For Éric Bellion The Transat CIC, which starts from Lorient bound for New York on Sunday, is a huge moment in his journey to this year’s Vendée Globe.

To put it mildly, Bellion’s build-up to what he hopes will be his second participation in the solo round-the-world race has not gone to plan.

On his first major race in his brand new David Raison-designed Stand As One – last year’s Transat Jacques Vabre – the boat suffered serious damage in a collision with an object in the sea at the mouth of the English Channel.

It has meant a costly and painful winter of re-building at Bellion’s yard in Port-la-Forêt in Brittany, which involved replacing three bulkheads and a 14 square-metre section of hull.

For the Stand As One skipper it was a heart-breaking start for his beautiful new daggerboard-configured scow, and now he hopes The Transat CIC will be the beginning of a new and much more positive story.

“What happened to the boat was awful, really awful – heart-breaking is the right word because we worked so hard, you know, to be ready for that race and the boat was very new. It was a nightmare but we wanted to fix it,”Bellion told the Class.

The 48-year-old skipper, who finished ninth in the 2016/17 Vendée Globe and top rookie, knows the 3,500-nautical mile Transat can be a tough and merciless challenge, with big seas and headwinds in the north Atlantic. But he will be using it to try to establish a bond with his new boat, when he sets sail along with 32 other skippers for the Big Apple this weekend.

“What I am trying to build here is great harmony with my boat, something I found in my last Vendée Globe,” Bellion explained. “It’s what I want to re-build. It’s an enormous goal and I am looking forward to arriving in New York. It has not been a big dream, but it’s still a dream to arrive after a Transat with my own boat in New York. It means something and it’s part of the adventure for me.”

For Bellion, as for several other IMOCA skippers, this Transat is not just the start of what promises to be an epic 2024 season, it is also a crucial race which he must complete to ensure qualification for the Vendée Globe. Unsurprisingly he is feeling the pressure to finish it in one piece.

“I am looking forward to it, but I am a little bit stressed,” admitted Bellion, who last raced solo in the 2022 Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe. “I really want to ensure my qualification, so I will sail in a pretty conservative way. I don’t want to miss my main objective – the Vendée Globe.

“Of course, this is going to be a tough and challenging one – a tough Transat because it is by the ‘north passage’ of the Atlantic. And it comes very early in the year. So, like all my IMOCA friends, we have not had much time to train, to make sure the boat is really ready, and we will have to make do with what we have.”

© ean-Marie LIOT

Among his friends and rivals will be the only Italian skipper in the IMOCA fleet, Giancarlo Pedote, who has had a much smoother build-up than Bellion. After a routine winter re-fit, that involved some structural strengthening, the 2015 VPLP/Verdier designed Prysmian is ready, though its skipper would love a bit more time to prepare.

“We got back on the water in the last part of March and we sailed the boat, but not a lot,”said Pedote, also 48, who finished eighth in the last Vendée Globe. “But in any case we proved the boat in 25-30 knots and we are happy about its performance. But normally we cross the Atlantic after an important season and we would have sailed around 3,000 miles.

“In this case it will be a little bit different,”he continued. “Most of the boats will not be fully prepared, but this is the game and we don't have a choice. So I think it will be important to take care with the boat and to take care with the strategy to finish the race, with the boat in good condition because we also need to come back, so that is important.”

© Eloi Stichelbaut - polaRYSE / IMOCA

Pedote is well aware, just as Bellion is, that this race – formerly known as the OSTAR and the English Transat – doesn't just have a long and glorious history of great sailors like Sir Francis Chichester and Éric Tabarly crossing the Atlantic alone, it can also be a dangerous undertaking.

He says the key will be keeping a flexible approach, depending on what the weather Gods deliver for an east-west passage that is expected to take around 12-14 days. “We can’t change the meteorology, but we can change our approach to find the best strategy and not break the boat. I will see what is on the menu on the day of the start and we will take it from there,”summarised the sailor from Florence with an impressive CV in the Mini Class and Multi 50s behind him.

© Eloi Stichelbaut - polaRYSE / IMOCA

Pedote also made the point that The Transat CIC is another chance to practice being alone on the water. “It is an important opportunity to test us again in solo condition, which will be the normal conditions of the Vendée Globe,” he said.

The Prysmian skipper is looking forward to arriving in New York where he has appearances planned for sponsors, before his technical team returns the boat to Brittany in delivery mode. “I have been in New York two times but many years ago, so I’m excited to arrive there and to find my sponsors. Of course it will be great for me and my team to do this race and we are happy about it,” added Pedote.

Ed Gorman