The new solo Retour à La Base race set IMOCA skippers a tough challenge: but two new names rose to the top. Andi Robertson reports

One year before the 2024 Vendée Globe, two back to back transatlantic races – the classic double-handed Transat Jacques Vabre Normandie Le Havre race to Martinique, closely followed by the new solo Retour à La Base – set a demanding schedule for IMOCA 60 skippers who are seeking to be on the start line of the round the world race in November.

The inaugural 3,500-mile solo race back from Fort-de-France in Martinique to Lorient La Base, France’s de facto epicentre of IMOCA activity, was a stark contrast to the outbound transatlantic, with its tradewind miles and Caribbean finish.

The eastbound passage gave skippers a chance to really push their boats hard downhill, riding the early winter train of Atlantic low pressure systems which are generated off Newfoundland. The wind and sea conditions of the North Atlantic in winter are very similar to the ‘big south’ of the Vendée Globe, with the option to modulate their level of attack, sailing closer to the centre of the lows to find more wind or dropping south into more manageable conditions.

It was not only about finding the limits for the boats – many skippers reported brutal conditions on board, while Sébastien Simon suffered a head injury that required him to staple his own scalp back together mid-Atlantic.

This second transat was also key in the race for miles almost every skipper is chasing to achieve qualification for the oversubscribed Vendée Globe. The Retour à La Base was especially essential for new boats, which have to do one solo race in order to qualify.

For skippers who want to take the pressure off a little for 2024 (there are two solo races this year, the CIC Transat in May and the New York Vendée in June) it was a key box to tick.

Thirty two boats started. The most notable absentee was Charlie Dalin on his new MACIF Santé Prevoyance. An unspecified medical issue required him to sit out both the TJV and the Retour à La Base, but happily he is back to training and will compete a full 2024 season.

Yoann Richomme and co-skipper Yann Eliès brought Paprec Arkéa home in 2nd place on the Transat Jacques Vabre – behind Thomas Ruyant’s identical sistership For The Planet. Photo: Pierre Bouras/Retour à La Base

Impressive debut

So, what did we learn from this tough new race? Firstly, that Yoann Richomme has set himself as a potential Vendée Globe favourite.

Richomme is a naval architect who studied at Southampton Solent University at the same time as Charlie Dalin was at Southampton University. He is bilingual – he still has an American accent from three years going to school near Philadelphia when his father’s work took the family to the States – and he and Dalin share the same high functioning ability to crunch volumes of data and deliver race winning performances.

Former Figaro training partners and adversaries, their rivalry on the upcoming Vendée Globe is one of the most exciting prospects of the race. Dalin podiumed five times on La Solitaire but Richomme won it twice.

Richomme has also twice won the Route du Rhum in the Class 40, where he was a class apart in his ability to push his boat – in 2022 Richomme took a penalty for jumping the start yet pulled through the fleet from 51st and a 20-mile deficit to take 1st place comfortably.

Article continues below…

In November’s Transat Jacques Vabre, Richomme and co-skipper Yann Eliès took 2nd on Paprec Arkéa, the identical sistership to race winner Thomas Ruyant’s For The Planet. Designed by Antoine Koch in collaboration with Finot Conq, the two new IMOCAs had a definite speed edge downwind in the trade winds, a trait which Richomme showed again on the return race, which he won by 4h 50m ahead of Jérémie Beyou (Charal). Remarkably, it was his first ever solo race in an IMOCA.

Richomme sat out the last Vendée Globe as he could not raise the funding for what would have been a modest project, saying at the time that he did not want to enter if he’d have been uncompetitive. This time, however, he was selected to skipper the top-drawer Paprec Arkéa programme, replacing Sébastien Simon in 2021.

He has also become very accomplished at meteorology and routing, and in the Retour à La Base made a race winning small hitch to the north on the second major low pressure system, separating from Beyou and Briton Sam Goodchild, which allowed him to jump ahead with the system and extend away.

The Koch/Finot Conq design for Paprec Arkéa placed an emphasis on ‘sailability’. Photo: Yann Riou/polaRYSE

Richomme has the assured self confidence of someone who has always done his homework.

“My goal was to be top five,” he told me. “To be honest all season long it has been hard to position ourselves. We have so much respect for what everybody does and how hard they work and how good the other teams and skippers are. If you made any bad decisions along the way maybe you would not get there.

