There is an atmosphere of trepidation in St Malo as the Route du Rhum skippers face heading out into big westerlies

In the comparative tranquility of the press centre in St Malo this morning, Ellen MacAthur, Mike Golding, Roland Jourdain and Nick Moloney answered questions about the Route du Rhum. Placidly, they all agreed that the first objective would be to get west and that, yes, it would be quite hard. But nothing put that into perspective quite like the scene through the window behind them, as breakers reverberated off the sea wall and broke in fusillades of spray, inundating the road that leads to the walled town.

The forecast is unrelenting, and if the monohull skippers get away on Saturday in 25-30 knots from the west they can count themselves lucky. The prediction is for stronger winds on Sunday for the multihull start, which could keep building from the west during the early part of next week. If that is the case, the fleet is in for a pounding. There is a palpable undertow of trepidation.

“At the moment it is not the most positive feeling,” Ellen MacArthur admitted frugally. Nick Moloney was more outspoken: he confessed that he was very nervous, not least because of some “issues” after two traumatic DNFs in previous solo races. Mike Golding outlined the dilemma these experienced race favourites all face, saying the quandary is in judging how hard to drive in boat-breaking, spleen-rupturing upwind conditions. “The problem is that if you don’t push, someone will get away with it. That will be an issue on Saturday night, that’s for sure. It’s a problem.”

You don’t need to be a soothsayer to foresee a serious shakeout of the fleet. A number of the 59 boats in the race are newly built and relatively little tested, or newly chartered or bought. Hence many of the skippers are short of gut feeling about their boats, the sort of instinct that is called for in judging pace during the first few days.

Statistically, a third of the Route du Rhum fleet retires with damage, and for the 60ft trimarans in particular, this has been a bad year for staying the course. Finding that all-important compromise between racing aspirations and seamanship may be that bit harder for the multihull skippers because their yachts behave, and are affected, in a more complex fashion.

Michel Desjoyeaux wondered about just this during the recent qualifier on his new trimaran Géant, when he was on the wind in 35 knots. Afterwards, he put the question to one of the boat’s designers, Vincent Lauriot Prévost. “It’s difficult for skippers to know in certain conditions whether to push the boat or reduce speed,” agrees Lauriot Prévost. “If you reduce speed you reduce heel and the windward hull is more exposed to the waves. Or whether to keep the boat loaded, with speed and have it jump the waves.

“The knowledge we have on the boats about bending moment in the beams and the masts are beginning to be well known, but where it is difficult is with dynamic loads and impact loads – they are completely depending on boat movement. Wave effect has always been a problem on these boats. My fear would be strong winds with big [cross seas] which are from every direction. Maybe then the risks are there in terms of structural damage. After that it’s much more a risk of the skipper handling the boat – they will be downwind after the first part and the skippers will be tired.”

The sophisticated technology here is impressive and a leap forward since the last Route du Rhum four years ago. There are multihulls with elliptical foils, masts that cant sideways and fore and aft, centreboards that pivot in two different directions, rudders with T-foils, and many of these on a batch of new boats unimagined four years ago. Breakages and retirements notwithstanding, these improvements are potential race-winning technology.

Somehow, though, nothing underlines the changes in four years so much as our own Ellen MacArthur. As she pointed out this morning when asked if she was feeling the pressure of expectations, her Kingfisher in the last Route du Rhum was the old Aqua Quorum and she was about do her first solo ocean race on a big boat.

So, no, she said, the pressure had always been there. “Four years ago I was sitting here with something to prove, because if it hadn’t gone well the Kingfisher sponsorship wasn’t going forward. I’d never raced a boat as big as that before on my own. It was a massive challenge.”