The Transat Jacques Vabre saw some remarkable victories – Rupert Holmes finds out what lessons can be learned for anyone who sails long distances
Two boats achieved stunning victories in the latest edition of the Transat Jacques Vabre, establishing leads before the halfway mark that they extended to the finish: the 30-metre Ultim trimaran Maxi Edmond de Rothschild and the IMOCA 60 LinkedOut. LinkedOut eventually finished a full 20 hours ahead of their nearest rivals (by comparison, in the Vendée Globe, the leaders finished within a single evening).
Both were remarkable wins in the famous double-handed transatlantic race, in which many of the biggest stars of offshore racing were competing, including Charles Caudrelier, Amel le Cleac’h, Yannick Bestaven, Thomas Colville, Kevin Escoffier and Brian Thompson.
LinkedOut’s success, and that of co-skippers Thomas Ruyant and Morgan Lagravière, came as a surprise to some, as the 2019 foiling design had not appeared to reach her likely potential in previous races. Yet she held a lead of almost 200 miles at the finish in Martinique.
So what factors lay behind their success? The starting point was a change of mode to better suit two-handed racing after the 2020 solo Vendée Globe, in which Ruyant finished less than 12 hours behind winner Bestaven.
The 2021 season had presented a new opportunity and challenge for the IMOCA class in the form of The Ocean Race Europe, though few teams took up the gauntlet. Speaking in Le Havre before the start of the Transat Jacques Vabre, Ruyant hinted this had been an important element in his boat’s preparation, even though LinkedOut finished 3rd out of the five entries. “The pre-season crewed races have given us tremendous progress in the micro details of the definitive understanding of our boat,” he noted.
LinkedOut team manager Marcus Hutchinson confirmed that the crewed event was a key part of their boat development. “This was a great opportunity for us,” Hutchinson told me after the Transat Jacques Vabre finish, explaining that the boat-on-boat speed comparisons most racing sailors are accustomed to, whether competing in one-design or IRC fleets, are next to impossible for solo and double-handed IMOCA sailors to achieve. They simply have too many other priorities to juggle and, in any case, on a long race the lateral separation of the boats quickly becomes too big to make meaningful comparisons.
However, short two- or three-day legs with a team of four, on a race with little opportunity for the fleet to rapidly spread out, are a different matter. “Having other boats around gives reference points against which to measure your performance and try different settings – that’s rare in IMOCA racing,” Hutchinson added.
One of the most important outcomes was a big jump in downwind VMG speeds, especially in light and medium winds. This would prove decisive on the final stage of the Transat Jacques Vabre from the Brazilian archipelago of Fernando de Noronha to the finish in Martinique.
Before the start Ruyant had been clear that he expected LinkedOut to have an advantage on this leg: “We expect downwind VMG conditions – the boat’s favourite point of sail.” But no one outside their team could have predicted the performance Ruyant and Lagravière would notch up at that stage.
LinkedOut wasn’t simply a bit quicker – she completed the last 2,000 miles an astonishing 12.5% faster than near-sistership Apivia, despite the latter having only been an hour behind at the turning mark off Brazil.
The process of refining the performance of a new IMOCA is not straightforward. For instance, LinkedOut was fitted with third generation foils after The Ocean Race Europe to replace the set damaged during the Vendée Globe. The water ballast system was also tweaked before the Transat Jacques Vabre.
“The boats are all in a constant state of evolution,” says Hutchinson, “but every change means the whole process has to start again.” Given the boats generate gigabytes of data, this is a huge undertaking – the team has two engineers focussed full-time on data analysis.
Managing team resources effectively is of huge importance – even with a big team of 15-16 people it’s impossible to achieve everything you want. It’s critical to be sure everyone is working on the right things at the right time.
As an example, the initial development of the boat was slowed by Covid, so at one point in the run-up to the Vendée Globe the team’s focus switched from optimising performance to maximising reliability.
For LinkedOut the initial stages of the Transat Jacques Vabre were very different to the finish. Although the start from Le Havre was in early November, complex high pressure systems dominated the weather patterns, producing conditions for which the boat is not optimised.
