Foto Alexis Courcoux
As the tenth edition of the legendary Route du Rhum solo Transatlantic race to Guadeloupe started off Saint Malo, France this Sunday afternoon under grey skies and a moderate SSW'ly breeze. The perennial question of just how hard to push through the first 24-36 hours at sea was foremost in the minds of most of the 91 skippers.
When the start gun sounded at 1400hrs local time (1300hrs CET) to mark a spectacular send off for a 3,524 miles contest, which engages and entrances the French public like no other ocean race, breezes were only 15-17kts. But a tough, complicated first night at sea is in prospect, a precursor to 36 hours of bruising, very changeable breezes and big unruly seas.
Such conditions, gusting to 40kts after midnight tonight, are widely acknowledged to be potentially boat or equipment breaking. But the big ticket reward for fighting successfully through the worst of the fronts and emerging in A1 racing shape, will be a fast passage south towards Guadeloupe. Such an early gain might be crucial to the final result.
The converse is doubly true. Any trouble or undue conservatism might be terminal as far as hopes of a podium place in any of the three classes.
In short, the maxim of not being able to win the race on the first night, but being able to lose it over that keynote, initial period, has perhaps never been truer.
The routing south is relatively direct, fast down the Iberian peninsula with a fairly straightforward, quick section under the Azores high pressure which shapes the course. The Ultimes – the giant multis – are expected to be south of Madeira by Tuesday night when the IMOCA Open 60s will already be at the latitude of Lisbon and the Class 40 leaders passing Cape Finisterre.
Vincent Riou, Vendée Globe winner who triumphed in last year's Transat Jacques Vabre two-handed race to Brasil, said of the forecast: "I carried out statistical studies, set up 140 different routings using ten years of files in my pre-race analysis and I can't recall a single example of the weather being as favourable for the IMOCAs as what seems to lie ahead."
The change in weather from the idyllic Indian summer conditions which have prevailed through the build up weeks to gusty winds, heavy rain showers and cooler temperatures could do nothing to dampen the extraordinary ardour displayed by the crowds which so openly embrace the Rhum legend. From all walks of life, from babes-in-arms to the elderly, they descend on Saint Malo and the nearby beaches and promontories to see the start and the opening miles.
It was fitting then that the tens of thousands who braved the deluges and the breeze were rewarded when it was the owner of the race record, Lionel Lemonchois, winner of the Multi 50 Class in the last edition and overall winner in 2006, who passed their Cap Fréhel vantage point, 18 miles after the start line leading the whole fleet on the Ultime Prince de Bretagne.
Thomas Coville on Sodebo lead the Caribbean-bound armada off the start line dicing with the more nimble, smaller Multi70 of Sidney Gavignet Musandam-Oman Air which also lead for a short time. The fleet's ultimate Ultime, the 40m long Spindrift (Yann Guichard) was seventh to Fréhel, clearly needing time and opportunity to wind up to her high average top speeds. Coville has the potent mix of tens of thousands of solo miles under his belt as well as an Ultime (the 31m long ex Geronimo of Olivier de Kersauson with new main hull and mostly new floats and a new rig) which is optimised for solo racing.
The favourites to win each of the different classes seemed to make their way quickly to the front of their respective packs. Vendée Globe victor François Gabart established a very early lead in the IMOCA Open 60s on MACIF, ahead of PRB (Vincent Riou) and Jérémie Beyou (Maitre-CoQ). In the 43 strong Class 40 fleet Sébastien Rogue quickly worked GDF SUEZ in to the lead. He remains unbeaten and won last year's TJV. Defending class champion Italy's Andrea Mura was at the front of the Rhum class with his highly updated Open 50 Vento di Sardegna.
Spain's highly rated Alex Pella was second in Class 40 on Tales 2, Britain's Conrad Humphreys 20th on Cat Phones Built For It and Miranda Merron sailing Campagne de France in 22nd.
The key international, non-French skippers made solid starts to their races. Self-preservation was key priority for 75 year old Sir Robin Knox-Johnston on Grey Power, who said pre-start that his main goal was to get safely clear of Cape Finisterre, before pressing the accelerator.
He is in good company not least with 'junior' rivals Patrick Morvan, 70 and Bob Escoffier, 65 all racing in this Rhum class which features race legend craft as well as sailors. Two of the original sisterships to Mike Birch's 11.22m Olympus – which stole victory by 98 seconds in the inaugural race in 1978 – are racing in this fleet replaying the fight against the monohull Kriter V which finished second.
First to return to Saint-Malo with a technical problem- needing to repair his rigging – was the Class40 of Jean Edouard Criquioche, Région haute Normandie, who had to turn round after just 45 minutes on course. And the Portuguese skipper in the Rhum class Ricardo Diniz was also reported to be heading back with trouble with his diesel.
ALEXIS COURCOUX FOTO
Order at Cap Fréhel
1 - Lionel Lemonchois (Prince de Bretagne) / 1st Ultime
2 - Sidney Gavignet (Musandam - Oman Sail)
3 - Thomas Coville (Sodebo Ultim')
4 - Loïck Peyron (Maxi Solo Banque Populaire VII)
5 - Sébastien Josse (Edmond De Rothschild)
6 - Yann Eliès (Paprec Recyclage)
7 - Yann Guichard (Spindrift 2)
8 - Yves Le Blévec (Actual) / 1st Multi50
9 - Francis Joyon (Idec Sport)
10 - Erwan Leroux (FenêtréA - Cardinal)
11 - Lalou Roucayrol (Arkema Région Aquitaine)
12 - François Gabart (MACIF) / 1st IMOCA
13 - Vincent Riou (PRB) 14 - Loïc Fequet (Maître Jacques)
15 - Jérémie Beyou (Maître Coq)
16 - Marc Guillemot (Safran)
17 - Louis Burton (Bureau Vallée)
18 - Bertrand De Broc (Votre Nom Autour du Monde)
19 - Tanguy De Lamotte (Initiatives-Coeur)
20 - Armel Tripon (Humble for Heroes)
21 - Erik Nigon (Vers un monde sans sida)
22 - Pierre Antoine (Olmix)
23 - Andrea Mura (Vento Di Sardegna) / 1st Rhum
24 - Sébastien Rogues (GDF SUEZ) / 1st Class40
Alexis Courcoux Foto