Once again La Base marina in Lorient, Brittany – the main home of the IMOCA fleet – is a hive of activity as 33 boats and their skippers prepare for the daunting challenge of the North Atlantic alone.

The Transat CIC, the former OSTAR and Transat Anglaise – the first of two Transatlantic races for the Class this season ahead of the Vendée Globe – sets sail on Sunday. And thousands of people have been arriving at the race village in Lorient to check out the boats.

On board the lime green and light blue-hulled Holcim-PRB, is one of the favourites for a podium finish in this 3,500-mile mainly upwind dash to New York. The French 41-year-old skipper Nico Lunven has been casting his eye over the weather, an aspect of the IMOCA game in which he is a renowned expert.

Lunven says it is an interesting meteorological picture, with plenty of challenges and unknowns on the highway to the Big Apple. “It will be a bit complicated with a few low pressure systems to cross, including weather fronts and also, just north of the Azores, a big area of high pressure and light winds,” said Lunven.

© Julien Champolion - polaRYSE / Holcim-PRB

“The big picture is a classic north Atlantic race, even if I have no experience in that way of crossing the Atalntic. But it looks like lots of upwind and transitions between the low pressure systems,” he added.

Normally the IMOCA fleet faces the Atlantic in early Autumn, when seasonal gales can make the exit from the English Channel a hellish business. Lunven says it will be easier this time, but the Transat CIC could still deliver a challenging start.

“We will see,”he said. “There is a low pressure centre quite close to Brittany for Sunday. So depending on the exact position of this system, it can be 15 knots or 30 knots upwind. It could be a difficult start, yes, but it is not written yet.” 

Lunven explained that the high level of unpredictability with this north Atlantic course is caused partly by the fact that where the sailors are going – the north east American seaboard – is an area where depressions generally form. “So it is a bit hard to predict the weather in the long term because it depends on how those systems develop and it can change,” he said. 

© Julien Champolion - polaRYSE / Holcim-PRB

While Lunven will be contending at the front of the fleet in his 2022-vintage Guillaume Verdier-designed flying machine, a little further back in the field, the charismatic young skipper of Freelance.com – Guirec Soudée – will be fighting for a place among the daggerboard-configured boats.

For Soudée, 32, this will be his second solo transatlantic race in the IMOCA ranks after last year’s Retour à la Base. He too is expecting a tough east-west course to New York. “We know we will cross a lot of systems and depressions but also the Gulf Stream,” he told the Class. “But this boat is very strong and is used to these sorts of conditions. And, for me, it is very important to sail in bad weather to build my confidence for when I go around the world in the Vendée Globe.”

Soudée is hoping for reasonable conditions for the start off Lorient so spectators can enjoy watching the 33 IMOCAs heading out into the Atlantic. “It would be nice to have good weather for starting the race and good conditions for the people who will come. We are not in October or November, so normally the weather will be better. It will be nice to start slowly too, because we haven’t sailed much this year, so it will be nicer for everybody,”he said.

Both Lunven and Soudée underlined that their main goal this year remains the Vendée Globe and so it will be essential that they succeed in arriving in New York with their boats in good condition. But Soudée also predicted that once everyone gets offshore, the competitive juices will start to flow among IMOCA’s solo skippers as they tackle their first race of 2024.

“We all say we are going to go slowly and we won’t be pushing the boat 100%, but we are all lying because when we pass the startline, we will all be competitors for sure,” he said.

The battle for glory in the daggerboard boats has been a fascinating feature of recent races, not least last year’s Transat Jacques Vabre. There are some excellent skipper-boat combinations in this part of the IMOCA fleet, among them Benjamin Ferré on Monnoyeur Duo For A Job, Tanguy Le Turquais on Lazare, and Jean Le Cam and Eric Bellion on the David Raison-designed sisterships, Tour Commence en Finistère–Armour-Lux and Stand As One.

Soudée believes it would be good if the daggerboard contest had its own podium inside the overall race. “Ah,” he said, “yes, I think that would be interesting. Yeah for sure, it would be better if there were two podiums for the foilers and the daggerboards, for sure…”

Back on Holcim-PRB, Lunven says he still has a lot to learn about his boat, even though he's already regarded as one of the most talented skippers in the fleet. He says the Transat CIC will give him more time on the water to practice for the Vendée Globe.

“It’s a nice opportunity to get into solo mode and also to sail in the north Atlantic, which is not the easiest place to sail in the world,”he said. “So it’s good training for the Vendée Globe and to test the boat and the skipper and everything else.”

When he gets to New York, meanwhile, like many of his rivals he will have a busy few weeks fulfilling sponsor commitments before he sets sail on the New York Vendée-Les Sables D’Olonne race back to France at the end of May.

“Holcim (a global leader in the supply of aggregates, concrete pipes and building materials) is very involved in the North American market, so we have lots of events with clients and stakeholders,” said Lunven.


Ed Gorman