Four search planes flew out of Newport, R.I. on Friday the 7th to scan the ocean for the leader of the single-handed Trans-Atlantic yacht race from England and, as expected, they sighted the biggest boat of all—Vendredi 13, Friday the 13th to the unsuperstitious. Manned by a 27-year-old Frenchman, Jean-Yves Terlain, she was skimming along near Nantucket like a huge seabird. By radio, Terlain estimated that he would cross the finish line off Brenton Reef at 9 p.m. No other sail was in sight.
But out of the dusk that evening came a tiger of a trimaran called Pen Duick IV. Word spread quickly to the Port O'Call Marina in Newport, where a flock of greeters awaited Vendredi 13, the $250,000 beauty owned by Film Director Claude Lelouch of A Man And A Woman fame. A cocktail party for race officials broke up in an astonished hubbub, and newsmen from around the world gathered on the dock. A crushed Dick Carter, Vendredi's American designer, who had arrived in Newport only minutes before the news came, tried to wipe a look of disbelief from his face. Alas, the wind had died on Vendredi.
Suddenly the surprise winner glided into view, more a creature than a boat, a 67-foot insect, an unpainted aluminum bedstead turned feet up, reflecting the intense TV lights ashore. She looked remarkably tidy for a vessel that had traveled so far so fast—3,000 miles from Plymouth in 20 days, 12 hours, breaking the previous record by five full days.
The spectators rocked the dock as they applauded Pen Duick's jubilant 28-year-old skipper, Alain Colas. Police sirens and boat horns shrieked their salutes to the Frenchman who, merely to get to the start of the singlehander, had sailed 9,600 miles from Réunion in the Indian Ocean in 64 days.
July 16, 1972
Now he had won the race itself. Teura Krause, a comely friend of Colas' from Tahiti, stepped lightly aboard to embrace him, followed by Colas' brother, Jean-Fran√ßois. The mayor of Newport presented a bottle of champagne—tut, California champagne—to Alain, whereupon Jean-Fran√ßois riposted with a magnum of Tattinger that he had stored aboard. "I hope," Colas said to the mayor, "that now you will have some French champagne."
The atmosphere was one of true admiration for the slightly built Colas, a sometime professor of languages. What a marvel to be able to handle that huge, 35-foot-wide machine with one pair of hands, let alone beat Vendredi 13. The next afternoon, that 128-foot, three-masted schooner—the most unconventional racing boat and certainly the biggest singlehander ever built—came flying in under full sail. She made a stirring sight coming up out of the sun with every stitch set. When Vendredi docked she took one's breath away. Picture the biggest sailboat imaginable, double that, and you still fall short of the reality. From stem to stern over her remarkably clean deck she just went on and on.
It had been a close and grueling duel for the leviathans. They were, as Colas told Carter, "clearly superior, these two." Both skippers chose the most direct route across the Atlantic. On Colas' part this was a particularly smart move. Multihulls do not go really well to windward. The southern trade winds promised tempting reaching weather, but, as things turned out, Pen Duick fairly whistled into the winds she encountered to the north and thus saved herself a costly detour.
Amazingly, halfway across the Atlantic the two boats met. "There, two miles ahead, was a big sailing boat with three masts," Colas reported in his diary for the London Observer, sponsor of the race. "I screamed. I just screamed." After nearly a day's hard windward work in light air, he courteously passed Vendredi to leeward. Colas thought it would have been unseemly to cross her bows. Then the boats separated, never to close again until the final hours of excitement off Newport.
Besides her listlessness in anything less than a breeze, Vendredi may have suffered from another difficulty. According to friends, Terlain tends to be a dreamer. "He is not a good competitive sailor," said one. "When he races he watches the birds, the sky, the sea. You say, 'Look...that sail. Is it trimmed all right?' 'Oh, yes,' he replies. Over 3,000 miles watching birds can be expensive."
Terlain, however, believes he lost the race in the final day or two only because he sailed into calms. On his best, breezy day he had reeled off 225 miles; now he found himself fighting for every inch under light canvas.
Landlubbers are forever asking single-handers what they do at night. Easy. They have a self-steering device, analogous to an aircraft automatic pilot. They hand the boat to the self-steerer, bunk in and hope they do not hit a whale, a freighter or an iceberg.
Colas' self-steerer gave him his worst moments of the voyage when he was four days out and in heavy weather. "I had to go into the water and it was intensely cold," Colas told The Observer. "It was blowing Force 8 and the waves were about 12 feet high." His repairs permitted him to continue, but with extreme caution whenever the wind picked up.
Vendredi may be 61 feet longer than the winner, but the three sails she set were so ingeniously rigged by Designer Carter that Terlain could winch them up and down with relative ease. In fact, he could do most all his work from the cockpit; his sail-controls led there.
By comparison with Vendredi, the ketch-rigged Pen Duick was tricky. She has more sails to play with, more sheets to trim, a centerboard to raise and lower and a deck that looks like an obstacle course. Although he permitted himself only 3½ hours sleep the last three days—and came in to Rhode Island Sound flying a huge spinnaker to catch the vagrant sighs of wind—Colas still managed handily. "I know the wind will not come to me," he said. "It is up to me to get to the wind."
Fifty-four boats from 10 countries, including Czechoslovakia and Poland, had answered the starting gun off Plymouth on June 17, the smallest craft only 19 feet from bow to transom. One of the early casualties was Sir Francis Chichester, winner of the first singlehanded Trans-Atlantic in 1960, when only five sailors competed. Sailing the 39-foot Gipsy Moth III, he had taken 40 days to cross—almost twice as long as Pen Duick. Though 70 and ailing from anemia, he insisted on entering this year. A few days out, however, the gallant old sea dog radioed to a Royal Air Force plane: "I am weak and cold." But to the liner France II he revealed his still-flaming spirit. When the captain offered to take him aboard he testily replied, "Thank you, but please go away." He finally did accept succor from French hands.
Too bad for Sir Francis, but times have changed. What he really needed was a 67-foot trimaran, or at least a 128-foot schooner.