“But it’s like being in the Olympics: get to the top five and you have a chance. People laugh when I say top five but I don’t think they realise – I have the level to sail in the top three or win.

“I have a good vision of what the objectives are for [sailing], design choice, technical choices on the boat, priorities in terms of going sailing and doing technical work. I think that is where I am good in my zone. The thing is to have decisions which follow the same logic, so not shooting off into hyper technology or being hyper light, or going the other way for hyper reliability.”

Richomme is a meticulous perfectionist always seeking the best solution. He has no truck with sentimentality towards boats, but loves the Koch designs which he says are a clear step ahead in terms of speed, and more importantly ‘sailability’.

Richomme won the Retour à La Base in his first ever single-handed IMOCA race. Photo: Jean-Louis Carli/Alea/Retour à La Base

He explains: “Instead of going for a scow-shaped hull where you have a full, low bow, we have raised the nose of the boat to be above the water. We went back to a V-shape hull with some flare, meant to shove the water aside but also provide a bit of lift. Then the boat has quite a bit of rocker compared with the others and a very low inversion of the transom, so it is able to trim [the bow] up a few degrees.

“It is quite narrow to go through the waves a bit more easily than the fat boats – nowhere near maximum width. We have a deck with camber to get water away from the hood as fast as possible, so we have a few little tricks. The equilibrium, the way the foils work and the position of the keel and the rudders make for a very sailable, very well balanced boat.”

More than most, Richomme seems able to compartmentalise and get into a zone on the IMOCA.

Yoann Richomme and Paprec Arkéa are among the early favourites for the highly competitive 2024 Vendée Globe. Photo: Anne Beaugé/Retour à La Base

“These boats are much more different to sail than the Class 40, which was more of a Figaro rhythm – I would sleep a little bit, wake up, sail, sleep a little bit, sail. But on this boat I have to have three hours sleep, or I am in the red. The first problem is getting to sleep, I have a great bunk and mattress – that’s key to being able to push.

“I am really in my own world, I don’t look at the others – just a little bit now and again. What works well is all the data analysis we do before to be able to have the right polars, to make the right decisions, to have the right sails. Otherwise if you do routings all the time and it shows you different ways, it messes you up. But on this race I had a really clean routing. I think I finished within six hours of my original routing. It is all about the work I do before that pays off in the race.

“And the thing is, it works: I am not making big mistakes. You cannot change a big gennaker twice in a day, the next day you are dead! You need to make the right sail choices all the time and know what you are doing when, otherwise you are going to f**k up. You will never recover.”

Two-boat training with Thomas Ruyant. Photo: Pierre Bouras

British challenger

The second thing the Retour à La base confirmed is that Sam Goodchild is a true Vendée Globe contender. Like Richomme, Briton Goodchild was also taking part in his first ever solo IMOCA race on For The Planet. Having finished 3rd on the Transat Jacques Vabre, racing with the designer Antoine Koch, Goodchild then scored another 3rd on the return race. Adding these to his earlier podium finish in the Rolex Fastnet Race, he went on win the IMOCA Globe Series title for 2023.

Goodchild, who celebrated his 34th birthday on arrival in Martinique, is now the complete package when it comes to ocean racing. No one else in the IMOCA fleet has sailed in the Figaro, Class 40, Ultim and Ocean Fifty trimarans, and on The Ocean Race. Having finished the hard miles on The Ocean Race with Holcim-PRB, Goodchild then joined Thomas Ruyant’s TR Racing – the best funded, and only true two-boat programme in the IMOCA fleet.

Goodchild explains the team’s set up: “We are about 30 people working full time across the two boats. Part of the team is dedicated to both boats – management, logistics, the R&D/design office. The technical director is the link between design and the sailing side. And then there are technical teams who are dedicated to the individual boats, specialists working on each boat’s rigging – one per boat – and then same for systems, electronics and so on.

Goodchild came 3rd in his first solo IMOCA race. Photo: Pierre Bouras

“No other team works with two boats like we do. We use the same dropbox, we have the same person doing all the data analysis and it is shared, an open book to everyone.

“Our pre-race briefings and debriefings are done around the same table, it is all about ‘What can we learn from each other?’ Being so many people around the same table means there is so much more to learn.”

