At 0830hrs UTC on Tuesday morning 40 IMOCAs will finally set sail from Le Havre, meaning that the whole fleet with its four classes in the 16th Transat Jacques Vabre Normandie Le Havre will be on its way to Fort de France.

With 25 knots of wind forecast, conditions will be lively, but manageable and we should see some great pictures at the start line and at the buoy they have to leave to starboard 4 miles away, as they make their way towards the Cherbourg Peninsula.

Naturally, after such a long wait, skippers and co-skippers are raring to go. They will move straight from the comfort of life ashore to the tough conditions offshore. Less than 24 hours after the start, a new front awaits them on their way out of the English Channel. It should not last long, but is fairly active.

For all that they have had an extra eight days waiting for the exceptionally stormy weather to clear and for an acceptable exit out of the Channel to open up, once the Transat Jacques Vabre Normandie Le Havre’s record sized, 40 strong IMOCA fleet get under way from 0830hrs UTC Tuesday morning the duos will be launched straight into a very intense and demanding opening 48 hours. 

A major front less than 24 hours after the start is set to bring gusts of 35-40kts of wind. And before they even reach Ushant and the gateway to the Bay of Biscay there will be a fundamental decision to be made – north and west or south – which some meteo experts consider might immediately shape the outcome of this 16th edition of the classic race which now follows a shortened course of 3750 nautical miles. 

Because the island of Santa Maria now has to be left to starboard, the ‘normal’ shape of the IMOCA track is altered, limiting a very westerly route and rendering a high proportion of it upwind anyway. And even on the eve of the start, the main weather models oppose each other. 

The Portuguese trade winds down the Iberian peninsula which might normally slingshot the fleet south are not well established. And so although the course has been shortened and made more direct, it looks very much like there is nothing simple or straightforward about it. 

Nonetheless there was a great sense of anticipation around Le Havre’s Paul Vatine Basin with less than 18 hours to go until the start gun fires. The time has finally come. 

“It will just be nice to be going. We are going to get what we usually get at this time of year going out of here so I just really want to get on with it.” Asserted Briton Pip Hare, the skipper of the IMOCA Medallia, on the verge of being stir crazy, “It looks complicated from the start, the first three days are really about looking after ourselves and the boat and then after that it will be about how we feel about the routings, certainly anything to the north seems to be bashing upwind and I am not sure we want to be doing that. So much of this race is about finishing, about getting to Martinique for Vendée Globe qualification and being able to do the solo race back.”

Malizia Seaexplorer’s Will Harris, co-skipper with Boris Herrmann, explains. “There will be big winds getting out of the Channel and we might see a little split in the fleet, but it won’t be an important part of the race. It is after the front that we have to decide to go for the west option or the long route south to the Canaries. That way is super complicated, the long range forecast is very changeable and even by Ushant we need to see what the others are doing, and decide how our gut instinct is, how well we know the boat. It is all playing on our minds right now, and I think that will be true for everyone. I don’t think we will see the fleet completely split apart, going west or south. I think south would be the preferred option because it is warm, it is comfortable but it is so much longer, it is 5-600 miles further to go that way. You could still end up with no wind. Going north you will always have wind, but it will be on the nose and with 4-5m waves. You are sailing a lot less miles. The question is where are the trade winds and what will it cost to get down there in terms of miles.” 

Among the favourites to win on his For The Planet, the IMOCA which triumphed on the 2021 race in the hands of Thomas Ruyant and Morgan Lagravière, Sam Goodchild adds that the evolution of the high pressure systems further south could prove key, “How they are and where you cross might be interesting, but most of all it will be about how the fleet splits and which boats are faster, it is going to be interesting.” 

As soon as they leave Seine Bay and round the tip of the Cherbourg Peninsula, the IMOCAs can expect a 20-25 knot Westerly wind, meaning they will have to tack upwind to get out of the Channel. 

“The start is likely to be choppy in a disturbed westerly air stream with quite a few small squalls and gusts up to 30 knots,” said Julien Villion, co-skipper alongside Justine Mettraux on Teamwork, who is famous for his strategy skills. “Already during the day on Tuesday, we will have to deal with two wind shifts, once to the right and once to the left to position ourselves to head towards Ushant and the arrival of the first fairly powerful front.” 

This front should not last long, but promises 35 knots with gusts over 40. After that the wind shift behind it is the opening to the route south. 

“We are excited, but remain focused, as the early phase isn’t going to be all fun,” commented Clarisse Crémer, who was studying the routing along with Brit Alan Roberts today in Le Havre. “The first 48 hours are not what you come here for, but you have to get through them to earn the right to race in more pleasant conditions later on,” added the French sailor, who is one of the outsiders for a place on the podium with her L’Occitane en Provence, Charlie Dalin’s former Apivia.

The route to Fort de France is a long one, the pace set during the first few miles until they encounter the front could be decisive for what happens afterwards. The leaders are expected to reach the front early on Wednesday morning as they round the tip of Brittany with the Ushant TSS to be left to port or starboard, adding a touch of intrigue. 

It is only after that that the fleet will really be able to separate out into two groups. The most daring or those wishing to lessen the distance they need to sail – which may be the case for several boats with daggerboards – will probably go for a more direct route, while remembering they have to leave Santa Maria to starboard, as laid down in Race Instructions.

Then, there are those who will want to look after their boat or quite simply believe that the route along the coast of Portugal under the area of high pressure is the right one. 

This Coffee Race is always physical and tactical and that is what the 40 IMOCA duos are out to take on. 

The boats will in fact start leaving the Paul Vatine Dock from 0300hrs UTC. Some skippers have planned to wait until the boat is out through the harbour gates to go aboard, enabling them to get two hours extra sleep, which may well be worth the effort. 

The ETA of the first boats in Martinique is estimated to be around 17th November.

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