One week into the race and the terrible weather in the North Atlantic has taken a heavy toll on IMOCA fleet. Three successive depressions have turned the Atlantic into a mine-field, with the skippers and boats being bashed around like they were in a washing machine as they climbed upwind through raging seas and gale-force winds.
During the briefing at the start of the Transat Jacques Vabre, several skippers expressed their doubts about the weather systems the fleet was likely to meet. The autumn depressions that regularly occur off Newfoundland are tending more and more often to sweep into more moderate latitudes. On the Transat Jacques Vabre start line the skippers’ choice was tough: Head to the eye of the storm and get the most direct route, but with winds close to 45 knots and a raging sea (20-foot waves). Or head south with the wind and the sea behind them, and therefore easier to sail. The second option meant heading off South-West into the Bay of Biscay to avoid the worst of the depression, but with the risk of facing many long hours close-hauled – definitely not the favourite option aboard an IMOCA 60. On top of that this would severely reduce any hope of a podium.
So far, five have declared forfeit, and four others have opted for a pitstop to try and make repairs. For several teams, the technical problems have stemmed primarily from the youth of the project, the shortage of time to improve the boat’s reliability, and the exceptionally rough weather. This is certainly the case for Edmond de Rothschild, Safran, and HUGO BOSS. Improving reliability of an IMOCA 60 involves several months of work, hours of repeated navigation training, frequent comings and goings between data collected at sea and work in the shed to optimise the machine. Other boats were better prepared. But you can’t get away from the fact that mechanical breakage is just part of the sport. Jérémie Beyou and Philippe Legros onboard Maître CoQ estimated that the repairs to their forestay couldn’t guarantee safety with the big weather ahead. The rip in the mainsail aboard Le bateau des Métiers by Aérocampus forced Arnaud Boissières and Stan Maslard to retire. And the most recent teams to head for shore are Kito de Pavant and Yann Régnaut aboard Bastide Otio, and Nicolas Boidevézi and Ryan Breymaier on Adopteunskipper.net. And last but not least, the St Michel-Virbac team have just announced they will be making a technical stop in Madeira further to structural damage to the front of the boat.
The teams who chose the western route have endured the toughest conditions, but it’s paid off. Their direct route, close to the wind, has radically distanced Banque Populaire VIII, PRB, Quéguiner/Leucémie Espoir and SMA from their competitors. The same skippers we’ve been seeing on the podiums since the beginning of the season.
Further back in the race, Tanguy de Lamotte and Sam Davies aboard Initiatives Coeur and Thomas Ruyant and Adrien Hardy on Le Souffle du Nord have been doing amazingly well. They headed off on a more central route and are at the head of the easterly group. But in fifth and sixth place, they are still more than 150 miles behind the leaders.
On the night of Thursday to Friday, the skippers still had one final depression to deal with to the south of the Azores before the hope of catching the Trade Winds and slipping from winter to spring. Conditions are lifting for the four leaders, while the chasers are still being whipped by 40–50 knot winds and stormy seas with waves over 25 feet high. The next few hours are going to be particularly hard on Bureau Vallée, Newrest/Matmut, Comme Un seul Homme/Stand as One, MACSF, St Michel Virbac and Spirit of Hungary.
Early Days for the Foils
Only Banque Populaire VIII is still fighting against the old-generation IMOCA 60s. Jean-Pierre Dick and Fabien Delahaye are getting to know their St-Michel Virbac and the inevitable incidents that come with taking on a new boat. Let’s not forget that the boat was only launched very recently and the Transat Jacques Vabre is its first real-life test. Merely being in the race today is in itself a great result.
The tough weather at sea has prevented the advantages of the foils being fully revealed. Armel Le Cléac’h stated: “the sea-state has meant that the foils haven’t been adding any advantage, despite our theoretically favourable sailing direction. Once we’re in the Trade Winds we’re hoping to get the chance to measure the expected speed increase in down-wind conditions.”
The start of the Transat Jacques Vabre has demonstrated the remarkable speeds these new boats can achieve, but also certain aspects of their as-yet unseen behaviour at sea, and in extreme conditions. But for us to really understand these new parameters they need more time at sea.
All eyes then on the Banque Populaire VIII team, sole representative of the new-generation IMOCA 60 monohulls in the leading group.