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Transat Jacques Vabre: by way of a first report

© Yvan Zedda / Sea & Co
© Yvan Zedda / Sea & Co

With the last of the IMOCAs having crossed the Transat Jacques Vabre finish line in Itajai and part of the fleet preparing to make for St. Barths for the start of the Transat Saint-Barth – Port-la-Forêt on 6 December 2015, it’s time for a review. The condition of the fleet at the finish, the contribution from the foils, the performance of the older generation boats and the reliability of the standardised elements, are just some of the topics under scrutiny in what proved to be a very tough race, whose committed participants were not spared.

The context

It’s no secret; a departure from the French coast in late October is a not inconsiderable risk in weather terms. This 2015 version of the Transat Jacques Vabre was no exception to the rule with a particularly gruelling first week for the boats and the sailors alike. Indeed, dishing up winds of 40 to 45 knots, heavy seas and three consecutive low pressure centres to negotiate, the first eight days of racing were especially hard.

The IMOCA fleet, bolstered by 20 crews at the start, was unquestionably the most emblematic. It is here that the competitive stakes were the highest, with the confrontation between the latest generation boats equipped with foils and the stellar craft from the last Vendée Globe playing a central role.

The reasons behind the breakage

After a light airs start, the IMOCA fleet was pummelled by a series of lows, which spared nobody. Those who favoured a westerly option, the fastest according to the routing software, had to carefully negotiate the rounding of an initial low pressure centre before continuing their journey southwards, where another two particularly brawny fronts were lying in wait for them. Other crews opted for a route further over to the East, which ultimately proved to be just as full of potholes as the first.

The ensuing list of retirements was obviously sizeable. Though the analysis cannot be satisfactory, it remains very informative nonetheless, and it is also important to look into the precise reasons for this breakage.

The desire to treat their boat gently: for some, the decision to retire was taken with a view to upcoming events, notably the Vendée Globe and the Transat New York – Vendée, which will be the final qualifying race prior to the round the world. This is notably the case for Maître CoQ and Edmond de Rothschild. Beset by technical issues, which could be resolved, at the point where they were no longer in a position to win the race they opted to focus on the next stage of the racing season in the IMOCA Ocean Masters Championship.

The tender age of certain projects: Safran, Hugo Boss, St Michel-Virbac, all these boats were launched late in the day and only had a very short amount of time for training. Furthermore, the weather conditions in the weeks leading up to the Transat Jacques Vabre had been relatively mild and hadn’t given the crews the opportunity to really get to grips with the bad weather. And it is this bad weather that remains the implacable Justice of the Peace in the preparation of the boats, because you need to have substantial experience of this in order to be ready to tackle the Southern Ocean. The storms in the Transat Jacques Vabre were the first these new boats had encountered.

Mechanical breakage due to wear and a late handover of one’s boat: for some projects, making the start of the Transat Jacques Vabre was a victory in itself. Like the new boats, a fair number of skippers were still familiarising themselves with a boat they had just purchased. In these conditions, it’s very hard to gauge the exact condition of one’s boat and a race remains the best way to get to know her. However, out of concern for risk limitation for some, a lack of budget for others, several of the skippers of these boats were not able to prepare as well as they would’ve liked in an ideal world. This was the case for O Canada, Adopteunskipper.net, Bateau des Métiers by Aerocampus and also Bastide Otio.

The imponderables: sailing is a mechanical sport, a fact we cannot forget. The retirements of SMA following the delamination of the keel fin, and the Spirit of Hungary after her dismasting, clearly need to be ranked in this category. Unfortunately, the ocean is full of pitfalls and all too often floating objects, which can damage boats. Though the incident with Hugo Boss has yet to be fully explained, her hull was damaged as a result of impact, forcing the crew to divert to Spain.

 

Reasons to be optimistic

The podium: two of the most honed IMOCAs from the last Vendée Globe generation flanking one of the most recent additions to the fleet equipped with foils. PRB’s victory and the Quéguiner / Leucémie Espoir’s third place show that it is possible to be competitive without having this year’s model. Banque Populaire VIII’s second place is also a sign that the proposed improvements have a future. The debate is on and it is one of the objectives of the IMOCA rules to enable boats from different generations to compete with one another. When innovation rubs shoulders with sport, the racing is all the finer.

Racing at every level: whether it’s about a podium place, the tremendous battle for fourth place between Le Souffle du Nord and Initiatives Cœur, or the struggle for sixth place between the four oldest boats, MACSF, Comme un Seul Homme – Stand as One, Newrest/Matmut and Bureau Vallée, the racing was intense from beginning to end. There were several races within the race, which is reassuring with a view to upcoming events.

The standardised elements: the standardised masts and keels on the new boats have been satisfying. There was not a single retirement as a result of the elements required by the new IMOCA rule; evidence which helps to substantiate the choices made by IMOCA.

The next stage of the IMOCA Ocean Masters Championship

The Transat Saint-Barth – Port-la-Forêt will now enable several skippers signed up for the next Vendée Globe to validate their entry ticket. The race will also be an opportunity to get a better understanding of the upcoming generation, from Paul Meilhat and Fabrice Amedeo to Thomas Ruyant, against experienced sailors like Yann Eliès. It’s a promising confrontation, which augurs well for a particularly enticing 2016.

 

Quotes:

Jean Kerhoas, President of the IMOCA Class

Firstly, I must say that despite the significant number of retirements, all of them were managed by excellent sailors, who were able to get their boat safely back to port. It was a different matter for Hugo Boss as clearly a UFO caused her to founder.

I note too that the standardised masts and keels played their part to perfection, despite the very tough conditions.

Equally, lest we forget, this Transat Jacques Vabre was a test bed for a number of new boats. Doubtless the naval architects and yards will draw some good lessons from it for future events. Some of the retirements were also due to the fact that several skippers were not able to benefit from the level of preparation required when racing an IMOCA due to insufficient means at their disposal.

Finally, I shall not forget the fantastic battle played out at the head of the race, which thrilled the public. From the uncertainty to the action-packed plot line, this Transat Jacques Vabre had all the ingredients for a fantastic sporting challenge.”

Gaëtan Gouérou, Managing Director of IMOCA

“This transatlantic race was particularly difficult. We knew it from the outset and we were right to be concerned. It was also a test that was eagerly awaited by one and all and it will certainly provide essential information for making the boats reliable with a view to the Vendée Globe 2016.

The new foiling boats have shown their potential whilst the older boats have reminded us that we need to count on their performance, which is far from obsolete.

One of the main lines of questioning centred on the behaviour of the standardised elements. There was no particular reason to be concerned about the keels, whose design was part of a procedure to make the boats reliable that was everyone adhered to and accepted. As for the masts, it still had to be demonstrated that the various hypotheses taken into account for their design were suitable. Today it is reasonable to consider that this is indeed the case.”


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