Transat Jacques Vabre fleet ready to roll

Safran - Transat Jacques Vabre 2011
© Christophe Launay
The 2011 Transat Jacques Vabre now has only two days until the start gun will sound and in the thirteen strong IMOCA Class which will start the event, it has probably never been harder to pick a favourite to win. Theoretically all, but perhaps the Burton brothers on Bureau Valley, rookies in the class with an older boat, have the potential to make the podium, if not actually to cross the finish line in Puerto Limon in first. Most have made significant overhauls, refits or updates in preparation for the competition.

On Akena Vérandas, Arnaud Boissières and Gerald Véniard have elected to sail many miles since their upgrades to measure their improvements. Mike Golding, racing again with Bruno Dubois, has been able to fit a replacement rig, reduce the weight of his hardware and reconfigure the cockpit of Gamesa. So too, since retiring from the Barcelona World Race, there have been substantial refits for Kito de Pavant’s Groupe Bel – which finished second to Safran in the last race – for Dominique Wavre and Michèle Paret’s Mirabaud.

Aboard the boat which won the last edition Marc Guillemot has a titanium keel fin on Safran, the first ever for the IMOCA Open 60 class. Guillemot is partnered in this race by Yann Elies, the skipper he stood by as ‘guardian angel’ for 48 hours until rescue came for the Generali skipper who lay badly injured inside his boat on the last Vendee Globe, unable to move enough to reach any painkillers, deep in the Southern Ocean, some 1000 miles south of Australia.

Briton Alex Thomson races with Spain’s Guillermo Altadill. Previously a fan of maximum horsepower, Thomson has made the radical choice to go with the Farr design which won the last Route du Rhum-La Banque Postale and lead the last edition of the race.

Aboard DCNS, world cup downhill ski racing champion Luc Alphand races with Marc Thiercelin on what promised to be an acid test for the ski racer.

Up against these established designs are the generation built after the last 2008-9 Vendée Globe. Most recently launched are Banque Populaire (Armel Le Cléac'h - Christopher Pratt), Cheminées Poujoulat (Bernard Stamm - Jean-Francois Cuzon) and MACIF (François Gabart - Sébastien Col), but perhaps the combination of new generation design and many proven miles will favour 2004-5 Vendée Globe winner Vincent Riou who races with Hugues Destremau (PRB).

But Jean-Pierre Dick is bidding to extend his record to three wins in this Transat Jacques Vabre, racing with Jérémie Beyou on Virbac Paprec 3 on which he recently won – with Loïck Peyron - his second Barcelona World Race. In the final analysis these two might rank as slender favourites, but with the prospect of at two major low pressure systems bringing wind of 40knots or over and big seas, this is a race which rarely subscribes to a form book.

Alex Thomson can look back with fond memories to his first Transat Jacques Vabre as a fresh faced 25 year old in 1999. Racing alongside Josh Hall, Thomson had just won the Clipper Round the World Race and was looking to step out into different avenues of ocean racing.

Four years later, at the side of Roland Jourdain, Thomson stood on the second step of the podium. Under the long term support and sponsorship of Hugo Boss Thomson has been through something of a roller-coaster of highs and lows, successes and disappointments. Perhaps more than anything, after a dozen years in the field of solo and short-handed racing, the Briton has been forced to learn resilience and how to bounce back.

His recent race experiences have tested that resilience. In the 2008-09 Vendée Globe he was among the crop of early retirements after suffering hull laminate damage in the first big storm. And in 2007 Transat Jacques Vabre, racing with Ross Daniel, they had all but weathered a malicious low pressure system and set themselves up with a strong strategic position in the north of the fleet when they had to retire.

Ambiance sur le village de la Transat Jacques Vabre 2011 - Le Havre le 23/10/2011
© Alexis Courcoux
More recently Thomson ultimately stayed ashore during the Barcelona World Race to be with his infant son Oscar who had just been born with a heart condition. But as he moves into his third Vendée Globe cycle, he admits there is a definite pressure to finish this Transat Jacques Vabre:

'Definitely this is one we have to finish. Pressure-wise, for our sponsor, for our team who have done a really good job certainly we have been under-performing and we need to start performing.'

Thomson affirms on the dock of Le Havre’s Paul Vatine Basin. To an outsider there might seem a rich irony that having had to retire from the last TJV with damage, he is back to race an IMOCA Open 60 which suffered much more substantial problem but since being substantially re-built and raced as Véolia Environnement, the former BT, which was built in Cowes, England, went on to win last year’s solo Route du Rhum-La Banque Postale with Jourdain.

