The latest race news from the race
There is one boat in the harbour at Le Havre that stands out, even amongst all the other prototype racing machines being primed for the start of the Transat Jacques Vabre 2017 on Sunday – it literally stands out. Maxi Edmond de Rothschild, the latest of the great Ultime-class boats coming out of the boatyards, is so big it has its own Bassin. At 23 metres wide, it was 50cm too large to fit through the docks into the Bassin Paul Vatine, where the other 37 boats are moored, so it had to stay around the corner in the Bassin de l’Eure.
This venerable port in Normandy, France, which is celebrating its 500th anniversary, has witnessed many things since it started hosting the bi-annual Transat Jacques Vabre in 1993, but nothing quite this size.
The only record Seb Josse, the 42-year-old French skipper, is interested in is how long it will take to finish. “Eight days,” he says matter-of-factly, as if the 4,350 miles to Salvador de Bahia in Brazil is short hop. The fastest finish to Salvador remains Groupama 2’s astonishing 10day 0h 38min win in 2007 in the 60ft multihull class. Josse’s best finishing time was his 11day 5 hours 3min win with Charles Caudrelier on the MOD70 trimaran Edmond de Rothschild in the 2013 edition – that time to Itajaí, Brazil.
“Compared to 2013 it’s another world,” Josse said. “It’s the size. It’s bigger, heavier, faster, but it’s also safer - the MOD70 double-handed was a little bit scary, you could’ve capsized at any time. When you are going at 30 knots in the MOD70 you are the limit of the boat, in this one you are just starting to move.”
His co-skipper, Thomas Rouxel, agrees, with some relish. “Under 30 knots, we feel very slow and like we’re stuck in glue,” Rouxel, making his debut in the race, said. “Between 30-40 it’s nice, you feel fast and it’s easy and from 40 to more it starts to be a bit intense.”
At 32 metres long, with a 35-metre mast and 650m² of sail area downwind, it is a lot of boat to handle two-handed, let alone solo - for which it has been designed. But its size and ability to the ride the waves make it more stable and safer. There may only be a tiny 4m² of hull actually in the water when reaching, but “the rudder and the foils give a lot of stability, so it’s more comfortable because you four points on the water,” Josse said.
Even though there are only three Ultimes in the race, Josse and Rouxel will not have it all their own way. They are up against two proven boats with skippers who have also won the race. Sodebo Ulitim’, skippered by Thomas Coville and Jean-Luc Nélias, is not technically a new boat, having been completely reconstructed from the old Geronimo, but Coville knows it inside and out. What he is giving away in size (31m long and 21.20m wide) and technology, he is gaining in experience. Coville, the 49-year-old skipper, smashed the record for a solo circumnavigation in December 2016. His new mark of 49d 3h 7m took 10 days 8 hours off Francis Joyon’s previous record. In July, Coville and Nélias hunted François Gabart’s new Macif all the way across the north Atlantic in The Bridge race, as they had done in 2015 in the Transat Jacques Vabre.
It will be a two-horse race because as excellent and experienced as are Lionel Lemonchois and Bernard Stamm, their ride, Prince de Bretagne, is older (2012) and out-powered. Lemonchois, the 60ft multihull winner in 2005, abandoned in the last edition on this boat.
“We are in the same position as two years ago with Macif,” Coville, who won the TJV on a 60ft Imoca monohull in 1999, said. “Except that Edmond de Rothschild is even more extreme in its design, backed by an incredible team that really knows its stuff. We, on the other hand, have a boat born from Geronimo that has evolved and done the job well. It is the best of the old generation. It will be two generations: a brand new trimaran, which is the best there is today, and another one that has matured and does the job perfectly.”
Josse and Rouxel will have to be that good as Macif to hold them off.
“We’re just at the start, it’s just two months in the water, we need one year to understand how to use it properly,” Josse said. “It’s the start of the story of this boat, we have to learn and grow up and if we sail well and there are no big technical problems or problems with the weather, we can win and we should win on paper. But in the end, we know that sometimes the story does not finish as it was written at the start.”
In the smaller multihull class, the Multi 50, of the fleet of six there are four modern new generation boats that should fight for victory. FenêtréA – Mix Buffet must start favourite. Given “muscles” by the addition of foils, but still “safe” and stable say the skippers, it is hard to look past the record of Erwan Le Roux, the winner in 2009, 2013 and 2015. With Vincent Riou (twice a winner of the IMOCA class in 2013 and 2015) as his co-skipper, they are a formidable unit.
But on paper Ciela Village, just launched and the only multi designed specifically for the use of foils, should be faster. The talk on the pontoons is that nobody knows how fast, not even its experienced skipper Thierry Bouchard who is partnering with Oliver Krauss again.
Arkema, skippered by Lalou Roucayrol is a strong contender. Since its launch in 2013 it has won only the Route des Princes but its fast boat with an even faster co-skipper, the Catalan Alex Pella. And Réauté Chocolat (ex-Actual), is in the hunt after Armel Tripon added foils. This is Tripon’s first transatlantic in a multihull, but the winner of the 2003 Mini Transat and his boat captain partner Vincent Barnaud, making his debut in the TJV have had good result this season.
The final two: Drekan Group (Eric Defert and Christopher Pratt) and La French Tech Rennes Saint Malo (Gilles Lamiré and Thierry Duprey du Vorsent), do not have foils (although the latter is big and has impressive daggerboards) and it is hard to see how they will be able to keep pace when conditions allow them to accelerate.
Vincent Riou, co-skipper FenêtréA - Mix Buffet (Multi 50)
“There are boats with great qualities on a similar level. There is the uncertainty around Ciela Village, which is completely new, but in theory it will be fast. The Multi 50 looks healthy and there are new skippers. Yes, I will continue in Multi 50, the circuit that has been set up with the boats evolving is incredibly attractive. We must change! On this Transat Jacques Vabre, I’m glad I’m sail with Erwan on this kind of boat rather than an Imoca.”
Thierry Bouchard, skipper of Ciela Village (Multi 50)
“We feel the boat is fiercer, more agile, and that we have to adapt to its new behaviour. On this new boat, we can go faster and more safely. We can attack without forcing it. The coming years will be the years of the foil. It's obvious and I like being part of the movement. On this Transat Jacques Vabre, we will push the boat to discover its limits because there are two of us, but without taking any risk. I Oliver and I did our first Transat Jacques Vabre in 2007 – to Bahia, so we know the way!”
Alex Pella, co-skipper (Arkema)
“FenêtreA are two guys with great experience. One of them knows the boat very well and Vincent is Vincent. Ciela Village is quite new. Réauté is proven. French Tech looks good too. When we arrived last Friday and I saw the fleet, I said “wow”.