An incredible fleet starts this year’s 40th anniversary Route du Rhum, but with potentially boat-breaking conditions forecast

Along a three-mile start line off St Malo, 123 boats set off on the 40th Route du Rhum singlehanded transatlantic race to Guadaloupe this afternoon.

For most of the skippers, setting off will be a temporary relief. The first stage of the solo transatlantic to Guadaloupe – the famous docking out through St Malo’s locks – started yesterday evening and ran right through to the small hours of this morning.

As well as being a spectacle, the drawn out process is a logistical necessity for the enormous fleet to exit St Malo’s medieval walls and huge tidal range. For skippers with support crews it was an enjoyable photo opportunity, a chance to acknowledge the huge crowds that assemble to wave every boat off, before a fast RIB ride back to a warm hotel bed for the last night. But for solo sailors on a shoestring – and there are plenty, in amongst the glossy branded boats – it will have been a tiring start before what looks set to be an exhausting race.

© Photo Mark Lloyd

The forecast is intimidating. I spoke to Jack Trigger, who is sailing the Class 40 Concise 8, straight after yesterday’s weather briefing, and he said that the conditions for the first 72 hours were better than anticipated. This afternoon saw the huge fleet set off in sunshine and around 15-18 knots. With boats ranging from 39ft plywood trimarans to the foiling Ultimes all on one line, albeit a zoned one, the less frenetic conditions than previously predicted will have been a relief to everyone

But a low pressure system will reached the bulk of the fleet, particularly the Class 40 fleet, by Tuesday. The faster Ultimes may be able to escape the worst, but the IMOCAs will also have to go through 40-knot north-westerlies.

“Not immediately, but I think days three to five we will get hit pretty hard,” Trigger explained. “I think we might see 50 knots, and it’s going upwind and it’s about the predicted sea state. So we’ll get it in the middle of Biscay.” Predicted waves are up to 11 metres.

“It’s so changeable, there are multiple low pressures and secondary lows moving about, so we’ll just see what happens,’ Trigger added. “So we’ll end up coming down through Biscay, tacking across one front where we’ll see 50, then tacking back, then tacking through a second [front] where we’ll probably see the same again.” Was he worried about it? “I’m excited!”

St Malo in the sunshine has a carnival atmosphere, enormous crowds rammed 20-deep along the docks, their excitement heightened by an endless barrage of drums, pipes, light shows and no small quantities of alcohol. The Route du Rhum pre-start does not share the sombre intensity of a Vendée departure, but this race, with its November North Atlantic course, does have a reputation as something of a demolition derby and there was a definite air of nervousness.

“The thought of tacking one of these boats in 10m waves and 40 knots of winds is not something anyone looks forward to,” said Hugo Boss skipper Alex Thomson before the start, adding that he “doesn’t have any idea how an Ultime handles that kind of situation.”

All eyes will be on the Ultime class. The three magnificent new foilers – Armel Le Cleac’h’s Banque Populaire IX, Francois Gabart’s modified Macif, and the Maxi Edmond de Rothschild – have never seriously competed against one another. Some brief line-ups out of Port la Foret last month suggested Seb Josse’s Edmond de Rothschild might have the edge, but nobody really knows.

I asked Vincent Laurent Prevost for VPLP, designers of Banque Populaire and Macif, what he expected from the fleet. Ditto Loick Peyron, the current Route du Rhum course record holder (on the previous generation Banque Pop), and legendary multihull sailor. Neither would be drawn on the topic, but it’s not wholly down to being evasive. It’s partly down to the fact that even the skippers can’t predict how this will shake down, so relatively short are they of race time and solo flight time.

Two days before the start I asked Seb Josse, skipper of the Edmond de Rotschild Ultime, how far in advance he had planned his race in detail. “No, wrong question!” he laughed ruefully.

Photo ©Thierry Martinez/Sea & Co

“The boat touched the water last year, and we had a lot of technical things to sort out. At the beginning of this year, each time after we sailed for 24 hours we’d be on the dock for two weeks.

“So it takes a lot of time to really know how to sail this boat in singlehanded mode. In some conditions I’m really confident – 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 and Francois don’t sail one day alone yet in these flying boats, Francois knows how to go fast for 42 days, for definite, but we don’t know how to sail fast for five days. So the first thing we need to do is manage the boats, not capsize, and go fast and fly when we can.”

Unlike the Imoca and Class 40 fleets, the Ultimes (and Rhum Multi class) are allowed external routing, which removes some of the decision-making factor from the solo skippers and is intended to help keep them away from dangerous sea states. As foil controls and onboard telemetry have become increasingly advanced, those race rules have been clarified this year to ensure that any ‘remote control’ developments are outlawed.

