The 44Cup’s trial boat, which teams can use to gain first-hand experience racing the high performance, owner-driver RC44 one design, has had a busy 2023 season. This started in Muscat driven by an Oman Sail crew, then had Louise Morton's all-female Bullet team competed on her at the 44 Cup Cowes World Championship in August and Luis Cabiedes’ Noticia team from Spain at last month’s 44Cup Alcaidesa Marina. For this week’s 44Cup Calero Marinas, the final event of the 2023 44Cup season, the circuit’s trial horse is being used by Frenchman Laurent Déage’s Team 69.
To assemble his team, Déage, a private and corporate banker based in Toulon (born in 1969 – hence his team’s name…) signed up his old college friend, pro and America’s Cup sailor Fabrice Blondel and French sailing maestro and former America’s Cup helmsman Sebastian Col.
“It is an old dream – I’ve followed the class since the beginning,” explains Déage. His personal sailing background has been handicap racing under the IRC rule in the south of France with his family on a series of J/Boats – starting with the popular J/24 and J/92, then the J/97 Diablotin Majic and ultimately their J/111 Black Bull, which they also raced offshore. This ground to a halt during the pandemic and then due to ill-health within his family never re-started. Thus Déage chose to start his own team.
As to why he chose the RC44 rather than any other boat, he explains this is due to its central features: it is a strict one design, exclusively owner-driver and offering windward-leeward inshore racing at the highest level. The RC44 itself reminds him – visually at least - of the last monohulls used in the America’s Cup (pre-foils). He likes that the 44Cup visits interesting and diverse venues that in 2024/25 will include the Caribbean, places that his family will enjoy visiting.
An aim of his Team 69, similar to that of Christian Zuerrer’s Black Star Sailing Team from Switzerland, is to start with a young, but talented national crew – all from France – and to grow en masse as a team. Thus Team 69’s crew mostly come from southwest France and features old hands like Col and Blondel and multihull ace Devan le Bihan and young sailors like Sandro Lacan, the Marseille sailor who has achieved success on the Diam 24 trimaran and Albane Dubois, who represented France in the women's 49er FX in Tokyo or Jules Bidegaray, from Hyeres, a French youth sailor and match racer, who was on the French SailGP team with le Bihan and more recently part of Dona Bertarelli and Yann Guichard’s Spindrift racing TF35 flying catamaran crew.
Déage has a long term view for Team 69 - gelling as a team in the first seasons and winning races by year three. He is new to the RC44 as is most of his crew – even the highly experienced Sébastian Col has not sailed in the class since his stint as tactician on Igor Lah’s Team CEEREF before British ace Adrian Stead took the role more than a decade ago. “I have been living my dream now for the last two days,” says Déage. “It is more pressure for me because we are racing in the fleet. Compared to my crew, my level is low and I need to bridge the gap with them, to minimise my errors.”
A greater surprise here is the absence of Cameron Appleton, whose presence calling tactics on Chris Bake’s Team Aqua has been a feature of every 44Cup event since the class’ dawn. However this week he is recuperating from an operation and his position is being filled by Welsh 470 gold medallist Hannah Mills. These days she works closely with Chris Bake at his Emirates UK Sail GP team and on the Athena Pathway, that fast tracks the development of women and youth sailors into professionals targeting SailGP and the America’s Cup.
Mills’ participation on Team Aqua will be the first time a RC44 has had a female tactician. Just adding to the pressure will be that while Mills is as good as they get in dinghies and has recently been enjoying life in the fast lane aboard flying catamarans, this will be one of her first ever races in a keelboat…
“It will be a big learning curve, but luckily the guys are all over it,” she muses. Confident? “Not very! I am confident in the team. All of the stuff - like tacking and crossing and judging manoeuvres are the hard parts to pick up. By Sunday I’ll be in a much better place!” However she is already coming to terms with the RC44 boat: “They are awesome, really good fun. I am looking forward to ripping downwind. I love their close racing.”
Fellow British former 470 World Champion Nic Asher is enjoying being back in Lanzarote, where he first raced the RC44’s trial boat at the beginning of 2022. “The set-up is super simple with the hotel and the marina and I like the sailing here - it is tricky. It can be wavy with a tiny bit of current - it is an interesting venue.” Fortunately this week the northeasterly trade winds, for which the Canary Isles are famous, will be blowing. “The forecast was looking light, but now it is looking better,” continues Asher. “I enjoy it here – but let’s see if I am still saying that at the end of the week!”