numbers to the French race committee.” The American squads fight through the first days, loitering in the middle and hind end of the fleet. At one point Georgetown is 13th and Tufts 17th in the 38-boat J/80 fleet. In the Grand Surprises, with 40 boats, Tufts’ second team is sitting in 20th while Drexel is buried in the 30s.
Yet, seemingly, once the distractions fell away and the teams learned how to get their boats around the track in bumpy offshore conditions, the Americans start getting noticed. “We are starting to get concerned,” admits French skipper Benoit Morane, who led the winning French crew at the EDHEC Cup in 2013. “I had raced against the American crews at Larchmont [N.Y.] last year and was surprised by the level of competition then, so no, I am not surprised these guys are turning it on.”
After dealing with gear failures on their chartered J/80, Georgetown starts winning races on the second day, and then Tufts skipper Will Haeger, younger brother of U.S. Olympic sailor Annie Haeger, starts owning the starts in the Grand Surprise fleet. “We’re all dinghy sailors so we don’t see anything like these conditions in college sailing and we had a couple of our crew nearly getting seasick early on,” Haeger says. “We struggled a bit with the slow acceleration of these bigger boats and the top end competition is much stronger than I thought they would be. The Swiss team’s upwind speed is ridiculous. But we decompressed from our initial apprehension and focused as a team. We learned from trim on the faster boats, and I wanted to be aggressive, so we started taking the pin and winning a lot of the starts.”
As the week progresses, Georgetown and Tufts climb the standings, and after five days, the top 24 teams from the combined fleets moves to three championship races in either the 15-boat Grand Surprise or nine-boat Longtze One Design classes. It’s a bit unusual and complex, with higher-ranked teams allowed to make a choice between the two classes. This choice can have a ripple effect and determine the class for the lower-ranked crews. It becomes a strategic, as well as a tactical choice based on skill-sets and potential opponents.
Tufts has sailed Grand Surprises all week but take the Longtze. Georgetown’s sailors, who thought they’d been eliminated by a few points, receive a late-night phone call telling them to be ready to sail Grand Surprise in the morning. LaBossiere’s teammates, of course, have dispersed into the chaos of the race village, forcing him to track them down one by one and break the news.
After racing J/80s all week, and having never set foot on a Grand Surprise either, the Hoyas turn to YouTube videos and tuning guides, all created by the top Swiss team they’re sailing against in the morning. Two crewmembers shy, they’re allowed to press spare Tufts crew into service.
Under perfect weather on the championship day, and with the seas finally cooperating, the two one-design fleets and chase boats set up for the finals about a mile offshore from the tidal beaches and medieval spires of Les Sables. The French race committee lets them fly in a steady 12 knots. With three races to determine the class winners, Tufts first pulls a stunner of a win. Georgetown tears a spinnaker and pays the price for the rest of the day. In the second, Tufts picks up a penalty and does its penalty turns before the traveler falls apart. With a jury rig, the crew fights through the setback, recovers on the final downwind leg, and checks in with a surprising second-place finish.With now building conditions taking a toll on the fleet, the French race committee pulls the plug and sends everyone back to the Les Sables’ packed harbor, tucked behind the imposing seawall. In the end, Georgetown finishes 10th overall, Tufts holds second place on the tiebreaker.
It’s an exhausting and full week of racing for these students, but they all seem happy, including Tufts senior and foredeck Victor Ansart, who knocked out a front tooth early in the regatta, but was beaming alongside his French expatriate father, who had competed in the first EDHEC sailing Cup 31 years ago on a Two-Tonner. Coincidentally, the elder Ansart also finished second.
As the energy dissipates from the race village, volunteers strike sponsor exhibits and tents and nearby hoists roll as boats get hauled and put on trailers. Alexander Sauvage, student president of the EDHEC Sailing Cup, takes a breather inside the tent reserved for non-French crews and pleads for attendance of more American teams. “This is a growing international regatta,” he says, “and with the high level of competition in America, we need to bring more of this talent to our event.”
But word of mouth is perhaps better than any recruiting mission. Case in point, amidst the chaos outside the tent and as someone in a giant bear costume runs by, Oxford sailing’s Eric Topham bumps into Georgetown’s Will Smith. The two simultaneously remove and exchange crew shirts, embrace one another, shake hands, and then ebb back into the crowd, international relations established.