After four days at sea in the Transat Jacques Vabre-Normandie Le Havre, the race has seen the first big move as Justine Mettraux and Julien Villion on Teamwork lead a two-boat breakaway to the west, to jump ahead of the boats heading south towards Madeira.

This marks the beginning of a fascinating strategic game that is likely to play out right across the Atlantic as Teamwork – with Sébastien Simon and Iker Martinez’s Groupe Dubreuil on their heels – gamble on the shorter route, a choice that is faster in the short term but may not be over the whole course, with 2,660 nautical miles still to sail.

This morning Teamwork was heading straight for Santa Maria in the Azores, 340 miles due west of her and making around 12 knots of boatspeed in a fresh southwesterly airstream. Groupe Dubreuil was just a few miles to the north and 19 miles behind in terms of distance to the finish.

Contrast that with the early leaders, Jérémie Beyou and Franck Cammas on Charal, now in fifth place, 125 miles behind and crucially nearly 200 miles southeast of Teamwork.

The Charal group of 20 boats is now being led by Sam Davies and Jack Bouttell on Initiatives-Cœur 4 in third place, just over 100 miles behind Teamwork, but they are stuck at seven knots of boatspeed as they gybe downwind in light airs, heading towards Madeira.

On board Teamwork Villion, one of the top weather strategists in this fleet, joked that the separation they have developed means he and Mettraux will not be seeing their rivals for quite a while, as he provided a succinct summary of the big choice he and Mettraux have made.

“At the end of the day on Friday, the fleet was split between those in favour of a southerly route, which is the transatlantic route via the trade winds, and the route we've chosen, called the direct route, which is fairly close to the great circle and by-passes the anticyclone on the other side,”he said.

“So we're still upwind, but we have the advantage of not having lost any wind. We're not likely to come across the ‘southerners’ again for a long time, at least a week. We're in the minority now, so we'll see where all this takes us. We've really taken the time to make this decision, and take all the elements into account, now we just hope it's the right one!"

The way the fleet has split is interesting in terms of the recent history of IMOCA because of the link with 11th Hour Racing Team, The Ocean Race winners. Groupe Dubreuil is the former 11th Hour Racing Team-Mālama, formerly skippered by Charlie Enright to victory in the round-the-world race whose key crew members included one…Justine Mettraux.

For Mettraux this breakaway is also highly significant as the Swiss sailor bids for her first victory in a solo or double-handed race in the IMOCA Class after a series of consistently strong performances. If she were to win this race, it would make her the first female winner of a solo or double-handed race in IMOCA since Ellen MacArthur won the Route du Rhum in 2002.

Simon Fisher, the former navigator on board Mālama, has been watching this drama unfold intently from the shore. He says he is sure “JuJu,” as he calls Mettraux, who is famously level in terms of her emotions on board, will take this challenge “in her stride.” He says there is a chance the two westerly boats could run away with this race.

“When you look at the routing at the moment, it is of the order of two days quicker taking the westerly path, versus the southerly path,”said Fisher. “It looks quicker in the west, but it is by no means a given – there are a lot of unknowns.

“It’s quite complex in the west, you’ve got to cross some fronts and there’s also some light patches. In the south the question is how quickly they can get through this ridge…and then obviously they are into the tradewinds. It’s certainly an amazing opportunity for JuJu if she can get through,” he added.

Ed Gorman