The buzz in Lorient right now is about the brand new Paprec Arkéa IMOCA, which has arrived at La Base in Lorient ahead of its launch on February 22nd, the first boat in the Class for Yoann Richomme, one of France’s top solo racers.

The double winner of both the Figaro and the Route du Rhum has been absorbed in the process of bringing the super sleek-looking Finot Conq-Antoine Koch design to life, but he has also been keeping an eye on the opening salvoes of The Ocean Race.

The skipper of the winning VO65 in the 2021 The Ocean Race Europe, has been impressed by Leg 2 race leader Paul Meilhat and his team on the new Biotherm, who will be one of Richomme’s main rivals in the build-up to the next Vendée Globe.

© Anne Beauge / Biotherm

This morning Meilhat was continuing to hold off Charlie Enright and his crew on 11th Hour Racing Team Mãlama, with a margin of just three nautical miles, as Biotherm led the way in light northeast trade wind conditions, about 760 miles due south of Mindelo.

In the light wind gybing match north of the Doldrums, Leg 1 winner Kevin Escoffier and his crew on Holcim/PRB were another 18 miles behind in third place, with Benjamin Dutreux and his team on Guyot Environnement-Team Europe in fourth position, 26 miles off the pace. The backmarker is now Team Malizia (+74) skippered by Will Harris who were delayed by a jammed furler on a headsail that required a mast climb to sort out.

“I saw that Biotherm is quite agile in those (light) conditions,”said Richomme, taking a break from preparations for the launch. “Some of that could be down to the sail choices they made, and whether they carry a spinnaker or not. But you can see that, leaving the Cape Verdes, some of them were not able to sail as low as Biotherm, so I am thinking there is a spinnaker design or some kind of use of the boat that they have done which is quite a bit better than the others for the time being.”

© Anne Beauge / Biotherm

Richomme, 39, is a noted navigator and meteo expert and he can see that the first couple of days of this leg have not been easy, as the crews came close to the islands on the southern edge of the Cape Verde archipelago. “It was tricky because, first of all, they had light winds and then the wind shadow of all the islands to go around. But it seems like they were quite in the groove on Biotherm,”he said.

We asked whether he was surprised to see Meilhat setting the pace so early in the race on a boat that has only been on the water for a few months. “Paul is doing a great job,”said Richomme. “He did a great job on the Route du Rhum as well, even though he’s got a very new boat and has had very little time and not a big budget. He hasn’t got a big team, that he would need to optimize the boat quickly, but he’s very good at this – running a project on a tight budget and going for what is essential. And the boat is a good base as well – it’s an evolution of LinkedOut, so Paul knows where the starting point is and he sailed on Apivia for a season, so he comes with a whole load of experience already.”

© Georgia Schofield | polaRYSE / Holcim - PRB

The performance of Escoffier is similar, Richomme argues, and pointed out that this could be a headache for Enright on pre-race favourite Mãlama, as he goes up against two of the top racers in the IMOCA division.

“I saw an interview with Charlie and he was saying it took him a while to get used to the style of sailing of the IMOCA, which is quite different to what he is used to,”said Richomme. “That’s where Kevin and Paul probably made some big gains early on. They knew exactly what they were going after and they were quite efficient at sorting out their boats. They are two people who know exactly that what they are looking for in a boat and are really fast to solve any issues.”

In the challenging first leg of the race, Richomme says Escoffier showed real strength. “Definitely, they are on top of their game on Holcim,”he said. He reckons Enright and his crew were hampered by one or two breakages and some sail damage, but they also struggled to keep pace with Escoffier. “11th Hour seemed like they could not keep up with the angles that Holcim was sailing, so they were always losing out,”he said. Team Malizia, he believes, will be strong in big breeze and should be competitive in the Southern Ocean.

© Antoine Auriol / Team Malizia

As far as Stanjeck and the team on Guyot environnement-Team Europe is concerned, Richomme reckons they are struggling at the moment, but he is not writing them off. “The boat is a bit heavy, we all now that,” he said. “I am not sure they have got the knowledge to sail it as well as the top guys. I think the team is still on a big learning curve with those boats, and all the sailors on board don’t have the IMOCA experience, so it is going to take them some time to get up to speed. But they will be in the game at some point.”

With a glittering solo career behind him, Richomme has more than earned his place in the IMOCA ranks. As a naval architect and a renowned technician, he has thoroughly enjoyed working with the design team and then seeing his new boat being built at Multiplast.

“It’s a great project for me because I was able to be part of it since the beginning of the design process,” he said. “I absolutely loved the work with Antoine Koch and the Groupe Finot team during the design phase. And it is really the boat that I want. We decided on and validated everything that is on the boat today and I really can’t wait to go out and test it. It’s a brand new world I am going to discover, but it is terribly exciting.”

Richomme gave us an inkling of where the performance gains might be with a boat that features an elegant bow design, fully retractable foils and a fully enclosed cockpit. “The gains are going to be made downwind, I would say, he said. “The hull is designed to go fast in a sea state and hopefully we won’t lose out too much on the upwind and stuff like that. There may be some gains in light weather as well, because we have an option for the foils not to touch the water at all. We have a very low wetted surface area, so probably low drag in light airs, so that could be very interesting. We have some flying modes that we want to test, but it’s all only in the computer at the moment.”

© Eloi Stichelbaut - polaRYSE / Paprec Arkea

The boat also includes a watch station pushed forward in the hull, to enable Richomme to get a better view of his headsails from inside when trimming. “It is kind of an evolution of Hugo Boss, with the watch position being more forward and with more vision,” he said.

The goals for this new project include all the four transats before the next Vendée Globe and then the Vendée Globe itself, when Richomme hopes to be in contention alongside the most competitive skippers in the Class. “You know, we will be trying to sail as much as we can,”he explained. “The objective is to be near the front pack by the end of the year – in that top-five or top-six leading boats and being part of them, and also sorting out all the technical issues as fast as we can, so we can push hard by the end of the season.”

Richomme says, so far, the schedule for the new Paprec Arkéa project is set only until the end of 2025, but he is not ruling out taking the start of the next The Ocean Race. “I personally would be interested in taking part,” he said. “I love the format, especially the new format, with a more straightforward round the world course, not going up to China and so on – not as long. So yeah, maybe we will look into that, once we have some time.”

In the meantime, all eyes will be on this highly potent combination of skipper and new boat, as Richomme takes his bow as a solo skipper in the IMOCA class for the first time.

Ed Gorman