Unlike Apivia, which has full hoist headsails, for example, she has short luff sails that are powerful when reaching, but comparatively slow upwind in light airs.
Weather forecasting is now so good that, even for a race of this length (5,800 miles, over 18 days), the LinkedOut team was able to make a final decision on sail inventory 48 hours before the start. IMOCAs are only allowed to carry seven sails when racing, so this enabled a selection skewed towards light and medium winds to be used.
Even so, at best the first part of the race would be a damage limitation exercise for Ruyant and Lagravière. It was frustratingly slow going for the entire 79-boat fleet at this stage – even the giant Ultim trimarans were not immune from the ignominy of sliding backwards when the tide turned against them.
Nevertheless, LinkedOut stayed in touch with the leading group of IMOCAs, albeit dropping to 7th in the 22-strong fleet in the early hours of the second day, shortly after passing Ushant. However, 10 hours later, the top five boats had compressed to be a mere 1.7 miles apart in terms of distance to finish, with a lateral separation on the water of 15 miles.
On day five LinkedOut took the lead for the first time, holding it for 36 hours as the leaders passed Madeira and the Canary Islands. This pack remained lightly bunched as they continued south, with only four miles separating the first three boats – Jérémie Beyou and Christopher Pratt’s Charal, Charlie Dalin and Paul Meilhat on Apivia and LinkedOut – while Sam Davies and Nicolas Lunven on Initiatives Coeur were close behind in 4th.
Setting up to pass the Cape Verde islands proved a pivotal period in the race. Initiatives Coeur continued south, close to the African coast, while the three leaders gybed to the west. But how far to go? Achieving success in such a closely-matched fleet is invariably a compromise between optimal weather routing tempered by the need to cover the fleet.
Crucially, by this stage Hutchinson says the LinkedOut sailors were confident of their speed advantage. The boats around them likely knew this too. Ruyant and Lagravière therefore had the luxury of being able to choose the optimal route, without worrying unduly about covering boats who could only get ahead by taking a risky flyer. Apivia was first to gybe, and LinkedOut last.
A second gybe that evening saw the leading group converge again at average speeds of more than 20 knots. Charal turned south first, LinkedOut following 90 miles further west, and Apivia following suit shortly afterwards. It was not long before LinkedOut was enjoying a 5 knot speed advantage over Charal, and a couple of knots over Apivia. The latter then gybed off to the west, leaving LinkedOut in a commanding strategic position in the middle of the three leaders.
For a while Apivia had a better wind angle, but by the time they passed the Cape Verdes, with 60 miles of lateral separation between the two boats, LinkedOut was in a stronger vein of wind. She extended to a 75-mile advantage over the next 36 hours. Meanwhile Apivia and Charal were again matched almost neck and neck, fighting for second place.
All in the preparation
An oft-repeated cliché in offshore racing is that ‘to finish first, first you have to finish’. Despite the lack of heavy weather, this edition of the Transat Jaques Vabre was not without incident, including two IMOCAs that dismasted. This highlights just how powered up these boats are when reaching in moderate conditions – they can average well over 20 knots of boat speed in only 16-20 knots of true wind.
Obviously it’s not possible to eliminate risk in a race of this type, but how do teams at this level ensure they can push hard without undue danger of breaking the boat?
Brian Thompson and Alister Richardson (an America’s Cup veteran, who cut his teeth offshore as bowman of the MOD70 trimaran Argo) had a tight window to prepare the seven-year-old Class 40 Tquila, which they acquired only a few months before the race.
They set out for the 1,000-mile Transat Jacques Vabre qualifier shortly after taking over the boat, which revealed issues with the electrical set up that resulted in a total power loss while sailing past Alderney at night.
At that time the boat didn’t have a separate engine start battery, so their best option was to sail with all electrics turned off for 12 hours to enable the fuel cell to pump out enough charge to restart the engine and give the batteries a proper recharge.
Before the race Thompson says they spent weeks solidly preparing the boat. Thompson didn’t consider the existing storm jib arrangement to be up to the job, so the new sail is tacked down to a new padeye on the foredeck which is tied down to the hull and is set on furler gear. He reckons it’s good for use in 40-plus knots, but can also be used as a genoa staysail.
