French Whitbread yacht L’Esprit d’Equipe sailed into Cowes on Saturday 13 April to take second place in the Ocean Globe Race. Barry Pickthall reports.

Lionel Regnier and his crew aboard the veteran French Whitbread Race yacht L’Esprit d’Equipe returned to Cowes late on Saturday 14 April to take second place on elapsed time for the final leg of the Ocean Globe Race from Punta del Este, Uruguay.

Just over 24 hours later, the Finnish crew aboard the Whitbread veteran Swan 641 Spirit of Helsinki crossed the line in third place after sailing for 179 days.

It was a stellar performance from L’Esprit d’Equipe. The 57ft three-time Whitbread Race veteran, then under the command of fellow French skipper Lionel Pean, won the 1985/6 Race outright. Crossing the finish line at 2027 UTC, just 21 and a half hours behind Marie Tabarly’s much larger Pen Duick VI, Regnier and his crew have comprehensively out sailed four larger rivals, the nearest being Spirit of Helsinki.

Regnier said at the finish. ‘I’m exhausted but very happy to be here. It’s been a long project and we were all disappointed by our positions on the first three legs [to Cape Town, Auckland and Punta del Este]. But on this final leg we have shown what this boat is capable of.’

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Spirit of Helsinki, skippered by Jussi Paavoseppa returned to Cowes at 23:37 UTC on Sunday to take the provisional overall lead in the Ocean Globe Race, but the final pecking order remains a close call with Britain’s all-girl crew aboard Maiden, and the two French Neptune and Triana still in the frame.

Paavoseppa and his crew, who were greeted to a great welcome from family and friends, ran up the Solent under spinnaker at more than 10 knots thanks in part to a 2-knot flooding tide, but Neptune and Maiden are being pushed even faster up the English Channel by a 50-knot sou’wester that could yet work in their favour.

The Spirit crew, racing the former 3rd placed Whitbread yacht Fazer Finland, led the fleet into Cape Town, but faltered on the two Southern Ocean legs before finding their form again on this final 6,700 mile leg from Punta del Este back to the finish.

‘It was a rough leg, but the biggest challenge has been tying up against the dock here,’ joked Paavoseppa after his crew-mates had jumped ashore to hug family and friends, leaving him to secure the lines.

‘The weather was really difficult in the South Atlantic with lots of high pressure systems popping up. We had very little good weather information until the Azores.’ From there, Spirit of Helsinki rode a series of favourable winds all the way across the Bay of Biscay, Western Approaches and up the Channel chalking up a secession of 200+ mile days and one when they covered 308 miles.

‘We suffered a few breakages; our generator, engine and the watermaker, but managed to repair them which was down to the strength of this crew,’ Paavoseppa reflected.

The next to return is the French yacht Neptune, another Whitbread veteran. At 1000 today, she was off Start Point, speeding along at 10.7knots with 107 miles to go. She is expected to cross the Royal Yacht Squadron line at Cowes at 0700 Tuesday.

While other crews fell into calms off the Brazilian coast, the L’Esprit d’Equipe crew read the weather exactly right and were leading the race outright as they crossed the Equator using 1970s era weather faxes transmitted in morse code together with sextant sights to plot their positions just as it was in the first Whitbread 50 years ago.

A big part of the challenge of the Ocean Globe Race is that there are no satnavs or chart plotters, nor any of the satellite weather reports and wind predicting apps that all of us take for granted now.

It was not until the leaders were in tropical trade winds in the North Atlantic that the bigger 73ft Pen Duick VI was able to show her greater speed.

Now the focus turns to an intriguing battle for handicap honours, not just for this last leg, but the race itself.

Marie Tabarly has set down the marker. At the time of writing, another French yacht, the Swan 53 Triana still topped the leaderboard on handicap, with a projected elapsed time of 180 days 14 hours, but this is only 2 hours ahead of Spirit of Helsinki, with Britain’s all-girl crew aboard Maiden skippered by Heather Thomas, a further 4 hours behind.

Just one poor weather call, false tack or blown-out sail could make all the difference for any of these three.

Follow the race at the Ocean Globe Race tracker.

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