A masterful race
Capsizes, Crashes, and an incredible finish – this year’s route du rhum saw skill defeat technology. Helen Fretter reports
Capsizes, crashes, and an incredible finish – this year’s Route du Rhum saw skill defeat technology
The legend of the Route du Rhum solo transatlantic race is built on hair-raising mid-atlantic escapades and dramatic denouements. Leaving St Malo in early November every four years, the fleet plunges into the Bay of Biscay en route to the island of Guadaloupe, and the ride is rarely smooth. Over ten previous runnings there have been spectacular capsizes, tragic losses, and heroes made.
Forty years ago, Mike Birch’s little plywood trimaran Olympus Photo slipped past the leading monohull Kriter V right on the finish line of the very first Route du Rhum.
The victory, by a winning margin of 98s, was a true David and Goliath result. It made Canadian skipper Birch a superstar in France (huge crowds still clamoured to see him in St Malo).
Four decades and light years of development later, this year’s Route du Rhum result was once again decided in the final metres.
The 2018 race was expected to be a showcase for latest design, headlined by the brand new foiling Ultimes and latest generation foil-assisted IMOCAS. But a different epic tale was told when the wily Francis Joyon overcame the wunderkinds of the Ultime class on his 12-year-old IDEC, winning with just minutes to go.
In the IMOCAS, Alex Thomson dramatically crashed out after a near-faultless Atlantic crossing to hand victory to Paul Meilhat, who had driven his 2010-designed nonfoiling IMOCA so hard he was able to take the win ahead of many newer, technically faster boats. Giants were being slain again.
Technological failures and human error lost the 2018 Route du Rhum, the Ultimes fracturing mid-atlantic one after another, and Thomson smashing Hugo Boss into cliffs after a smartwatch alarm failed. But for Joyon and Meilhat to be ready in positions to win required faultless seamanship and nerves of steel.
Big tri showdown
The Ultime class was supposed to be a space-race to the Caribbean, sailed at warp speeds as the three newest foiling trimarans took on their first big test. It didn’t happen quite like that.
Like any great technological advance, the race was a step into the unknown for the Ultimes, particularly with two major low pressure systems set to sweep the fleet in the first few days. Two days before the start I asked Seb Josse, skipper of Maxi Edmond de Rothschild, in how much detail he had planned his race? “No, wrong question!” he laughed ruefully.
The work-up time required for these mega-machines has been extraordinary – Josse said that at the beginning of this year, after every single day’s sailing they would be back on the dock for two weeks.
“So it takes a lot of time to really know how to sail this boat in single-handed mode,” Josse explained. “In some conditions I’m really confident – say 20-25 knots of wind, it’s not easy but I know what I’ll do. After that, in more wind… we’ll see!
“We’ve never sailed this boat in these types of conditions before. Armel [le Cléac’h] and François [Gabart] haven’t sailed one day alone yet in these flying boats.”
‘OVER ONE MILLION PEOPLE VISITED THE RACE VILLAGE IN THE BUILD UP’
Inevitably, there were problems. First Armel Le Cléac’h made a quick pitstop back to Brittany to sort out his power system (race rules allow skippers to make unlimited stops within 150 miles of St Malo).
After rocketing along at 35-plus knots, Josse reported that the Rothschild Ultime had come to a ‘violent halt’. The impact tore nearly 10m off the starboard float bow. Josse nursed the trimaran back to shore, the tracker by then showing yachts heading to all points of the compass as many sought refuge from the most severe conditions.
Thomas Coville was next to turn back when the structure of Sodebo’s forward crossbeam began to fail.
Then came news that Le Cléac’h had capsized his maxi trimaran, Banque Populaire IX some 350 miles north-east of the Azores. Le Cléac’h reported that the port float had sheared off. The next day Le Cléac’h was rescued by a Portuguese fishing boat, but his multi-million dollar machine was adrift in the Atlantic for ten days before it could be towed (see page 15 On the Wind).
Meanwhile Vendée Globe winner and round the
world record holder François Gabart was doing what he does best: taking the lead. As expected, Gabart and his refitted Macif initially pulled away from Francis Joyon on the older, non-foiling IDEC. But by the mid-atlantic the margin was still only 150 miles or so – a blink of an eye for an Ultime. Was Macif slower than expected or IDEC faster?
Over the summer Joyon had upgraded his 12-year-old trimaran with new daggerboards (curved, but not foiling), T-foil rudders and a ‘cyclor’-style pedestal winch. In the tradewind conditions, IDEC clearly still had what it takes.
“I’ll be completely out of it by the time we get to the finish,” he reported mid-race. “IDEC can take it, and I’m really pushing her like crazy.”
