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"On your marks, get set, go!"

© Lloyd Images
© Lloyd Images

For sailors, light winds and the mental complexity of finding breeze when there is none, can be more challenging than racing in heavy weather. Given this, the 2015-6 IMOCA Ocean Masters World Championship will have a tough debut tomorrow when its first event, the Rolex Fastnet Race, starts from Cowes, Isle of Wight at 1210 BST (1310 in France). 

The forecast is ultra-light with no solid wind forecast before Wednesday, leaving the boats at the mercy of local thermal breezes and the tide. Navigators predict the big boats will take twice the time they would normally to complete the 600 mile course to the Fastnet Rock off southwest Ireland and back to Plymouth, southwest England.

2015 marks the 90th anniversary of the the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s biennial classic, which in participation is the world’s biggest offshore race, this year with a record 350+ boats, including top yacht racing teams from all over the world.

Among them will be nine IMOCA 60s, but focus will be especially on the two new boats: Safran, sailed by Morgan Lagravière and Nicolas Lunven, and Banque Populaire with Armel le Cleac’h and Erwan Tabarly on board. Both feature L-shaped side foils designed to help partially ‘lift’ the boats out of the water and similar foils will be fitted to the other new VPLP-Verdier designs launching imminently. But massive questions remain over how they perform in different wind and sea conditions and whether their potential can be found before the Vendée Globe, now just over a year away.

In Thursday’s Artemis Challenge, 50 miles around the Isle of Wight, it was ‘conventional’ IMOCA 60s that won with honours going to Vincent Riou and Sebastien Col on PRB with Banque Populaire finishing fifth and Safran sixth.

“It was interesting for us to see for the first time the speed of our boat against the other boats,” said Banque Populaire’s Armel le Cleac’h. “We were fourth at the Needles [the western end of the Isle of Wight], not far behind PRB and Quéguiner – Leucémie Espoir. Then we had 20-22 knots from 70-80deg and we used the foil and had a good speed. But then [up the southeast side of the island] we were upwind – couldn’t point well and there was a lot of current, so we lost two places to Safran and SMA.”

So foils are the future? “It has potential,” maintains le Cleac’h. “In the Artemis Challenge there was lots of manoeuvring which wasn’t easy for us, but our boat is for the Vendée Globe and we can’t make any conclusions yet. After the Transat Jacques Vabre we’ll see if it is good and can be optimised or if we have to go back to a classic solution.”

Vital between now and the Vendée Globe will be the time spent optimising the foils and the best way to do this is racing, so le Cleac’h welcomes the added competition provided by the IMOCA Ocean Masters World Championship in the Transat B2B this December and the New York – Vendée in 2016.

Safran’s Morgan Lagraviere has a similar opinion regarding the foils. “Right now we can say that our boat is not good upwind, but it is pretty good when we are off the wind.” The foils, he says, are best when the wind angle is 90-135deg degrees in 15+ knots, or “the stronger the better, but we don’t know yet. We want to gain more experience racing the other boats. After the Transat Jacques Vabre we will meet and decide if it is better to go in this direction or another way to have the best boat for the Vendée Globe.”

Lagraviere is also looking forward to the new IMOCA Ocean Masters Championship. “The classic ‘one transatlantic each year’ is not good. We want more events. For our sponsors it is more important to be on the water racing rather than in the boatyard.”

The Rolex Fastnet Race represents Yann Elies’ first race in charge of his own IMOCA 60 since he was forced to abandon Generali during the 2008 Vendée Globe. Appropriately his Quéguiner – Leucémie Espoir is the former Safran, which stood by him on that occasion. “I am happy to come back and to come back on this boat,” said Elies, who is racing with Charlie Dalin, who finished second to him in this year’s La Solitaire du Figaro.

Since Elies acquired the boat, she has been fitted with new daggerboards in a similar configuration to SMA and will have a new keel in September, as Elies half jokes: “I don’t want to be the guy who loses the third keel of this boat!” He continues: “Our target is to be as fast as PRB. We have the same hull shape, the same daggerboards. I think we have to improve upwind now.”

Elies is not yet convinced by the side foils. “They can go fast, but only over 20 degrees, but we have to see in different conditions to make a final judgement.”

Traditionally Elies’ boat is thought to be the lightest IMOCA 60 and should perform the best in the conditions expected for this Rolex Fastnet Race. “I think it is going to be very complicated, with light winds and lots of transitions,” forecasts Elies.

New IMOCA Ocean Masters skipper Paul Meilhat is fortunate firstly that his boat, SMA is the 2012 Vendée Globe winner and also won the Rolex Fastnet Race in 2013. Secondly his co-skipper and coach is two time Vendée Globe winner Michel Desjoyeaux.

Meilhat also believes it is still too early to judge the side foils on the new boats which at present are slower upwind, the same downwind and faster reaching in strong conditions. “Upwind they are not close to the wind like the old boats, but sometimes reaching they have good speed. There are dips in their performance but it will improve.”

Similar foils could be retrofitted to SMA, but as Meilhat observes this would take time, be expensive and is perhaps already too late for the Vendee Globe.

On board Initiatives Coeur, skipper Tanguy de Lamotte has taken on the new role of therapist, enabling his British co-skipper Sam Davies to recover from the Volvo Ocean Race and return to sailing shorthanded without her all-female crew to assist her. “We are trying to do well in the Rolex Fastnet Race, but most important is to qualify, to get to know the boat and be in good shape for the Transat Jacques Vabre.”

“I hope the Fastnet is going to be a light wind race, so there is a bit of tactics involved.” His wish may have been granted, albeit slightly too generously…


IMOCA Ocean Masters World Championship
Rolex Fastnet Race

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