The IMOCA class, with 20 entries, is another incredibly high quality fleet. There is much curiosity about how the show-stopping Charal, another unknown quantity, will perform. The VPLP-design is the first of the latest generation foilers, launched just weeks ago. It is aggressive and impressive, but as yet unproven. Alex Thomson, who has a VPLP designed IMOCA 60 currently in build, said it was hard to predict how Charal would be sailed in the Route du Rhum.

“It’s difficult to get a boat this new properly up to speed yet, and it’s difficult to be confident because you don’t know what its reliability is yet. But if they are competitive in this, then I tip my hat to their team because I know how hard it is to do.”

By contrast, Stuart Hosford, managing director of Alex Thomson Racing, said that he was very relaxed about their preparation of Hugo Boss for what will be Thomson’s last race on the boat that took him to 2nd in the Vendée Globe. “We know the boat so well, Alex knows it so well, there are no unknowns,” said Hosford.

“So for us it’s a really nice race start because we’re at the end of a cycle with this boat and everything’s ticked off. But we also want this boat to be successful, and deliver on all the love and attention that went into it – it becomes very personal to us!”

While the hull platform for Thomson’s new Boss has already come out of the moulds, Hosford said he will be among those watching Charal for information that might inform the design of the foils for the new Boss – particularly the second set of foils that is likely to be developed before the 2020 Vendée Globe.

“It’s kind of a mixed thing for us – we want to beat them and we hope the boat’s not too fast in this race, but at the same time it is the same designer and it will be our generation of that boat, so we’d hate to think it wasn’t fast. That would be more concerning.”

Alex put it more forcefully: “On one hand I want them to do well, because it’s another VPLP boat and that’s where ours is coming from. On the other hand, I want to kick their arse!”

Photo © Mark Lloyd

Besides the two black boats, the likely favourites in the IMOCA class are Yann Elies, who won the last major transatlantic, the 2017 TJV, in the same yacht, and Vincent Riou. Riou has re-optimised PRB with new foils, and has been consistently quick during the Port La Foret training races. Thomson said his team would also be watching Riou’s performance particularly closely for clues as to what the next generation of Juan Kouyoumdjian foils might look like.

In a fleet packed with talent there are plenty of others who cannot be discounted. Among them Sam Davies, who has been able to put in plenty of training hours on Initiatives Coeur, leading many in St Malo to tip her for a podium finish.

The Class 40 fleet, with a staggering 53 entries, would make an impressive event all on its own. The level varies hugely. There are skippers like Yoann Richome, a former Figaro champion with a highly covetable CV, who has built a brand new Lombard-designed latest generation Lift 40 with the single intention of winning the Route du Rhum. There are amateur sailors, often highly successful individuals who have chosen the 40 class to fulfil a dream of racing against the pros.

There are plenty of young French sailors on some of the class’s more vintage designs. And there is a strong cohort of British sailors – Phil Sharp, Sam Goodchild and Jack Trigger – all of whom will be hoping they can survive the potentially boat-breaking conditions and make the right routing decisions to stay in touch for a podium finish.

Even the two ‘Rhum’ classes, which in many events you could be forgiven for assuming is a selection of also-rans and enthusiasts, here sees sailors of the calibre of Sydney Gavignet and Sebastien Destremau line up against first-timers in classic ketches in the monohulls.

Meanwhile in the multihulls there are three yellow Walter Greene trimarans, each sisterships to the 39ft plywood tri that won the first Route du Rhum back in 1978 for Canadian skipper Mike Birch (Birch, now 87, was there to wish his friend Charlie Capelle in Acapella good luck and treated like a true celebrity by the gathered crowds).

Among the skippers racing a little yellow is Loick Peyron, holder of the current seven-day race record, who was preparing for a 22 day crossing on his ‘little bicycle’, the bright yellow Water Greene tri Happy. For Loick, who has nothing to prove, this race is about nostalgia and a pure love of ocean sailing.

“It is about capturing that feeling of my first transatlantic, when I was just 19, on a Mini Transat with a sextant and alone for long periods. That feeling of being a bit lost was attractive to me.”

Photo ©Thierry Martinez/Sea & Co

He has refitted Happy to be as authentic to her time as  possible, with a simple deck layout, no furlers, and minimal electronic aids – he will be mostly using a custom yellow sextant, complete with a smiley face.

Although he is taking a box of books to read, the Route du Rhum will still present a challenge to even masters like Peyron. “A boat like this is much more stable the wrong way up. I am the old fighter, the old combatant, who has never capsized. And I would like to stay like that for a long time.”

You can follow the fleet at https://www.routedurhum.com/en/cartography