April 14, 2014

The One-Design Transatlantic

Although it’s off the radar of almost all sailing fans in America, theTransat AG2R is, in this writer’s opinion, the single most competitive trans-Atlantic race of them all. It started March 6 at Concarneau, France, at the north end of the Bay of Biscay.

Pitting 15 one-design, 33-ft Beneteau Figaro II’s against one another, this edition of the AG2R has attracted many of the best sailors in the shorthanded racing world — almost all French — to race 3,890 nautical miles doublehanded from Brittany in France to St. Barth in the Caribbean. With five Vendée Globe vets, including the great Michel Desjoyeaux, sailing with and against a fleet of top young talent made up of Mini Transat winners, Figaro winners and Class 40 standouts, this Transat AG2R is unique to both the world of sailing and sport. It’s like seeing Michael Jordan and Lebron James team up with top college hoops stars to make an NCAA tournament run.

Michel Desjoyeaux is one of the superstars competing in this year’s Figaro.

© Transat Jacques Vabre / Thierry Martinez

After the March 6 start, the fleet of 15 identical production-built racers negotiated a short coastal course before heading offshore into the leading edge of a classic Biscay low that brought heavy upwind conditions and big seas. Almost immediately, defending AG2R champions Gildas Morvan and Charlie Dalin on Cercle Verte dismasted after their port lower shroud failed and sent the rig over the starboard side of the boat. Battling for the lead when the démâtage occurred, the two sailors cut away the mast and motored for the beating heart of the French shorthanded ocean racing scene: Port La Forêt.

With the passage of the front, the remaining 14 boats flopped to starboard and reached south in westerlies that gradually backed to the traditional northerlies that create the Portuguese trades. The notorious Finisterre traffic separation scheme split the fleet in half, creating an opportunity for major gains and losses to be made, although the pack was quick to regroup. As is often the case in sailing, light air has become the great equalizer. After several days of solid VMG running during which several skippers explained that they had kept their spinnakers up in 35 knots, just waiting for the others to drop back, the fleet has nearly restarted at the mandatory turning mark at La Palma.

As you can see, the fleet split apart radically west of the Canaries.

©

After more than eight days of racing, this twelfth edition of the AG2R continues to offer up the impossibly close racing that makes the Figaro circuit so great. At the front of the pack, a trio of Vendée Globe stars are battling for the lead, with the top three boats separated by less than four miles after more than 1,400 miles of racing. With four boats jibing northwest and the rest of the fleet headed south, a major tactical dilemma has again split the fleet in grand fashion. Posting results or places at this point in the race is pointless as the leaders are shuffling at an almost hourly rate. Check the event website (French only) and the tracker site to keep up to date on this biennial sailing classic!

New Constraints on Euro Cruising

Lest anyone think that Mexico’s recent self-destructive ‘auditing’ of foreign-owned boats was a unique governmental brain fart, consider the oppressive situation for foreign mariners wanting to cruise — and spread money — in ‘Schengen Area’ countries.

What countries constitute the Schengen Area? It’s actually quite simple: Twenty-two of the twenty-eight European Union (EU) member states, and all four European Free Trade Association (EFTA) member states. Of the six EU members that do not form part of the Schengen Area, four — Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania — are legally obliged to join the Schengen Area, while the other two — Ireland (reluctantly) and the United Kingdom — are opt-outs. Four non-members of the EU, but members of EFTA — Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland — participate, while three European microstates — Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican — are de facto parts of the Schengen Area. Like we said, it’s simple.

Maybe it would be easier if we listed the countries close to, but not part of, the Schengen Area. These would include the United Kingdom, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Albania, Montenegro, and the cruising paradise of Croatia — although Croatia joins the Schengen Area next year. In other words, if you’re an American who wants to cruise the western Med, you’ve got a Schengen problem.

As you can see, the new regulations would make cruising the Med extremely challenging. In blue are Schengen Area members, and in green, those which are legally bound to join.

© Wikipedia

The idea behind the Schengen Treaty was to allow citizens of all 26 Schengen countries free passage in any and all Schengen countries. Wonderful. The problem is that the same Treaty prohibits nationals of non-Schengen countries from staying in Schegen countries for more than 90 days in any 180-day period. The mariners primarily affected are from the Schengen friendly countries of the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.

While in St. Barth, we met the owners of two very nice Northern California yachts who are very interested in taking their  boats to the Med. But given the shocking limitations on their potential visit — "That’s impossible, you must not understand it," said one — it would make cruising in the Med difficult if not out of the question.

The visitation limits for boats aren’t anywhere near as severe. Boats can be kept in the 26 countries for 18 months. With documentation they’ve been taken out of the area for just one day, then can be brought back in for another 18 months.

There are a couple of potential ways to try to work around the problem. The most reliable way is to get a resident permit in advance. But this can be difficult unless you can prove you have a fixed address, which would be hard if you were cruising around on your boat.

Another tactic has been to alternate spending three months in Schengen countries and three months out. But for people who want to enjoy a leisurely summer cruising from, for example, Spain to France to Italy, this tactic would require an unwanted trip across the Med to either Morroco or Tunisia. It’s no big deal crossing from southern Spain to Morocco, but if you had to cross from any of the other parts of Spain, France or Italy, and particularly in the spring or fall, you could be in for a lot of unpleasantness.

What a ridiculous situation. If anybody could explain how making life miserable for visiting affluent non-Schengeners in any way benefits Schengeners, we’d like to hear it. To be fair, the United States isn’t exactly welcoming of foreign boat owners. 

Having come to the realiziation that the draconian ‘visa’ restrictions on non-Schengen mariners makes no sense, the European Commission recently put forward a proposal to revise the EU’s visa code for third-country visitors to the Schengen passport-free area. The aim is to shorten and simplify the procedures for those wanting to come to the EU for short stays, with the objective of boosting economic activity and job creation. Approval is not expected before next year, if then. And at this point, it’s unclear what the new terms would be.

Making a ‘run for it’ on a sailboat is rarely the best of ideas, but it has worked for John Hards, a former long-time resident of the Bay Area who has spent the last 11 years loving retirement aboard in Mexico.
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