Elaine Bunting looks at the huge fleet lining up for the all-star solo transatlantic race, and the British hopes in it

St Malo is bracing itself for a siege next week. Hundreds of thousands of sailing devotees are expected to flood into town to savour the run-up to the Route du Rhum, the single-handed race to Guadeloupe. In the land of the celebrity sailing ace, the Route du Rhum is the apogee of this year’s circuit.

The foremost names in sailing are gathered here: 59 skippers, from famous old stagers such as Mike Birch, who has raced every single Route du Rhum since the first in 1978, and seasoned racers such as Loïck Peyron and Jean Le Cam to new but equally coruscating stars like Ellen MacArthur:

This will be largest solo ocean fleet in many years. Some have been so rash as to claim it as the largest ever. Wrong – and by a very long shot: try the 1976 OSTAR, which had 125 entries. Still, you know what they mean?

All the latest generation ORMA 60 trimarans and Open 60s are here. Among the trimarans, a number are new and have done a minimum of miles offshore. Were it not for a compulsory 1,000-mile qualifier, some would be positively virginal. Michel Desjoyeaux will make his solo multihull debut in his new Van Peteghem/Lauriot-Prévost-designed Géant. He was dismasted this summer and he has just made a late qualifying passage with a replacement mast made of conventional carbon fibre. Jean Le Cam is ready again after repairs following his collision with a whale during a qualification passage. Frank Cammas has a new mast after his snapped in a regatta in September.

And so it goes on. Fred le Peutrec’s Bayer CropScience: back from structural repairs. Likewise the new Gitana X, the first ORMA 60 to be designed by a team headed by Gilles Ollier, the man behind the maxi catamarans. Bertrand de Broc’s Banque Covefi: dismasted earlier this year. This is cutting edge, Formula 1 style racing all right, but the risks of ending up tyre-kicking in the pit lane are disturbingly high.

The Route du Rhum also has the biggest ever assembly of Open 60s. This class is flourishing, and most of the existing boats, new and old, will be racing. It includes a good British contingent: Ellen MacArthur, Mike Golding, Miranda Merron and Conrad Humphreys. (See our feature in the current issue of Yachting World.) One other British sailor who had hoped to be there, Mark Taylor, has now pulled out.

Ellen MacArthur and Mike Golding are both considered potential winners in this class, and have been training and improving their boats with that goal in mind. The race will be the first time Ellen has sailed solo on Kingfisher since returning from the Vendée Globe in 2001. The boat has been refitted at her company Offshore Challenges in Cowes and re-rigged with PBO instead of rod rigging. This saving in weight has allowed a huge 200kg to be taken out of the keel bulb, which will give Kingfisher better speed, particularly in light conditions.

Mike Golding has done some tweaking, too, primarily as a result of his dismasting earlier this year. Golding has capitalised on the only useful by-product of this calamity: the opportunity to build a different wingmast. His new mast has shorter deck spreaders and a babystay and aft lowers to support the lower panel instead of diamonds.Overall, the weight saving is about 50kg.

As far as he is concerned, the opposition is clear: “The obvious players are prinicipally Bilou [Roland Jourdain] and Ellen,” he says. “I’d put a reserve on Jean-Pierre Dick [a newcomer to the circuit, sailing Virbac]. He’s an unknown quantity but with a good boat, the winning boat on the Vendee, PRB. Sill is on a very high plateau of development. They have a very strong team infrastructure and it is quite hard for us in the UK to maintain that consistency.”

Miranda Merron is a promising British sailor, but will be racing a first generation boat from the early 1990s: Alain Gautier’s 1993 Vendée Globe winner Bagages Superior. Uniquely, she has a French sponsor with no major UK interests, UUDS, but equally unusually Miranda is a fluent French speaker and has a high-flying background in advertising.

Realistically, Miranda knows she has scant chance of being at the head of the fleet. “UUDS is quite an old girl now with a couple of Vendée Globes to her name. She is bendy, doesn’t like upwind, and probably performs best in breezy reaching downwind,” she explains. “There is no comparison with the newer generation of boats but she is good and solid, and a great first Open 60.” Watch out for her, though: this is a first step towards a new or newer 60 next year and to the next Vendée Globe.

Former BT Global Challenge winner Conrad Humphreys is making his first foray into single-handed racing in an innovative Open 40. His boat Syllogic has been chartered from Pieter Adriaans, a Dutch professor and expert in artificial intelligence, who had this Van de Stadt-designed boat built in the Netherlands for the 2000 Europe 1 New Man STAR transatlantic race – the OSTAR to you and me. The boat has a swing keel and a mast that cants to windward by up to 25°, an interesting and effective technological development disallowed in the Open 50s and 60s, but often eyed enviously.

Next year, the monohull classes move into a programme of fully crewed races, so this is the last major solo proving ground before the OSTAR and the Vendée in 2004. Monohull skippers with ambitions for the latter are urgently moulding their ideas for a new yacht into coherent shape. Mike Golding, for example, has a design and the money to build and is ready to give it the go-ahead next year.

“There is an actual design but the design office is out to tender,” he says. As a partial explanation, he adds intriguingly: “We have commissioned some research work. We’ve gone down a direction because we needed to know something. We will understand a fundamental principle that will affect the next generation of boat and it will belong to Mike Golding Yacht Racing. I want to shut the doors when I’ve been through.” Last time, he allowed three other boats to be built from the moulds of what was then Team Group 4.

Miranda Merron has firm plans to for a “new or newer boat” next year, finances permitting. She is talking to UUDS about the options. As an aside, she and former sailing partner Emma Richards had a Merfyn Owen/Allen Clarke design for an Open 60 a few years back, but it was never built because Emma decided to branch off into multihulls. That design reportedly looks a lot like Hexagon, the new 60 Graham Dalton is racing in Around Alone (twin wheels, trench cockpit, etc). The irony, of course, is that Emma changed her mind about monohull sailing and is now racing an older and stickier Open 60. But that’s another story?

Follow the Route du Rhum from the starts (monohull start on Saturday 9 November; multihull start the following day) on www.routedurhum.org and on this site. A series of five-minute video ‘postcards’ from the Ellen MacArthur during the race will also be shown every night on the Discovery Channel at 2030 in the UK and 2055 across Europe, Africa and the Middle East.