San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Port City Jubilant as Regatta Rolls to Shore

LIMON – As night fell on this Caribbean port city, hundreds of residents and members of the boating world gathered along the narrow concrete strip of Pier 70 to welcome the first finisher of the Jacques Vabre Trans-Atlantic boat race.

As the lights of the Crêpes Whaou! Boat neared the pier around 10:45 p.m. Monday, fireworks illuminated the sky and a chorus of carnival drums, cheers and flashing cameras welcomed the two-man French team to Costa Rica. It was quite a warm welcome for the crew, who over the course of 15-and-a-half days traveled 5,805 miles since leaving from the southern French port of Le Havre on Nov. 8.

“The arrival here has been an extraordinary reception,” said co-captain Franck Yves Escoffier. “We have seen some great welcomes, but here in Puerto Limón between the fireworks and the whole world out to greet us on the dock, it was a great moment.”

The Crêpes Whaou! team easily won the Multi50 competition against the other three remaining multi-hull boats, which still are days away from completing the race. The Multi50 boats are sailboats of a non-traditional body style, with the mast and sail on the central hull and with smaller hulls on either side.

Four hours later, at around 3 a.m., Safran, the first of the single-hull Imoca Class boats to finish the regatta, successfully traversed the murky waters of the Caribbean and cruised into Limón port. Exhausted from nearly 16 days at sea, co-captain Marc Guillemot discussed the rigors of sailing the Atlantic.

“It was the most difficult race of my career,” Guillemot said. “There were several difficult moments, in particular on the passage past Guadeloupe, off Marie Galante. We tore a spinnaker that really was a superb sail. We were quite anxious for the rest of the race because it was the one key sail we would have used in the Caribbean.”

The Safron crew held off their closest competitor, Groupe Bel, which arrived in Limón almost nine hours later.

All of Limón on Deck Judging by the turnout of the crowd on Monday, it appears the people of Limón understood the importance of supporting the arrival of this first-ever international sporting event here. The scene on Monday night was one of enthusiasm and commitment, as dancing groups and bands from local schools performed for the better part of two hours as the crowd gathered to wait for the first ship to arrive. Similar entertainment events were scheduled nightly during the week, as boats continued to sail into Limón throughout the week and into the weekend. Some boats are even expected to arrive early next week.

The ceremonies in anticipation of the arrival of the boats officially kicked off last Saturday, Nov. 21, when President Oscar Arias visited Pier 70 to cut the ceremonial inauguration ribbon for the race. After a colorful welcoming party featuring traditional Caribbean dances and performances, Arias commented on the significance of the race to Limón, one of the poorer provinces in the country.

“Many times I have said that I am convinced that Limón is more than a poor province, it is an overlooked province,” Arias said. “There isn’t another region of the country that has better conditions to integrate itself with the world economy, has similar tourist potential or the invaluable resource of a population that has a majority of bilingual residents…We have made the arrival of the regatta a true party, a carnival of development that will encourage the sailboats to return.”

According to the National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC), in 2009 the province of Limón was home to more than 477,000 people and had a poverty rate of 21.6 percent. The unemployment rate in the province was 7.9 percent.

Why Limón? A Surprising Answer The eight previous Jacques Vabre Trans- Atlantic boat races have crossed the finish  line in only two ports – Cartagena, Colombia, and Salvador de Bahía, Brazil – with each hosting four consecutive races.

After the race in Brazil in 2007, regatta organizers pondered their next destination and considered Costa Rica, Mexico and Panama as potential hosts. Costa Rica was given the final nod for a surprising reason: coffee.

“When it came down to making a decision between Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica, the biggest reason we chose Costa Rica was because (Jacques Vabre) gets its coffee from here,” said Jacques Lanusse-Cazalé, the official representative of the Transat. “We’d already been to Colombia and Brazil and, naturally, Costa Rica was the next place to bring the race.”

Jacques Vabre, the brand name of one of the most important coffee distributors in France, was named after the son of the company’s founder, who pioneered the idea of selling coffee grown in Latin America under  the label. Three of the major suppliers of coffee to Jacques Vabre are Colombia, Brazil and Costa Rica.

In Costa Rica, Jacques Vabre buys coffee from the Aquiares farm in Turrialba, on the Caribbean slope. That farm is certified by the Rainforest Alliance, which gives accreditation to companies for their commitment to responsible and sustainable production practices (TT, Nov. 20).

Reaping the Benefits

The biannual Transat will return to Limón for the next three races – in 2011, 2013 and 2015. According to the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT), the port of Limón expects to make just over $30 million from the investment and tourism generated by the race. Over 70 French media outlets were on hand this week for the conclusion of the race, and hotels throughout the city were at full capacity.

The six-year commitment of the regatta undoubtedly will assist in the renovation of Limón, which has been one of the top priorities of the Arias administration this year. In June, Arias signed an $80 million investment agreement to be distributed among five primary development activities in Limón, including the restoration of cultural buildings, drainage and sanitation improvements, enhancement of municipal functions, small business development and port modernization (TT, June 19).

Perhaps the smiles and dances of the  jubilant crowd on Pier 70 Monday nightrepresented more than just the excitement for the arrival of the first boats. Perhaps they were also celebrating good times on the horizon for the city.

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