One of the outstanding features of the 2023 Transat Jacques Vabre Normandie-Le Havre in the IMOCA Class is the number of mixed crews, with no less than nine male and female pairings among the 39-strong fleet – a record for the biennial double-handed classic.

In this regard professional sailing is a stand-out sport in the way it accommodates men and women, not just racing on the same playing field – or ocean – but on the same boats too.

Among the mixed teams this time are two pairings on fast foiling boats who will both be looking for top-10 finishes at Martinique – Justine Mettraux and Julien Villion on Teamwork and Sam Davies and Jack Bouttell on the new Initiatives-Cœur 4. We caught up with Villion and Bouttell in Le Havre to find out how they are enjoying sailing with their new skippers.

Villion has been with Mettraux’s team since early in 2022, working as a strategist and performance expert before stepping on board Teamwork for the Rolex Fastnet Race and the Defi Azimut 48 Hours. This transatlantic test will be his first big race with the Swiss skipper who sailed much of The Ocean Race on board 11th Hour Racing Team.

So how does he find sailing with Mettraux? “Firstly, she is a really good sailor with great experience because for the last three or four years she has sailed nothing but IMOCAs and has been doing more than 200 days a year,”said Villion. “Second, she’s a person who is really happy when we are out on the ocean sailing long distances and she is good when sailing alone or double-handed.”

© Amory Ross / 11th Hour Racing / The Ocean Race (Amory Ross / 11th Hour Racing / The Ocean Race (Phot

Mettraux is known as “JuJu the machine,” a nickname she earned aboard 11th Hour Racing Team because of her relentless work ethic, competitiveness and obsession with squeezing every ounce of speed from her boat. But Villion, 36, who hails from La Trinité-sur-Mer in Brittany, isn’t sure that the nickname is quite right.

“I don’t like this term ‘machine’ because I don’t think people can be machines on a boat,”he said. “But Ju Ju is, for sure, very calm and very steady in her emotions and that is really important and really nice for me because, if you sail with someone who is always high or down, it’s hard.”

On the bright red Initiatives-Cœur 4 at the other end of the race village, Bouttell has had less time to settle in, having joined Davies only the week before the Défi Azimut. But the 32-year-old Australian-Brit has enjoyed his early sailing with the British skipper who has been racing in the IMOCA Class for 16 years.

© Jean-Louis Carli

“You’ve got to find each other’s strengths and weaknesses quickly and being able to trust each other is a big thing, and I think we’ve managed to do that quite quickly,”said Bouttell who, like Mettraux, was a member of The Ocean Race-winning 11th Hour Racing Team crew.

“Straightaway with Sam it was easy to see that she knows her boat really well, she’s a solid offshore sailor and she’s not afraid to get stuck in,” he added. “From personal experience, I’ve never seen this sport as male or female, but as something for a crew, or a team or a skipper. The hardest thing for female sailors is not a question of skillset, but experience and Sam has that and she has an engineering background which is great.”

Bouttell talks of many of the same characteristics in Davies that Villion observes in Mettraux. “Sam has a clear objective and works to that,” he explained. “She knows her limits in terms of the time frame of what we are trying to achieve. She focuses on the important things. She is very calm, very relaxed, which comes from experience and being confident in her boat. The nice thing is that she’s trusted me from day one – she lets me try different things and she doesn’t necessarily have to stress about that.”

Back on Teamwork, Villion says although his skipper is very focused on the next Vendée Globe, she is also determined to achieve a good result in the Transat Jacques Vabre. “She knows how to break her campaign down and is very dedicated to the Transat Jacques Vabre and then she will switch her focus to the Vendée Globe – she knows how to plan,” he said.

We asked Villion about Mettraux’s reputation as quite a shy person but someone who can bring the house down away from the public eye. “My opinion is that it is great that people also know that Juju is also a funny person,” said Villion. “Maybe because she's a bit shy, she doesn’t express herself too much in public, but when she is confident and in our environment, or at sea with a small group, she can be really funny.”

While Mettraux and Villion will undoubtedly be aiming for a top-10 finish, Davies and Bouttell will be battling them hard in what is likely to be one of the most interesting feature-contests of this race. Davies will be looking to follow up strongly on her three consecutive fifth place finishes this season and Bouttell has high hopes for the new partnership on Initiatives-Cœur 4.  

“For me,” he said, “it’s top-five. That’s what we did in the Défi Azimut and what Sam’s done this season – she’s done five, five, five with three different co-skippers. That’s a good level of consistency.”  

Ed Gorman