After an easier start than experienced by the Velux 5-Oceans, the Rhum fleet is running into some bad weather


After 10 days of racing in the four yearly Route du Rhum, the French solo race that goes from St Malo to Guadeloupe, eight of the 74 starters – that’s nearly 11% of the fleet – have retired for reasons varying from capsize (3 trimarans), one sinking (a 14-year old Farr-designed monohull), two dismastings (including pre-race favourite Vincent Riou’s PRB), one for family reasons and one unspecified.

The fleet had an easier start than the Velux-5 Oceans round the world fleet which started a week earlier and was battered by 70 knot storms and much easier than the last Route du Rhum where the multihull fleet were blown around Biscay, mostly upside down, like autumn leaves. But is it really bad for a race of this type? They have been experiencing winds of up to 50 knots in a mid-Atlantic low but that’s in the same sort of wind range as the Force 10 storm that battered the 1976 OSTAR fleet. And that year almost half of the 125-strong fleet did not make it to the finish, one sank, one disappeared and two participants lost their lives.

Thirty years on solo racing boats are much, much faster. They are also much, much stronger and more sophisticated. And the eccentrics that gave those early races their colour have been weeded out. I also reckon that the modern solo skipper is very much more professional, better trained and dare I say fitter.

But is the sport better for it? As a true sport undoubtedly yes. As an adventure no. And many of the more wild and wacky boats tended to de-select themselves in a Darwinian fashion soon after the start.

Two of my favourites were a very home built catamaran called Passing Wind (really) in the twohanded Round Britain and Ireland Race. She had what was described as a geodisic rig and her mast was stepped onto a couple of wire spans that ran between the hulls, like upside down shrouds. She made it as far as the Eddystone when one of those spans broke and the mast was shot down between the hulls like an arrow from a bow.

The second was a variable-geometry proa called Rosiere in one of the early Route du Rhum races. The cross beams were hinged so that the relative position of the hulls to each other could be varied to suit the point of sailing. The whole lot was controlled by wires running to winches. The inevitable happened, one of the wires parted and her geometry became totally variable as the two hulls hinged into line with one another and she fell over.

Mind you there was also a third spectacular failure when the hapless Bertrand de Broc’s trimaran Groupe LG became a catamaran soon after the start of another Route du Rhum when his autopilot jammed and a large buoy neatly incised the crossbeams. This is the same Bertrand de Broc who had to sew his tongue back on in the Vendee Globe and in another Vendee made it all the way round only to capsize in Biscay on the home run when his keel fell off.

Picure shows Ross Hobson’s capsized Ideal Stelrad