He added, “It’s never over on a multihull until it’s over.” With 800 miles to go the duo gybed back onto the rhumb line, lined up for Guadaloupe in what looked set to be a straight speed contest to the finish. But, incredibly, Joyon was able to chip away at Gabart’s lead. In 36 hours the 140-mile advantage had been whittled away to nothing.
The Macif team confirmed that their superhero’s wings were clipped – five days previously, Macif had lost its starboard foil. Then Gabart discovered he had also lost part of the port rudder. On the long port gybe down to Guadaloupe, IDEC closed the gap on the flightless Macif.
As they reached Guadaloupe, the wind died. Three tons lighter, Macif looked to be faster in the slippery conditions, but IDEC was easier to manoeuvre. Gripped by the live
‘WITH JUST ONE MILE TO THE FINISH THE SKIPPERS WERE SIDE BY SIDE’
tracker, Alex Pella – who was part of Joyon’s Jules Verne crew – commented: “I have my money on Francis, because his boat is super simple and it has the canting mast.
“And he has the strength in his head to win this,” added Pella.
With just one mile from the finish the two solo skippers were side by side. In the thick heat of a Caribbean night, Joyon edged across the finish line seven minutes and eight seconds ahead of Gabart. It was Joyon’s first win in the race, on his eighth attempt. His boat had beaten its own record (when sailed by Loïck Peyron as Banque Populaire VII in 2014), by finishing the 3,542-mile course in 7d 14h 21 seven days, 14 hours and 21 minutes.
The IMOCA class, with 20 entries, was another huge crowd puller. Before the race there was much curiosity about how Jérémie Beyou’s new show-stopping Charal, another unknown quantity, would perform (see page 86 for a close-up look).
Many were expecting a showdown between Charal and Alex Thomson on his very well proven Hugo Boss. Thomson, whose new boat will also be a VPLP design, was hoping for the same. “On one hand I want them to do well. On the other hand, I want to kick their arse!” he joked before the start. Just one day in, however, and steering problems forced Charal back to port.
Thomson was the only skipper to skirt a TSS zone off Ushant to the north, while the rest of the IMOCA fleet headed south. His route sent him into more severe conditions initially, but Boss was first boat to pass the first low-pressure system, and well placed to deal with
a second low approaching Biscay. Others, led by Vincent Riou and Paul Meilhat, chose to skirt the worst of the weather to the south.
The boat-breaking sea state that decimated the Ultimes soon made its impact felt in the IMOCAS. Sam Davies had to pull out after discovering delamination, and Isabelle Joschke dismasted, joining the many who had turned back for Brittany.
Damage on Hugo Boss including the lazyjacks breaking, dumping 100m2 of sail onto deck. As it filled with water, Thomson deliberately knifed holes in his mainsail to stop it ballooning and tearing irreparably. He described conditions, which peaked at 50-knot winds with 8m seas, as ‘ugly’.
“The problem was,” he added, “the optimal route had me sailing very fast across it, into the waves. The waves were 8m and sailing at 20 knots into it would have reduced the boat into a pile of carbon rubble within minutes. So I had to sail more west and keep Hugo Boss at a reasonable pace so as not to destroy her.” At times he was
‘THOMSON AWOKE TO FIND EVERY ALARM ON THE BOAT SCREECHING’
unable even to sit down for fear of an injury, so violent was the motion.
Unlike the multihulls, the IMOCA skippers have no routeing support; Thomson’s next challenge was to pick his moment to cross a mid-atlantic high pressure ridge. Once into the trades, however, Boss seemed unbeatable. Thoroughly optimised for these downwind foiling conditions, the black boat built a 230-mile lead.
Thomson seemed all set to repeat Ellen Macarthur’s tally of following a 2nd in the Vendée with 1st in the Route du Rhum. Legendary French offshore sailors were effusive in their praise for his lead-from-the-front strategy.
But then, disaster struck. Thomson set his ‘electric shock’ watch to wake him after a last nap on the approach to Guadaloupe. The watch never went off (Thomson suspects it ran out of charge). He awoke to find every alarm on the boat screeching, and Hugo Boss pinned onto rocks under cliffs on the northern tip of Guadaloupe.
A disorientated Thomson frantically had to start his engine and extricate Boss from the remote spot. He notified the race office of what he had done, resealed his engine, and continued to the finish under sail – Boss showing scrapes along the hull and damage to the bowsprit and starboard foil.
“He was extremely fortunate,” explained Alex Thomson Racing boss Stuart Hosford after the race. “He was approaching the island at 17 knots within a couple of hundred metres of the headland, then sailed down in the lee of the headland and when he actually grounded he was only doing 4 knots.
