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Transat Saint-Barth / Port-la-Forêt: Hats off

Photo: Pierrick Contin / DPPI / Safran
Photo: Pierrick Contin / DPPI / Safran

The Transat Saint-Barth / Port-la-Forêt rounded off this Wednesday 23 December with the arrival of Morgan Lagravière (Safran), who completes his transatlantic race and secures his ticket for the next Vendée Globe. Thomas Ruyant (Le Souffle du Nord), who was ultimately unable to bring the repair work on his keel bearing to a successful conclusion will, once he has officially declared his retirement, await a favourable weather window to deliver his IMOCA60 back to Lorient.

Linking together two back-to-back transatlantic races, particularly in such tough conditions, has been far from easy. For those who took this option, it translated as a significant amount of extra work for the shore crew, a race against the clock to have a boat ready to face up to a winter transatlantic race and some particularly harsh weather conditions. For all those who took the start in St Barths, making the start line was already a victory in itself. Victory for the shore crews who worked relentlessly and victory for the sailors, who had to find the right balance between getting the necessary rest and a need to stay on their game so as not to drop out of the competitive bubble.

Battle mode

For the majority of the competitors at the start in St Barths, this event had double the appeal. On the one hand, it was the first full-scale test for sailing an IMOCA60 singlehanded (solely Sébastien Josse could boast such experience), on the other it was an opportunity to qualify for the Vendée Globe in late 2015. To achieve this though, they had to give their all. Indeed, the Newrest-Matmut and Le Souffle du Nord team had just a matter of days, after completing the delivery trip from Itajai, to get their machine up and running again. Sébastien Josse and the entire Gitana Team had to really step things up a gear to get the boat back in the water following the retirement in the Transat Jacques Vabre and then get back across the Atlantic. The skipper of Edmond de Rothschild had barely two days in St Barths before heading back out to sea singlehanded. Further evidence of the class’ fighting spirit came with Morgan Lagravière, who managed to come to an agreement with Nicolas Boidevézi to take over Adopteunskipper.net for the race and then got the boat from Lorient to the race start.

This dogged determination to win never failed once the starting gun had sounded. Straightaway, Sébastien Josse and Paul Meilhat (SMA) took the reins at the front of the fleet; whilst behind them Morgan Lagravière and Thomas Ruyant became embroiled in a fierce battle for third place.

Crucial positioning

Though the race start proved to be pleasant, very soon the fleet had to front up to the arrival of two successive lows, which would change the tone dramatically. The first generated a fairly strong south-westerly wind, that only Sébastien Josse and Paul Meilhat were able to catch onto thanks to their position as leaders. Astern, Thomas Ruyant, Fabrice Amedeo, Eric Holden (O Canada) and Enda O’Coineen (Currency House Kilcullen) chose to adopt for a more southerly trajectory so as to position themselves favourably in relation to this second low. Morgan Lagravière, who initially thought he’d be able to escape on the tail of the first low, was not able to keep pace, he too compelled to head southwards to avoid ending up to the north of this second, particularly active low and having to deal with headwinds. Further down the line, Paul Meilhat was also forced to mirror this move, leaving Sébastien Josse to make good his escape on his own.

Rough weather pummels the fleet

This second low proved to be particularly vicious. On the approach to the Azores, it scoops up the fleet, dishing out winds in excess of 50 knots at times, making the seas particularly tough to negotiate. In these Dantean conditions, breakage quickly gatecrashes proceedings. The first to be affected are Thomas Ruyant and Morgan Lagravière who, struggling with keel issues, opt to make a pit stop to effect repairs. The former heads to Ponta Delgada, the second to Horta. Next, it’s the turn of Fabrice Amedeo, who spots damage to his starboard rudder. Finally, Eric Holden, struggling with various technical issues (torn sails, electronics issues), also decides to make a pit stop in Horta.

Without a shadow of doubt, the most serious incident relates to Paul Meilhat, victim of a bad fall aboard SMA. Whilst making headway in over 50 knots of breeze, Paul had to go up forward to go and reinforce an element on one of his stays that had come apart. Whilst making his way across the deck, a wave swept him up and threw him against the coachroof, leading to several fractures to the ribs and pelvis. Incapable of manoeuvring his monohull in these conditions, Paul had to resort to requesting assistance and he was airlifted by helicopter from the immediate north of the island of Sao Miguel. The SMA team are still rallied together in a bid to recover the boat, which is drifting between the Azores and the north-west tip of Spain. Solely Enda O’Coineen, who decided to let the rough weather roll through under very reduced sail, was able to negotiate the conditions without too much damage, aside from some very battered sails.

A record crossing, an open championship

By completing the course in 10d 05h 18mn, at an average speed over the ground in excess of 15 knots, Sébastien Josse really showed what his monohull Edmond de Rothschild could do. Convinced of the appeal of the foils, notably on a reach, the skipper of Gitana Team did acknowledge that life aboard was particularly difficult. Tossed around in these monastic hulls, void of all but the bare essentials in a bid to save weight, the sailors struggle to move around their increasingly violent boats. Simply being able to take the pounding becomes a challenge and some teams are wondering about the benefits of fitting out the cabins to allow the sailors a minimum of handholds when they’re full powered up on a bumpy road.

Bolstered by his second place in the Transat Saint-Barth / Port-la-Forêt, Fabrice Amedeo has made substantial inroads into Vincent Riou (PRB) in the provisional ranking for the World IMOCA Ocean Masters Championship, proof that consistency pays. Behind them, there is precious little separating the sailors with just twelve points between the leader and Armel le Cléac’h (Banque Populaire), fifth in the provisional ranking. The New York / Vendée (Les Sables d’Olonne) may prove decisive in the final championship ranking.

Last minute: arrival of Morgan Lagravière (Safran)

By crossing the finish line this Wednesday 23 December at 04h 32mn 02s GMT, the skipper of Safran finishes fourth in the Transat Saint-Barth / Port-la-Forêt. In so doing he qualifies for the next Vendée Globe. His race time is 16d 13h 32mn 02s, at an average speed of 8.49 knots along the great circle route. His distance over the ground was 4002.94 miles at an average speed of 10.07 knots.

Morgan Lagravière: “This second part of the race, since leaving the Azores, has been a different ball game. First off, you know that you’re alone on the water; the stimulus of competition is no longer there, but at the same time you can choose your own pace and you’re no longer compelled to constantly hunt down your limits.

This transatlantic race has enabled me to learn a great deal, from the incident that affected my keel, through to the experience of the bad weather. It was powerful, violent at times. I will have to digest all that now. I know I’m qualified for the Vendée Globe and that will enable me to take a step back and assimilate everything I’ve experienced over these past few days of racing. In any case, it’s a real pleasure to be able to share what we’re going through on the water. Without these exchanges, the race wouldn’t have had the same flavour.”

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