A mas­ter­ful race

Cap­sizes, Crashes, and an in­cred­i­ble fin­ish – this year’s route du rhum saw skill de­feat tech­nol­ogy. He­len Fret­ter re­ports

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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.”


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


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.

IMOCA up­sets

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


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.


Joy­ous fin­ish­ers

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

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