There’s no doubt that Goodchild’s ability to drive hard while remaining calm and dealing with problems is the product of his comprehensive grounding in all areas of ocean racing, “It’s hard to attribute one type of sailing to one aspect. Sailing Figaros is so great for single-handed sailing, while sailing on crewed boats like Phaedo with Brian Thompson, or – albeit briefly – with MAPFRE helps a lot because you have eight opinions.

“The Figaro is good discipline – but it is three or four days and at the end of the leg you go to sleep, whereas the Vendée Globe is three or four months. Even the Class 40 stuff was huge: it is a smaller boat and so you can make mistakes there and you’re able to get away with it. What my strengths really are is having had time with all these different boats, all these different sailors, and learned from all of them in a different way.”
Goodchild’s biggest learning from the Retour à La Base was about the need to look after himself.

Photo: Pierre Bouras/TR Racing

“I think my personal management side of things – sailing for one week, two weeks, one month, three months on your own – is probably the biggest weakness as it is new to me. The boat side of things, the manoeuvres I am good at, on the technical side there are things to debrief. The two things for me after the Retour à La Base are 1) looking after myself, eating and sleeping, and 2) having a boat which is as comfortable as possible to be able to rest as much as possible.”

Goodchild is trying not to read too much into his success this season, “Finishing third is obviously encouraging. But so too it is a huge reminder anything can happen in this class. So you just need to keep pushing on, keep going like you know you can, and let some things come to you rather than force them.”

A winning concept

Antoine Koch has been thrust into the limelight as co-designer, with Finot Conq, of the first two boats on the Transat Jacques Vabre, For The Planet and Paprec Arkéa. He also sailed to 3rd, behind his own two designs, with Goodchild. Koch was an ocean racer even before he went to Southampton as a mechanical engineer to study yacht design – he did not submit his final dissertation because he was racing an ORMA on the Route du Rhum! – and sailed the 2019 Transat Jacques Vabre with Thomas Ruyant before joining his team.

Amazingly the double winning Koch/Finot Conq design is Koch’s first IMOCA. He explains the new concept, “The concept of the boat is called a ‘motorboat’ and it is self-explanatory. It is a little bit different from the scow concept, we wanted the volume to be very high and we wanted to damp the motion.

Antoine Koch. Photo: Jean-Louis Carli

Fast comfort

“When doing a CFD run in waves we really took care to look at the acceleration and we chose the hull shape which is generating the least acceleration – in fact the scientific definition of comfort is less vertical acceleration and less pitch acceleration. The boat is going to suffer less, there will be less slamming for the structural part of the boat and it is probably going to be easier on the masthead, and it has less impact on all the gear – and on the skipper obviously.”

“The feedback on the previous generation of boats is that they were very quick but very harsh to sail. The story of the new boat really started when Thomas [Ruyant] was in the Southern Ocean during the last Vendée Globe. One day, just before rounding Cape Horn, Thomas called me and said: ‘I am not sure I want to go back there. It is really hard and if I go back there I want to go with a boat really designed to handle these conditions well. So I am telling you now because you will remember and I will forget!’ After that we never talked about it, but it was the first, number one goal of the boat.”

A huge fleet of 40 IMOCAs headed out of Le Havre at the start of the Transat Jacques Vabre in November 2023. Photo: Jean-Marie Liot/Alea

The back to back wins for Koch’s designs are in part due to the sail configuration he has pioneered with Ruyant. “We knew that on LinkedOut we needed to heel more downwind because when it was flat it had a lot of wetted surface area. We needed to heel more than 10°, with a deep gennaker it was nearly impossible to do. We chose to go for a small, flat gennaker but to heel more we needed to sheet the mainsail very hard. But when we did that we stalled the mainsail. So to not stall the mainsail you need to use the staysail.

“I talked a lot with Charles Caudrelier after he came back from the Volvo Ocean Race, and that was when they started to successfully use the triple head configuration – so two staysails inside the gennaker.

“The strange thing is that with smaller sail areas we are sailing deeper and slightly faster. And we do that because we have succeeded in sheeting the main really hard. It probably doesn’t work on all kinds of wind speeds and sea states, but luckily for us on the Transat Jacques Vabre we had a lot of VMG downwind in 17-18 knots in flat water and that is the sweet spot.”

If you enjoyed this….

Yachting World is the world’s leading magazine for bluewater cruisers and offshore sailors. Every month we have inspirational adventures and practical features to help you realise your sailing dreams.
Build your knowledge with a subscription delivered to your door. See our latest offers and save at least 30% off the cover price.