Sailing Valley, the fast-growing hub for offshore sailing in Europe, is unfurling in southern brittany. The 150 km strip of atlantic coast is fast becoming one of the busiest centres for international sailing.
"Eighty per cent of the technical and human skills in ocean racing in France is found in Sailing Valley" says Christophe Baudry, director of Lorient Grand Large, an association formed to promote the economic appeal of the area. "One of the drivers of our development is our amazing local network of companies, our infrastructure, support and financing for sailing and racing" he adds. This geographic area - straddling the two Breton departments of Morbihan and Finistère - is home to the most successful names in ocean racing, such as naval architects VPLP and Finot-Conq, yards Multiplast and CDK Technologies, equipment-makers Nautix, NKE, Plastimo, sail and mast manufacturers North Sails and Lorima; and more importantly, the leading skippers ans team who appreciate Vannes and Lorient, together with La Trinité-sur-Mer and Port-La Forêt, for ideal economic and geographic conditions to train for the most challenging internatioanl sailing races - the Route du Rhum, the Vendée Globe and the Volvo Ocean Race.
The topography of the region has been significant in the success of the centre for ocean-racing, with well-protected harbours that are always accessible whatever the tides, and the closeness od the open Atlantic Ocean where boats and crew can quickly test out equipment in conditions that are similar to those when racing.
Following in the footsteps of Eric Tabarly and the amazing development of ocean racing, many skippers have moved to southern Brittany. "There have always been large multihulls at La Trinité" says Greg Evrad, head of North Sails France located in Vannes. In the past, La Trinité rivalled with La Rochelle in importance. Then in the '90s it was the turn of Port- La Forêt and "La Vallée des fous" (Madmen's Valley), which developed with Michel Desjoyaux and his brother Hubert, founder of CDK boatyard. "The infrastructure at Port-La Forêt was too limited to welcome new teams, who the eyed the opportunities offered by the developing Lorient from 2000 onward" explains Evrad. Although Lorient is now the centre of Sailing Valley and headquaters to most teams, others continue to use La Trinité (Spindrift, Sodebo) and Port- La Forêt (Macif, PRB, Mer Agitée) as home ports.
"The leading economic forces therefore are spread out. Companies including Multiplast, VPLP and North Sails are at Vannes; CDK Technologies at Port-La Forêt and Lorient; Lorima, Marsaudon Composites and Plastimo in Lorient. Franck Cammas' multihull Groupama 4, winner of the 2011 Volvo Ocean Race (VOR), was built almost entirely - 97% - in a 60 km perimeter of Lorient", he notes.
Christophe Baudry sees the situation more as one of complementary and interaction than of rivalry, thus deserving the name 'Sailing Valley". The 40m maxi-trimaran Banque Populaire 5, costing an estimated 10m euros, was designed by VPLP and assembled by CDK Technologies, with carbon masts from Lorima. Then North Sails was responsible for 80 % of the equipement. The average price of a set of masts is about 400,000 euros for a 31m Ultim' trimaran like Sodebo that raced in the 2014 Route du Rhum. The boat was partly built by Multiplast in 2001, then named Géronimo. Lorima is also the supplier of the masts of the six new IMOCA 60ft sailing boats that will take part in the 2016 Vendée Globe. Two of these boats will be built by Multiplast (St Michel-Virbac and Gitana16/Edmond de Rothschild), and two others by CDK (Safran 2 and Banque Populaire).
These boats are all based on designs by VPLP/Verdier. The estimated price for one of these models is about 4.5m euros, representing 16,000 hours of work. This pooling of resources is not typical of Sailing Valley alone. For example, the seven 65ft monotype sailing boats now competing in the Volvo Ocean Race were constructed last year by four international yards. Decks came from Multiplast, hulls from Persico (Italy), the structures from Décision SA (Switzerland) and lastly assembly and delivery of the seven boats were by Green Marine (UK).
"It's a good way of building boats in a given time, and knowing that these monotypes are really all like", says Franck Martin, naval architect at Multiplast. Founded in 1981, the yard has already acquired a prestigious reputation for its manufacturing capacity. From a dozen 30 m-plus maxi multihulls built, almost half are from the workshops of the carbon and high-tech materials specialist - Orange 2, Club Med, Géronimo (today Sodebo) and Prince de Bretagne.
Multiplast has just finished refitting Orange 2. Now named Vitalia II, it is the fastest cruise vessel sailing the seas by new owner François Bich. " We were racing against time, the refit took eight months and 30,000 man-hours" Martin says.
Despite its upmarket image and exceptional aspect, the racing universe is not big enough to fully occupy this company with a staff of 105 and a trunover of 8m eruos. "It's a difficult world to work in, both in terms of volumes and timing. So we decided to diversify towards industry to escape the ups and downs in sailing orders;"
From 2000 onwards, Multiplast has been using its technological know-how to manufacture composite parts for other high-tech markets, such as the aerospace industry, representing, from one year to another, between 20 % and 40 % of its trunover.
Franck Martin sees the technical complementary between the two sectors as a strong point. "Skippers take risks to test our new materials at sea. For instance, there are four different carbons on Orange 2. Once they have passed the test in extreme conditions, we can use the manufacturing procedures for our industrieal parts." And conversely, quality control and industrial certifications can be apllied to sailing.
To further diversity, as much in products as in internatioanl markets, Multiplast merged in 2014 with Swiss Yard Décision SA (manufacturer inter ali of Alinghi - winner of the America's Cup - and Solar Impulse) to form the Carboman group.
Diversification towards industry is a necessity also for CDK Technologies, the other large local yard, as it is for outfitters Lorima and Nautix. "Even though racing is a separate market, it has become for a numbers of actors a secondary activity in terms of turnover", says Wenceslas Menotti at Eurolarge, a cluster of 110 Breton companies employed in ocean racing. "It's vital though as much as technical laboratory as a means of communication. It's a diving board towards other markets", he concludes.
Nautix has become a benchmark in the ocean acing universe. "100 % of paints and antifouling paints for SMA and Banque Populaire boats are made by the company. As well as all the primaries and anti-slip for the VOR single hulls", says Maththieu Taburet, head of thsi SME located Guidel, a few kilometres from Lorient.
"Ocean racing gives us a top-market brand image that makes it easier for us in other markets.nIt allows us to go to Amsterdam METS and prove that what we do on racing boats, whether cruise boats or fishing vessels", adds Taburet. Nautix has also been eager to diversify. It's 3.5 m euros turnover comes equally ffrom the manufacture of paint for sailing boats and from infusion parts for other industries.
The irregularity of ocean-racing activity also drove Lorima to diversify. Installed in Lorient since 2002, the mast-builder has some 60 moulds to manufacture 35ft-170ft carbon masts. A mast is on average 20% to 30% longer than the hull.
Depending on the period, Lorima manufactures between 20 and 40 masts a year for over 50ft craft. "We're not doing too badly in this niche market" says Vincent Marsaudon, who took over the company in 2009. "We are the only ones in France with these products. Our manufacturing process is different from the one used by our rivals Hall Spars & Rigging (USA) and Southern Spars (New Zealand), part of the north Technologyn Group" he explains. With a team of 32 and a turnover of an average 5m euros, Lorima's activities have been stable over the last five years. "We were 95% involved in racing, but we have had to rethink our production since 2009", adds Marsaudon. Half of the company's production to date is for racing and the rest for yachts ans cruise megoyachts, like Wally or Sunreef. "These are'one offs'. But we have eight masts to deliver for the 60ft IMOCA for the next Vendée Globe" Marsaudon notes. Recently, activity also includes refit representing 30% of turnover...