'The last Jacques Vabre was the last big race for me and there were two incidents in that race, this boat and us and we were in a pretty bad place. Our boat could have been a lot worse. I can remember searching around the inside of that boat and trying to work out how bad it was and what would happen, it was pretty horrendous.' Recalls Thomson, 'But these things happen. I have to get on with it. You have two options – you either let it go and not let it worry you, just get on with the next one, or probably end up in a downward spiral and never come back.'

'At the end of the day when we race in these boats generally 50% finish and sometimes even less. And you can easily get a run where it does not go too well. Look at Bernard Stamm for example. I do not consider myself unlucky. I never have done. It is difficult to explain to people outside the sport, you start a race and don’t finish it.'

'I am looking forward to the start, for sure. I can’t wait to get started. To be honest when I look at the Barcelona Race it was disappointing not to do it, but there were much bigger issues with my baby and things like that. But, here I am starting with a clean sheet of paper. How you deal with these things does depend on how you look at life.'

'Barcelona Race was a real roller coaster and at the end of the day my son had a heart condition and so had I gone I would have stopped anyway and the boat likely would not have gone on.'

Grand Prix Teamwork de Versoix 2011 - M2
Marc Guillemot, 2007 winner, co-skipper Safran (FRA), On the titanium keel:

'In their business Safran uses a lot of titanium and it just so happened that they had a block left over that corresponded to what our engineer was looking for.

'That is how it all began. Personally, I don’t care if it’s made of metal, carbon or gold. What counts for me is not having that to worry about when I’m out at sea. They then applied the techniques that Safran are already used to, which should ensure its reliability. Then, Guillaume Verdier (designer) being a perfectionist, said that if we were replacing the keel we should make work on it to get the perfect profile. We managed to make the blade that much more rigid and inflexible and improve the hydrodynamic characteristics of the bulb.'

They carried out simulations on various bulbs, so this one is slightly different from the previous one and according to the calculations should offer a better performance. So far we’ve set off from La Trinité a couple of times to try it out in 8 knots of wind and then on the delivery trip, when we had 6-7 knots.

So I can’t really say whether we are going faster or not. The centre of gravity has been lowered in any case, which we’re both pleased about. Maybe we’ll gain 0.0001 knot or maybe 1 knot. I don’t know...

It was time for a change anyway, because during the various training session in Port-la-Forêt and particularly when we were up against PRB, our nearest rival, we saw that the newer boats based around the concept of Safran aimed to be a bit better and they succeeded. So that means we have to keep working on this boat too. The work on the keel should enable us to be at their level. We’re not allowed to use a metal that’s denser than lead for the bulb. Otherwise we would have gone for gold of course!'

Yann Elies (FRA) co-skipper Safran (FRA) on sailing with his ‘guardian angel Guillemot:

’Meeting up off the coast of Australia may have been what brought us together, but deep down, we share the same values, the same passion for the sea. It’s not just the idea of competing. There are some sailors today, who see the sea and boats simply as ways to race, but for Marc and me, I think we both see things differently.

Marc: Before we actually met up in Australia, I’d only really caught a glimpse of Yann as I threw him some morphine and Hénaff pâté. Today all that seems so long ago. But of course, it’s something we’re never ever likely to forget. So much has happened since then however. It’s not something we’re going to keep talking about all the time during the next crossing together.

I’ve been sailing on this boat since 2007, so naturally I know her better than Yann. So that’s why I’ll tend to spend more time looking after the boat. That means looking after the equipment to, as if you want to win the race, you first need to get to the other side. To get to the other side, you need to take care of the boat. Then, almost certainly there will be things to repair.

We’ll be doing the trimming together, but my role will be looking after the boat. Yann will be in charge of getting the weather data and analysing it to find the right strategy for the race. There will be times too when strategy involves getting through a low-pressure system and in very rough conditions, you forget about the competition. The priority is no longer losing or gaining a few miles but getting through and I think we both understand that. The priority is ensuring that we have the same potential after the gales as we did before entering such a system. It’s not something we look forward to, but to get down south we have to go through that. You need to ensure the boat and men are ready to confront such conditions. You have to remain physically able to take care of the boat.

Yann: It’s always the same idea. You need to get as much rest as you can before confronting that. I must admit I prefer being with Safran and Marc to face this, as I trust the boat and the skipper.

Transat Jacques Vabre click here