A record entry and record wow-factor for the gladiatorial solo sprint across the ocean: the Route du Rhum 2014

If you have the chance to visit St Malo this week, take it – go. I was there last week and it proved truly eye-opening. The power, speed and technicality of the collective designs entered for the Route du Rhum 2014 race would startle most people, even if they were fully crewed. Instead this selection of 91 ultra-light ocean racing monos and multis – a record entry – are all being meticulously prepared to be raced single-handed across the Atlantic.

And the French public just can’t get enough of them. St Malo is in lock-down mode this week as an estimated two million people flock to a town normally inhabited by 45,000. That’s the equivalent spectator attendance of 60 premiership football matches, or a Tour de France finish.

Before first light this Sunday, Nov 2, the entries will stream out of St Malo’s inner basin to prepare for the 10th Route du Rhum start. Held every four years, the Rhum is a 3,550nm sprint from Saint-Malo to Pointe-à-Pitre (Guadeloupe). And its popularity continues to soar in Brittany, where it captivates the general public to a scale we have never seen anything like on our side of the channel.

Saint Malo is the perfect host port: it distils emotion. It was an island in the 16th Century, and to look at the walled town today it is hard to believe over 98% was flattened after World War II. I visited the day before the race village even opened and it was already seething. Families were queuing at the pontoon walkways, hoping to explore more of the weird and whacky race boats. But the larger draw for the crowds are the weird and whacky sailors who are crazy enough to sail them solo.

“Vous êtes Sebastien?” asked one hopeful fan of Martin Piquet, GDF Suez’ boat captain whom I was speaking to at the time. There was I admiring the intricate cockpit layout and the multitude of rope lashings used, while this chap just wanted to put a face to the Class 40 man of the moment, Sebastien Rogues.

Look comfortable? The uninvitingly spartan interior of GDF Suez, a favourite in the Class 40 fleet

The Class 40s are the whippets of the fleet. There are 43 of these 4.5 tonne ocean-racing speedsters – including two sailed by Brits, Miranda Merron and Conrad Humphreys. Sir Robin Knox Johnstone completes the rather modest British line up on his Open 60 Grey Power. The favourite for the more modern IMOCA 60 fleet will arguably be Francois Gabart however, the youngest ever winner of the Vendée Globe, who is sailing his last race aboard his triumphant MACIF.

There is an incredible variety in the hull and deck designs of the 43 Class 40s taking part

Where the hull shapes of the 40s vary enormously, at least they still look fun, approachable even. Piquet, who has worked on the Aviva and Ecover IMOCA 60 campaigns agreed, noting how stiff and complex the all-carbon 60s are in comparison. The fibreglass 40s bend he says with a smile – ‘bending’ is a good thing apparently.

Then there are the trimarans, the real missiles of this fleet. The range and scale of these draw the real ‘ooh la lahs’ from the crowds. They range from 10m sisterships to Mike Birch’s original Olympus Photo to the world’s largest tri, the gargantuan 40m Spindrift.

The walled in port of St Malo is alive with menacing multis. A row of Multi 50s, with their predatory, spider-like frames lie in a line, bucking impatiently on the dock.

The 50ft tris look fast enough to put the willies up you. And just when you are thinking how big a MOD70 like Oman Air or Edmond de Rothschild looks, just when you are scratching your head wondering how it is possible to manage such a powerful beast single-handed, something twice the size of that rocks up. At 131ft, Spindrift is the monster, the freak show of this gladiatorial event. Her beam is so vast she can’t even fit through St Malo’s enormous lock gates.

Sorry, your name’s not on the list… The 131ft Spindrift has to moor outside St Malo’s lock gates

The boat that smashed the Jules Verne fully crewed round the world record by sailing round the world in 45 days, is now being sailed by Yann Guichard – on his own. Just him and his exercise bike, to help power the winches. To look at Spindrift, and the people on the dock looking at her, you can almost read their questioning minds. ‘How?’ ‘What if he has to tack, or gybe or reef…?’

If you haven’t yet seen it, Matt Sheahan’s video from onboard Spindrift is a must watch. Click here

Previous Rhums have been a race of attrition for multihulls. With monsters like Spindrift, and three other multis around 100ft (Banque Populaire VII sailed by Loick Peyron, Francis Joyon’s Idec Sport and Thomas Colville’s Sodebo Ultim’ are all in the ‘Ultimate Class’) – will 2014 be another demolition derby?

Lionel Lemonchois 7 day 17 hour Route du Rhum record in 2006 aboard the Orma trimaran Gitana XI certainly now looks threatened by waterline length alone. But hopefully 2014 will prove to be the ultimate solo speed sailing endeavour. Witnessing this collection of ocean warriors up close, and sampling the electric aura surrounding them in St Malo currently, was transformational for me.

Along with at least two million of my French friends, I eagerly await the anticipated conquest. Time to see if any ferry tickets are still available to return for the start this weekend…