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Leg one of The Ocean Race delivers a dramatic story led by Kevin Escoffier and his team

by Ed Gorman / IMOCA Globe Series 18 Jan 10:24 PST 18 January 2023
Team Holcim-PRB - The Ocean Race Leg 1 © Julien Champolion / polaRYSE / Team Holcim-PRB

The first leg of The Ocean Race looked like it was going to be a tough one, viewed from the dockside in Alicante, and it has certainly delivered on that promise.

Just as forecast, the five crews pioneering the participation of the IMOCA Class in this race - regarded as the world championship of fully-crewed offshore sailing - have had their hands full.

After a spectacular start on Sunday, with the boats screaming off the line on flat water, they then had to deal with a prolonged and complex transitional zone before the baptism of fire - to windward - began in the approach to the Strait of Gibraltar.

In this phase, the westerly breeze was, if anything, stronger than forecast, with gusts of over 50 knots and a nasty sea state, making for a very uncomfortable ride. As Boris Herrmann, skipper of Team Malizia, remarked, it may well be that the teams have already seen the toughest conditions of the entire race.

All around the IMOCA world there will have been a sigh of relief that all five crews made it through the Strait without serious damage and no dismastings or anything that could threaten a team's continued participation. Some broke sails - a hole in Holcim-PRB's mainsail, and a torn J3 on 11th Hour Racing Team among them - but, as far as we know, nothing more serious.

The feature has been the dogfight at the front between Charlie Enright's team on Mãlama and Kevin Escoffier's all-star crew on Holcim-PRB. The American boat led out of the transition off Cabo de Gata and into the windward section, but was then overhauled by Escoffier during an intense tacking duel close to the Spanish coast.

Once through the Strait, it has been a case of the "rich getting richer," as Holcim-PRB has pulled away in super-fast foiling conditions, as the two leaders head south towards the Canaries about an hour apart. Team Malizia is leading the chase in third place (+70nm), with Paul Meilhat's crew on Biotherm in fourth position (+96), and Benjamin Dutreux's team on Guyot Environnement-Team Europe in fifth place (+138).

Among the many IMOCA skippers closely watching this drama unfold, has been the Charal skipper Jérémie Beyou, who was part of the winning Dongfeng Race Team skippered by Charles Caudrelier in the last Volvo Ocean Race. Beyou was keen to join this race in his new boat, but is now focusing on the next edition in four years time. The Charal skipper says the start off Alicante was simply stunning and the perfect advert for this new adventure in the IMOCA calendar.

"My first impression was the same as everyone else's," he told the Class. "It was so nice and so cool to watch the IMOCAs flying on flat water. The start was just amazing. It was really good for this race that the start of the first leg was like that."

Beyou says he wasn't too worried about a possible dismasting in the tough upwind conditions on Monday, because boatspeeds weren't too high. More concerning was the possibility of issues with sails and deck hardware, but he believes the fleet got through without too much damage on that score.

"A fleet of five boats is small, so I think everyone will be crossing their fingers, hoping the fleet will remain complete until the end of the race, so I am doing the same as everyone else," he said. "I am happy they got through the Gibraltar Strait in one piece - almost - and we still have all five racing."

Beyou is not at all surprised to see Holcim-PRB and 11th Hour Racing Team leading. They are his two favourites for overall honours and he says Holcim-PRB is a good boat with a strong crew.

On Enright's team, he had this to say: "I am quite connected to them. I sailed with them and I know that the boat is ready. I know how strong the crew is, so it is no surprise to see them fighting at the front. I know that Charlie and Si Fi (navigator, Simon Fisher) manage it well - they know The Ocean Race - and they know it is a long and tough one and they now have good experience in IMOCAs. So they know these boats can be quite vulnerable in some conditions and I think they managed getting out of the Med well."

The big question now, as the fleet flies downwind in the Atlantic, with an ETA at the first leg finish at Mindelo in the Cape Verde Islands of Friday afternoon, is how they deal with the Canary Islands, which are bang on their track. With the breeze forecast to hold up well, all options are open for what is one of the first big strategic calls of the race - either leave the islands to port and head west, or keep closer to the African coast and leave them to starboard.

Although there is the danger of getting trapped in wind-shadows, Beyou says going through the middle of the island group is a viable option, especially with a full crew who can execute the intense series of gybes that would be required.

"I think going inside can be a good idea," he said. "It is not easy to do when you sail alone or double-handed, but in fully-crewed mode it is OK to put some gybes in and try to round the headlands and find a lift in the breeze each time."

Led by Beyou, and with Franck Cammas also involved, the Charal team is continuing to improve and modify their new boat that Beyou raced to an impressive third place in the Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe. And the Charal skipper spoke about his ambitions to be on the startline of the next The Ocean Race in four years time.

"We are looking at this race, hoping that it will be a success and hoping to take part in the next one," he said. "I loved doing the race with Dongfeng four years ago and I would love to do it as a leader, not only as a crew member. I have to convince my sponsors, but if it is the same schedule as this one - or maybe with not too many stopovers - it is something that would interest me for sure."

All around the Brittany coast and elsewhere in the northern hemisphere, IMOCA skippers have got The Ocean Race tracker on their list of laptop and smartphone "favourites" and are checking to see what is going on. Beyou reckons they are all paying close attention.

"We are not the only ones watching closely," he said. "I think it is really good to have this race in the calendar. It is a fantastic race. These boats are so hard to sail solo, so it is good to sail them fully-crewed. So yes, everybody wants to be on it, but I think this one was a bit early for teams like us...but the coverage of the start was one good example of what this race is, and what it will be like in the next edition - it was something we have never seen before in France."

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