As the 2022 Route du Rhum approaches, we take a look at some of the top names set to compete in the race. Toby Heppell looks at Paul Meilhat's chances
Paul Meilhat was the winner of the IMOCA 60 class in the last Route du Rhum back in 2018, adding that victory to a CV full of podium places and wins in major offshore events including the Fastnet Race, Bermudes 1000, Défi Azimut and a 2nd in the Transat Jacques Vabre.
Paul Meilhat came to offshore racing following many years racing dinghies. He was a French Laser champion, raced at a high level in the 49er fleet and had Olympic sailing aspirations to represent France in the doublehanded skiff.
However, despite some decent results, that route to professional sailing never quite took off. Meilhat instead became increasingly interested in the shorthanded offshore scene and in 2008 started sailing a Figaro Beneteau 2.
Victory alongside Gwénolé Gahinet in the AG2R was Meilhat’s first big shorthanded offshore success and was enough to secure sponsorship from SMA. They purchased François Gabart’s 2012-13 Vendée winning IMOCA 60 and Paul Meilhat set about readying himself for his first Vendée Globe race.
However, a keel ram failure forced the Frenchman to retire from the 2016-17 Vendée Globe. After that race, he showed impressive pace in the boat, coming home 2nd (again alongside Gwénolé Gahinet) in the 2017 Transat Jacques Vabre before that impressive win in the Route du Rhum the following year.
With SMA bowing out of offshore racing sponsorship, Meilhart was without a headline sponsor. He remained very involved in the world of shorthanded racing, and was a popular choice as a co-skipper for double-handed events, sailing with Sam Davies and Charlie Dalin among others while he looked for a new backer. Without a sponsor he missed out on racing the 2020-21 Vendée Globe, but secured Biotherm as a headline sponsor in for a dual campaign for both the The Ocean Race 2023 and the Vendée Globe 2024.
Now, with a brand new boat underneath him, he returns to the frontline of offshore solo racing and is set to compete in the 2022 Route du Rhum just two months after the launch of his brand new IMOCA.
IMOCA 60 Biotherm
Sail number: FRA 2030
Designer: Guillaume Verdier
Builder: Persico Marine
LWL: 18.28 m
Draught:: 4.5 m
Biotherm is a fourth generation foiling IMOCA 60 and is a sistership to the new LinkedOut, currently under construction for Thomas Ruyant. Unlike Ruyant, Paul Meilhat has no third generation IMOCA to sail on until the completion of his new boat, so this IMOCA 60 build schedule was shortened in order to get it on the water as quickly as possible and start optimisation.
The combination of Verdier as designer and Persico as builder is a well-trodden path and should provide a highly refined platform upon which to compete for the top step of the podium in the Route du Rhum, Vendée Globe and the fully crewed Ocean Race (for which IMOCA 60s will compete as a class and in which Meilhat has confirmed entry).
As it is so new, it’s hard to gauge the potential of Biotherm at present and the Route du Rhum will represent the first true chance to see the boat in action – though it is likely teething problems may hinder chances of a podium, as is always the case with the highly complex and technologically advanced foiling monohulls.