The pair also gave the deck gear a thorough overhaul, replacing worn strops, control lines and so on.
Hutchinson told me each hour of training on board LinkedOut generates around 100 hours of shore work. While performance analysis accounts for a good chunk of this time, the basics of constantly checking systems, running rigging, sails and so on, is incredibly time consuming. Yet it’s the only way to be sure of a reliable boat, whether you’re racing an IMOCA or a SunFast 3300.
Despite the weight penalty, carrying the right spares can make the difference between getting back up to speed after a short delay and being compromised for the whole of the rest of the race. This applies even if the necessary parts are more than 9m (30ft) long and there’s no obvious way to stow them neatly. LinkedOut, for instance, set out on the race with a set of mainsail battens lashed to the stanchions above the toerail.
Boat set up is only part of handling potentially difficult situations. In Le Havre Sam Goodchild, skipper of the Ocean 50 trimaran Leyton, which won the 2021 Pro Sailing Tour and took 3rd in class in the Transat Jacques Vabre, explained to me: “Communication is really important – in advance of every new situation you have to discuss the plan. When are you expecting to change from a jib to a staysail; when should the storm sails be prepped for use?”
Similarly, naval architect Merfyn Owen, who raced the TJV with Alex Mehran on the Class 40 Polka Dot, says: “A lot depends on a team’s state of mind – do they approach heavy weather with caution, or revel in the conditions.” Equally, he told me experience is an important factor, with youthful teams often tending to be either very cautious or somewhat gung-ho.
Everyone I spoke to also highlighted that a new boat will need development work to gain maximum reliability. “Newer boats tend to be more fragile,” says Owen, “so one that has only been afloat for four months will not be as reliable as one that has had two years of development work.” It’s therefore important to avoid the temptation to commit a new boat to an overly ambitious programme in the months after launching, which is why we didn’t see Pip Hare’s newly acquired Medallia in the Transat Jacques Vabre.
A new LinkedOut is in build for the 2024 Vendée Globe. However, Hutchinson says it will not be entered in the next Route de Rhum, despite next year’s transat being an enormous event in the French racing calendar.
“Our take is that it’s too early in the development of a new boat to be both competitive and reliable on a transatlantic race,” he told me.
It’s telling that such an experienced team is taking this line. Hutchinson points to Charal, which was launched less than three months before the 2018 Route de Rhum. She suffered a steering problem in the early stages of the race and had to return to Lorient for a week of repairs.
The day after setting out the second time the boat had a complete power failure. It’s now known that the team came much closer to losing the brand new Charal than reports at the time suggested; a sobering thought.
Are there any lessons here for owners of cruising yachts? Even though they are less complex, new and recently refitted cruisers still invariably need a period of de-snagging. Speaking to charter yacht operators I know who ran a base with 70 yachts in the Aegean for 15 years, they reported that their most reliable boats were consistently in their second and third season.
Despite their useful lead after the Cape Verdes the LinkedOut sailors still had a critical part of the race to negotiate – the doldrums.
In the previous Transat Jacques Vabre Charal had entered the ITCZ with a 200-mile lead, but this huge lead became a double-edged sword as it allowed the chasing boats to re-route when they saw her speed slow to a crawl. By the time Beyou emerged into the south-easterly tradewinds he had lost two places.
Holding the advantage
This time around, when LinkedOut finally slowed to less than seven knots in the doldrums the two chasing boats were too close to route around her, although they clearly tried. When the trio emerged back into more steady winds, little more than 500 miles from Fernando de Noronha, LinkedOut still held a 20-mile lead.
From the turning mark onwards it was effectively a drag race to the finish, with LinkedOut’s superior downwind VMG allowing them to extend away along the edge of the exclusion zone off the South American coast.
When she finished LinkedOut had held a continuous lead for the last 60% of the course.
“This victory has been in the making for several months, for several years, thanks to the great team working on this project,” Ruyant said at the finish. “A lot of things were done before the start. We were lucky enough to have a boat that was ultra-ready, in which we had confidence.”
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