With a course of 3,000 miles against prevailing weather in the North Atlantic, The Transat bakerly is one of ocean sailing's toughest tests
Plymouth is where the sport of solo ocean racing was minted in 1960. The first transatlantic race to New York, the race that became famous as the OSTAR, was a select and gentlemanly affair of likeminded adventurers. But four years later Eric Tabarly came and won it in Pen Duick II and that was the start of a love affair in France with solo sailing that has dominated this area of the sport.
The OSTAR days came to and end, and its successor, The Transat, found itself in such hard times that it has not run for eight years. But The Transat bakerly begins again from Plymouth on 2 May. The 3,000-mile race to New York is predominantly upwind and against the elements and an event still seen as a crowning feat in the world of solo sailing.
There are 25 entries in four classes this time, reflecting the grouping of professional sailing today: Class 40s; Multi 50s; IMOCA 60s; and three giant Ultimes trimarans.
And there is one wildcard, Loick Peyron racing Pen Duick II. His is more of a historic re-enactment than an outright race. He has no competition and will be the taillender of the fleet. Eight years ago, Peyron won the IMOCA class, his third victory in this gruelling race. But this time his idea is to experience the clock running backwards, sailing a yacht refitted as she raced 52 years ago.
“Maybe it is because it is because I am too old to win,” jokes Peyron, “but it is a wish to feel again the feeling of my first transatlantic, with paper charts and a sextant. I’m here for the fun.”
Fun is an odd word to describe this race. “This is the most challenging considering the weather patterns sailors encounter. It is the mother of all the transatlantics and everyone in racing wants to add their name to the trophy. Any winner of this race has always made a huge career in sailing,” says Gilles Chiorri, The Transat bakerly‘s race director and a solo sailor of considerable experience himself.
He sketches an outline of its highlights: “Windy, foggy, cold, with some icebergs along the route,” Chiorri says, matter-of-factly. Yes, The Transat race has always been a hard one, a rough windward slugging match with more weather systems to negotiate than on any other transatlantic race.
For the IMOCA 60s, this is a primer for the Vendée Globe round the world race later this year and another chance to put in the miles and size up the competition. It will re-engage one of the class’s biggest debates: are the futuristic V-foils a winning feature, or a gamble?
Vincent Riou, racing PRB, is one of the few Vendée favourites to have elected to stay with daggerboards. His track record against the newest yachts is impressive: a win in the two-handed Transat Jacques Vabre and in last year’s Fastnet Race. He says he thinks it’s better, with his last generation boat, to stick with a known quantity.
“The Transat has a lot of different conditions and a lot of transitions, and the first quality for me is to perform during those transitions. My advantage is a simple boat that I know very well.”
An elusive win
“We need to learn what is the potential [performance improvement] of foils. In some conditions they are faster, between 80-120° and with [boatspeed] faster than 17 knots, but under 16-17 knots they are not faster,” Riou says.
There is, however, a risk from hitting something with these new, large foils. The Transat has a history of collisions, sadly often with whales or basking sharks. Riou knows this only too well. He has started two previous OSTAR/Transat Races and retired with a dismasting and, in 2004, had to abandon PRB when he collided with what he believed was a basking shark. The impact damaged the canting keel axis.
It was Loick Peyron who sailed to his rescue.
Riou is returning in the hope of adding this elusive win to his record.
But the most impressive sight when the race begins on Monday will be the three Ultimes multihulls: Thomas Coville’s Sodebo; François Gabart’s MACIF; and Yves Le Blevec in Team Actual.
The collection of big multihulls being raced solo is the newest development in this type of racing, and the first time they have been seen in The Transat (when it was the OSTAR the race organisers introduced an upper size limit of 56ft to halt the growth of solo racers, a trend then considered highly dangerous). The Ultimes skippers see this as a test for their plan to race solo round the world in three years’ time.
Coville says: “We are creating a new category, a new class. This is a good opportunity to for us, going against the wind and strong seas, with traffic, ice and all the ingredients we expect going round the world, which is our goal in 2019.”
In this respect, The Transat bakerly is entering another experimental era: adventurous, pioneering, exciting, but hardly without risk. If the biggest machines perform as hoped for, though, the line honours winner could arrive in New York in seven or eight days.
For a race against the prevailing weather that would be incredible — in 1960 it took Sir Francis Chichester more than 40 days. By comparison, these huge trimarans are on a moon shot.