“I think people underestimate the shock and the fear in waking up in that kind of environment. He was immediately awake, got the sails down and reversed exactly the right way off the shore. There are so few people on the planet who could go from having been asleep to waking like that, and take down 500m2 of sail area and get an engine on without wrapping a propeller or getting a rope caught or something.
“It’s an amazing piece of seamanship just to get out of there and get the boat to safety. So often with these things a bad situation becomes much worse.”
Thomson was awarded a mandatory 24-hour penalty, dropping him to 3rd in class. He was gracious on arrival, saying: “This sport is about detail and in the final moments I didn’t get the detail right.”
Thomson also drew attention to Paul Meilhat’s performance. After Thomson’s penalty, Meilhat took 1st in class – not only his biggest career win but a phenomenal achievement in its own right, pushing the non-foil assisted IMOCA SMA to keep pace with recently optimised designs.
Meilhat enjoyed a near-perfect race, commenting afterwards: “Sometimes I even surprised myself. At the end, I was so at one with the boat that I was able to carry out gybes at night without a head torch and it felt like the lines automatically fell to my hand.”
The fatigue levels skippers reached over the Route du Rhum were extreme. Thomson reported that he slept no more than one hour a day for the first four days of the race. Vincent Riou broke down in tears on his arrival through sheer exhaustion. Despite having had no wind instruments and hence no reliable autopilot since nearly the beginning of the race, he was still in contention for a win until the very last day.
‘THE FATIGUE LEVELS SKIPPERS REACHED WERE EXTREME’
A remarkable 53 Class 40s started the Route du Rhum, skippered by a mix of top-class pros and hopeful amateurs – many suffering a traditional winter beating in Biscay.
Yoanne Richomme on his immaculately prepared new Lombard-designed Lift 40 led from start to finish in a foot-perfect race. Richomme’s set out to win the Rhum Class 40 in preference to attempting a lower budget IMOCA campaign and his dominant performance should give his Vendée 2020 credentials a serious boost.
Briton Phil Sharp, who won the class in 2006, came 3rd, having long been in contention for 2nd on his older generation boat, despite a catalogue of issues ranging from electronic gremlins to ballast tank leaks and autopilot failure. Jack Trigger was another to challenge the French dominance, finishing 8th in his first ever solo race.
One of the most joyous finishers was the irrepressible Loïck Peyron on his 39ft plywood trimaran Happy.
In finishing 4th in the Rhum Multi class, Peyron had finally completed a personal homage to the early pioneers of ocean racing. “I had a wish, many years ago, to feel again what I felt on my first transatlantics, when I was 19 in a Mini Transat,” he recalled before the start. “That feeling of being a bit lost was attractive to me.”
Peyron first attempted to race Pen Duick II in the 2016 OSTAR – “A legendary French boat, the boat on which Tabarly won the Transat in 1964, which was the beginning of everything, everything!” – but retired with rig damage.
Undeterred, he hatched a new plan when he spotted a small trimaran that looked suspiciously like Olympus Photo sailing in San Francisco bay a few years ago. Peyron at the time was at the wheel of the Team France America’s Cup foiling AC72, training off Alcatraz at 45 knots.
Peyron purchased Happy in 2013 and put it through a full refit, working hard to restore the trimaran to her original design – no furlers, only Dacron sails, and minimal electronics. Peyron instead relies heavily on a bright yellow sextant, complete with smiley face. When I stepped aboard a couple of days before the start, Happy was delightfully homely to the point of disorganisation, and Peyron was looking forward to reading some books while racing.
In the end his 51st Atlantic crossing and final Route du Rhum took 21d, 3h and 57m. “I am done,” Peyron said at the finish, “I have done eight and that is plenty,” Never one to miss a trick, however, Peyron did point out that his much-loved little yellow trimaran is now for sale. The Happy dream of feeling perfectly lost can live on.
Having whittled Macif’s lead down over the 3,500-mile race, Joyon passed Gabart in the final mile to the finish
Ultimes power away from the start at St Malo
Above: the old guard and new generation of French offshore racing: winner Francis Joyon and runner-up François Gabart Right: Joyon crosses the line
Left: Sam Goodchild was an early retiree. His Netflixbranded Class 40 Narcos Mexicodismasted on the second night of racing
Paul Meilhat won the IMOCA class in a 2010 conventional design, beating Yann Eliès and Vincent Riou in their newly modified foilers
His Route du Rhum victory is the biggest career win so far for Paul Meilhat, a former Figaro and French Olympic dinghy sailor
Loïck Peyron sailed his restored Walter Greene trimaran Happy to 4th in class, using traditional navigation methods