Record au moteur, l’IS 33
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Crossing the Mediterranean
A record under motor
There's nothing like trying out a new boat and throwing yourself headlong into an impossible mission: a record crossing of the Mediterranean in the company of yours truly, the architect Michel Joubert, to test his latest creation: an open hull made of Strongall propelled by two 220 hp mercruiser diesels. 480 miles with the needle on the speedometer at 30 knots. Record set! A taste of paradise and... of hell.
Saturday, July 13, 1991: the new port of Fréjus has the heart to celebrate...nationally. Flonflons, musette and soon fireworks. Huge loudspeakers blow out the hits of the summer. In the middle of the hubbub, four sea lovers put order on board a boat that would be perfect for coast guards. Michel Joubert's intelligent Service 33, built in aluminum, sorry, in Strongall, an open hull of ten meters long, leaves for a mission in the heart of the night. The secret has been well kept until now: to reach the French coast in just over fifteen hours, the day after the French President's visit to Tunis... pure coincidence. An attempt to set a record on the Mediterranean on the outward journey and why not on the return journey. We let Joubert choose the port of departure, Fréjus, still in fresh cement, and the port of arrival, Sidi Bou Saïd, not far from Tunis. 480 miles on a Mediterranean capable of the best - what the weather forecast foresees for 48 hours - as well as the worst, we will see later why. Joubert's inseparable friend, Bernard Nivelt, only has eyes for his portable GPS, which he initializes in an almost religious way: it's the one that will bring us to our destination! Of course, the course compass has not been checked, due to lack of time, and the VHF must be lying at the bottom of a bag, but this is not the time to snoop in the dark. The man of the mercruiser engines shows a great assurance since in forty hours of test, he did not detect any anomaly and the tanks contain 900L of fuel, it is sufficient... if we are not mistaken. However, at the last moment, it takes on board 100L of emergency.
Night sailing has always attracted me. I like to admire the movement of the silver traces that the moon leaves on the sea. But this night, no star, our satellite has eclipsed. Top Chrono ! We set sail in total discretion, forgetting to officially notify a contact on Earth. All the same! Ready to give the others multiple cautions but never really inclined to follow them.
Stabilized speed, thirty knots, trim between negative and neutral, the hull does not move and glides on a barely undulating Mediterranean. Perfectly seated in the pilot seat, I discover the IS33. The steering is smooth. Turn Left orders me the GPS, which has already calculated my deviation from my landing point. The digital display is difficult to read at night, especially when a halo of light (the one that adorns the IS33's gantry) bathes the screen. From time to time, I take a star in my sights. Three minutes on the same bright spot, in an ebony sky, a few seconds on the GPS in order to rectify the route, that's what I do at night on board such a boat. Michel Joubert has prepared his bunk: the mattress on the engine cover, placed on the floor behind the pilot and co-pilot seats. He is certainly sleeping while his aluminium “raft” is going down on the big blue. There, to starboard, a green luminescence, we are not alone. By the way, is it reasonable to break through the night curtain at thirty knots without a radar? And the invisible wrecks? I may be a Cassandra, but Michel Joubert remains confident: my boat in Strongall, it's strong! I'm going for this aplomb, which suits me and gives my reason a certain comfort.
I give up the bar and slip into my sleeping bag. The rest is a mixture of memories, dreams and reality. I remember very well the image of the sea spray whistling above the portico and the feeling of being lifted in the air. Sleeping is then a big word, resting seems more appropriate. Saturday 5:30 am I risk an eye to the east but still no redness. Half an hour later, it becomes clearer. The Corsican mountains appear as a shadow and the sun starts its slow ascent. We have just passed Ajaccio. It's time for coffee, or tea. But on board the IS33, we live at the rhythm of the record: no stop, of course, and no meal. As a breakfast, we have a rice pudding and so much the worse for the black. The GPS is still on the console showing 170 miles covered and what would be the deviation of 3 miles at destination? I went back east after having sailed through the Maddalena archipelago, a typical area whose splendors hypnotize us to the point of forgetting the risks. Sardinia is beautiful, strong in color and varied landscapes. We will adore it at thirty knots, records oblige. We start the descent to the east, respecting the straightest line from France to Tunisia since Saint-Raphaël, heading 175. The high pressure is still overwhelming us with its heat and calm. The IS33 is racing on a sea of oil along the eastern side of Sardinia. It is devouring the mile without worrying about the shallow areas. After Cape Coda Cavallon, very close to the coast, we noticed a beacon and some dry ones. Suddenly, a hundred meters to starboard, the water cleared and a dry sea appeared. With a stroke of the helm, I avoided the catastrophe in extremis. All it took was a moment of inattention to make an unforgivable mistake for sailors. With Michel Joubert at the lookout, sabre in hand, we headed for Tunisia. The gas pedal levers have been in the same position for twelve hours. The water and oil temperature needles have not moved a step. Only the fuel gauge indicates a decrease, fortunately not excessive. Consumption should not exceed thirty liters/hour per engine. The two Mercruiser six-cylinder turbo diesels are discreet, low-polluting and sober, and they run with an insulting regularity. Tirelessly, the propellers stir the waters of Sardinia. Our eyes have only the silhouette of one or two ferries to feast on. The boat is so stable that we could be immersed in a novel. On board, the activities are actually very limited: looking at the horizon, the compass, the GPS and sometimes the map, moving from the bow to the stern to stretch, dozing or sunbathing on the mattress of the engine hood and, of course, eating sausage and cheese, washed down with a Monton Cadet 86! And talk, of course! Talking to remake the world of yachting: "what pleasure do they take in meeting each other in crowded anchorages? But silence sets in again as we approach the Tunisian coastline, which is always invisible. First of all because the Mediterranean emerges from its lethargy and shakes, forcing us to slightly reduce. The swell arrives from three quarters back. Then because if we are now sure to wait for the goal, there is always a doubt: a mechanical failure for example. According to the GPS, we are at most 10 miles away from the finish. However, still nothing in sight. Then the time suddenly becomes very long. Everyone is impatient, but with a false casualness. I really want to grab the felt-tip pen and draw the outline of Cape Bon. Paradoxically, when the earth makes its appearance, our joy is not expressed or not much. However, the facts are there to confirm the success of this attempt.
When we entered the golf of Tunis, then the port of Sidi Bou Saïd, we had the impression of having accomplished a journey a little long. Reflecting on it in the evening under fragrant eucalyptus trees, we come to the conclusion that this expedition is a demonstration of French know-how: Joubert, a builder, the META shipyard, and sea lovers. We certainly owe a lot to the engines and the GPS, the two foreign elements, and not the least, you might say. So let's talk about a clever and efficient alliance for a positive result: sixteen hours to cover the distance of 480 miles, that is to say an average of 30 knots and 900L of diesel, that is to say 25L per engine or 1.87L per mile.
The IS33 fulfilled its contract, as did its crew. Mission accomplished. But also proof that it is possible to sail in a different way than just burning hours and fuel along the same eternal coasts. We undoubtedly benefited from the clemency of the sky. So much tranquility over such a long distance is almost a miracle. Moreover, the return journey will bring us face to face with Mediterranean realities, after the calm, the storm. There was a record in the other direction: that of the slaps of spray and the blows taken without being able to answer them, thirteen hours at a very hard regime. The least affected was the IS33, ready to set sail again, which it did, but this time on the Channel side, with the avowed desire to turn the Fastnet.