A classic race is shaping up for the Open 60s in the Transat Jacques Vabre, with serious hopes for the British contenders. Of those, Emma Richards's and Mike Sanderson's controversial new approach is causing a stir, reports Elaine Bunting

As a form guide for next year’s Vendée Globe, the next few weeks will be telling. There are clear favourites in the Open 60 fleet of the Transat Jacques Vabre from France to Brazil, which starts this weekend, but there are perhaps seven of them, and remarkably four of those potential winners are being raced by British sailors. When you add to this Ellen MacArthur sailing with Alain Gautier on the ORMA 60 trimaran Foncia, the chances of an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ assault on the podium have never been higher.

Nor has there ever been a more purposefully honed or impressive fleet of Open 60s, in particular, than are on display in the Bassin Paul Vatine in Le Havre. There are 17 top notch boats. Two of them, Mike Golding’s Ecover and Jean-Pierre Dick’s Virbac, are new and expensively built and pundits are eager to see how they will perform, especially the different slant represented by Virbac, the first Bruce Farr-designed Open 60.

Emma Richards also has a promising new boat with her new Pindar. This was formerly Graham Dalton’s Owen Clarke/Rob Humphreys-designed Hexagon, widely believed never to have touched full potential. If anything, this is the boat – and the team – that has caused the biggest stir.

Emma is sailing this time with Mike Sanderson, aka ‘Moose’. Sanderson is a big-hitter from a very different background to most of the Open 60 sailors, who tend by nature and by necessity to be skilled all-rounders and jacks of all trades. His background ranges from crewing on Grant Dalton’s Whitbread boat New Zealand Endeavour, to mainsheet trimmer on the America’s Cup boat Oracle BMW. Most recently, he was racing skipper of Mari-Cha IV when she set a new monohull transatlantic record.

A fresh breeze has blown through the Pindar camp, with new full-time shore crew tempered in the fire of America’s Cup and Whitbread campaigns. Out has gone some of the received wisdom of Open 60 racing and in has come a measure of science new not only to Emma and Pindar, but arguably to the class as a whole.

The sight of the new Pindar with a mast-mounted box section boom and a headstay devoid of furling gear has caused big ripples among the other skippers, many of whom resolutely believe the pair are making a mistake in assuming the boat can be sailed by two people in the same way as, say, a fully crewed Volvo 60.

Mike Sanderson and Emma Richards beg to differ, though, and if their changes prove to be an advantage, we can expect to see this new philosophy infiltrating the class. They talked to us about the thinking behind the changes to Pindar, and how it fits in with their plans for a Volvo Ocean Race campaign.

Explaining why they believe it is worth shunning a furling genoa, Mike says: “For this weather coming up, these boats aren’t great upwind and we’ve got a Cuben and carbon No 4 jib – a jib top reacher – which is smaller than the Solent and is on soft hanks on the forestay. It weighs 20kg and it’s easy to handle once it’s up. It’s as easy to pull up as it is to unroll.

“We’ve got the same 3DL carbon as they used for the America’s Cup and that gives us the lightest, strongest sail on the market and it’s on deck instead of on the mast. It saves a lot of windage. These boats go so badly upwind anyway and everything you deduct by getting rid of windage is great.

“The halyard comes back to the cockpit. Once we’re set up, we’re set up. If we didn’t have a pedestal winch it would be tricky, but we’ve changed things to allow for it. We’ve changed the winches so we can get the power and the line speed.”

Their training has convinced Emma that the extra grunt work will be something they can handle. “I can lift this genoa, whereas the previous one on Hexagon it took at least two people,” she says. “Everyone else will be pulling out their genoa and we’ve got to hank it on, but it’s not major – maybe an extra 5 or 7 minutes. But we can just have some sail ties and tie it down. Even if it sits there the whole way across it’s a gain [from being aloft].

“As for sail changes, if it’s faster for me to helm and Mike to take the sails down that’s what we’ll do. We’re working to a team of 150kg, instead of one person of 60kg and one of 90kg.

They argue that their preparations have moved them up a level. “Preparation is a totally different thing. We’ve got two guys working full time,” comments Emma. “There’s Duffy – David Duff – managing shoreside [New Zealand Challenge America’s Cup 1992, sailmaker for NZ Endeavour during the Whitbread and loft manager for Oracle BMW] and also David Endean [Tyco bowman and boat captain and rig and bow One World Challenge AC]. They are dedicated to making sure things are right and basically rebuilt the boat. To have that on our side is something I haven’t seen in this class, though I have seen it on the Volvo.”

Sanderson says: “We’ve been really ruthless. We’ve taken off the stereo and speakers, the water tap, the floorboards, reduced the size of the string, taken away the heater and the handles. We’ve taken out all the lights that were right throughout the boat – there were about 16 lights.

“We spent a lot of time on measurement trim and [as a consequence] we have taken 100kg off the keel. The boat’s actual performance should have gone up and its potential has improved. We know we’ve made it faster.”

Emma adds: “We took off 14 solar panels at 5 kilos each. We took off the Sat F dome. We’ve changed the electronics [to Raymarine] and that’s 50 kilos lighter. The boat is lighter now than when it was built and weighed, hundreds and hundreds of kilos lighter.”

They will be using a full-time shore-based navigator, in the form of Sanderson’s long-time colleague Mike Quilter, as well as a meteorologist, maximising the amount of time they can devote to sailing the boat. “That’s probably the most radical thing we’ve done,” says Sanderson. “Mike Quilter will still use a meteorologist – Clouds Badham – but it’s a bit of a different way to go. Our theory is that it’s the easiest way for us to get an extra person.”

Emma adds: “The biggest mistakes you make are when you’re tired. Especially mentally. But you can still sail even when you’re exhausted.”

Whether these changes will be a true advantage or whether, as some believe, lugging sails up and down in transitional weather will exhaust them long before they reach the fast running of the Trades remains to be seen. It is not, as Mike Sanderson readily admits, his world. ” I haven’t done a race since I was six years old where I’ve known less about the calibre of the fleet. We have no idea how we’ll do. We might get absolutely hosed. But I hope not.”

Either way, they and their sponsors, Pindar, believe these developments are invaluable in preparing for a Volvo Ocean Race campaign, which is a joint long-term goal. Pindar are using this as a platform for preparing a turnkey project they can present to another sponsor or a syndicate of sponsors, with Emma and Mike as co-skippers.

“We plan on designing a VOR boat by July and this gives us experience with a canting keel. So we’ve saved ourselves 4-5 months and have spent half the money we would have if we’d built [an Open 60],” says Sanderson. “It has given us a springboard for the VOR and something to use for corporate sponsorship.”

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