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The human cost of transat racing

The human cost of transat racing

We regularly share with you videos of sunsets, dolphins and super positive sailors but there’s a side to ocean racing that’s more difficult to portray; the mental attitude needed to complete the Transat Jacques Vabre race. The Anglo-American crew aboard Polka Dot give us a candid insight into the psychological strains faced by the skippers.

This edition of the Transat Jacques Vabre race has been especially tough because of light complicated conditions. The Class 40s, being smaller and slower, have suffered in particular. The leader is expected in Martinique on December 1st but the rear of the fleet could take considerably longer.    

Polka Dot currently sits in penultimate place – a tough position to be, 500 miles from the leader but co-skipper Merfyn Owen from Hamble in southern England remains incredibly positive, “It’s been a really enjoyable race. It has been hard and difficult but thrilling too. This is very different from the previous TJV I did in 2005. This isn’t a traditional TJV at all.”

By contrast, this is team-mate Alex Mehran Jnr’s first TJV and it has come as a bit of a shock, “I thought I could jump straight into the class after ten years being away from ocean racing. I did one Fastnet and then Merfyn and I decided to do this race. I don’t think I realised quite how long it is, how tough it is and how stiff the competition is. But we’re enjoying the competition and the weather is getting good.”

The American sailor is used to city life in San Francisco with four young and boisterous kids. Now, in the middle of the Atlantic he’s having to deal with the sad news he received just before leaving Le Havre, “My grandmother passed away just before the start and my son’s birthday is on the 23rd in Martinique where I’d hoped to meet him and the rest of my family to celebrate with them. I realise that was probably a bit optimistic! Things are tricky but we’ll keep plugging away and we’ll get there in the end.”   

Two days into the race Polka Dot split from the rest of the fleet and for 48 hours we watched her plough a solo route west whilst the others headed south along the French coast. Then, she turned east and rejoined the fleet. Owen has no regrets, “It was a good decision to peel away from the fleet and head west. We considered keeping going, as Serenis ended up doing, and heading over the top of a high-pressure system but we chose not to gamble and instead re-join the fleet heading to the Portuguese coast. That way we were in a pack of older boats and felt that’s where we belong, that’s our race”

That final line is crucial to an understanding of how to cope in these long and arduous ocean races. You must race your own race. “You have to split the race into smaller sections just so you can cope with the long time and distances that are involved. We’re looking at that final westward section to Martinique because it looks so long – it’s got no corners it’s a 2,200 mile straight line. You cope by breaking it up in your mind”.


Class 40 suffers 2 retirements in one day

Kito de Pavant and Gwen Gbick, on board HFB - Reforest'Action are heading 1,000miles back up the Atlantic to Gibralter. Their bowsprit has broken and cannot be repaired.

Tanguy Duchatelet and Fabrice Renouard, aboard Lenzi - Lanternes de Paris have also been forced to abandon. They sent this message, "Our two spinnakers are too damaged to be repaired. There are also other problems, especially on the bowsprit. It saddens us to announce this, especially with all the messages of encouragement from our families, friends and partners who still wanted to believe... A big thank you to all. And good luck to the rest of the fleet!"