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The Guyader Bermudes 1000 kicks off a hectic and super-competitive 2023 IMOCA season

by Ed Gorman, IMOCA Globe Series 4 May 2023 06:48 PDT
Charal © Eloi Stichelbaut / Charal

It's going to be action-packed, with five races scheduled - including the two-handed Transat Jacques Vabre and the solo Retour à La Base - and it will be a season when the pecking order for the next Vendée Globe will be established among new boats and re-fitted older ones.

Welcome to what promises to be a compelling 2023 IMOCA GLOBE SERIES Championship, which kicks off this weekend with the Guyader Bermudes 1000 Race, which starts from Brest on Sunday and finishes there four days later, the first of four double-handed contests which features a high quality entry of 13 boats.

Antoine Mermod, the president of the IMOCA Class, is looking forward to a classic year, as IMOCA continues to flourish in solo, double-handed and fully-crewed ocean racing in a season that also includes the climax of The Ocean Race, the Rolex Fastnet Race and the Défi Azimut-Lorient Agglomération.

"It will be an exciting year," said Mermod. "We have six more new boats on the way and there are a lot of older boats that are undergoing big re-fits. And for the last two events - the two transatlantics, the Transat Jacques Vabre and the Retour à La Base - we should have almost the next Vendée Globe fleet ready to sail on its first big confrontation, which is very exciting."

Mermod reckons it is going to be very hard to pick an overall winner for the season in the IMOCA GLOBE SERIES rankings with so many new boats being tested on the racecourse for the first time. The Guyader Bermudes 1000 Race will be the first confrontation of the two latest boats, launched in February and March: Yoann Richomme's Paprec Arkéa and Thomas Ruyant's FOR PEOPLE. They will also join the 2022 machines on the starting line: Jérémie Beyou's Charal, Samantha Davies' Initiatives-Coeur and the new Maître CoQ V, though its skipper and defending Vendée Globe champion Yannick Bestaven will not race as he continues his recovery from a cycling accident.

In addition to the new boats, the Guyader Bermudes 1000 Race fleet includes some of the most talented newcomers to the class in older machinery, among them Benjamin Ferré (with Pierre Le Roy) on Monnoyeur-Duo for a Job and Guirec Soudée (with Corentin Douguet) on Freelance.com. But Mermod believes the veteran Jérémie Beyou, sailing with Franck Cammas on the Sam Manuard-designed Charal, is going to be hard to beat in a 2022 IMOCA that is already race proven.

"They were third in the Route du Rhum last year and then they broke the 24-hour fully-crewed distance record on the delivery back to France with Franck. They did a good re-fit this winter and they have been training for a few weeks and, from what we hear, they are happy with their boat. It's a new boat - generation '24 - and it's more or less ready to win now," said Mermod.

Among those lining up against them will be the Swiss sailors Alan Roura and Simon Koster on board Hublot, as they begin their partnership for the season on the old Hugo Boss. Roura has just returned from a month's training in Cascais on the Portuguese Atlantic coast and is ready to go on a season when he is looking to step up a gear on the foiler from the boards of VPLP and Pete Hobson.

Asked if he can make the Guyader Bermudes 1000 Race podium, Roura laughed: "We would love to, but when we see the fleet - come on!" he said. "There are not so many foiling boats, but all of them are really good and it looks like we are going to have some quite light conditions, so it is not really made for my boat. We will see. We want to play - we want to play powerfully and see what we can do. If we can finish around fifth, that would be great, but let's see."

The training in Portugal, which included a race against Bestaven's new boat and lots of time comparing notes with the Maître Coq skipper, was intense and useful according to Roura. "The best thing about Cascais is that we could sail every day - conditions there were lovely. We managed to do some downwind, upwind and some reaching all on the same day. And not being so far from the coast means you learn so much so quickly in different wind conditions," said Roura.

For the 51-year-old businessman and sailor Scott Shawyer, racing with fellow Canadian Ryan Barkey, the Guyader Bermudes 1000 Race will be their first go at dipping their toes in the IMOCA waters, as Shawyer begins his build-up to the 2028 Vendée Globe in a 2011-vintage Owen Clarke design. And they are feeling nervous as they prepare for their first start in what, to newcomers, can seem an intimidatingly impressive fleet.

"It's really exciting - it's really amazing," said the Canada Ocean Racing skipper who is being mentored by the British IMOCA star, Alex Thomson. "It's been a year since we started this whole thing. Just about a year ago we got the boat and put it into re-fit. We've done a lot since then in terms of putting a team together, getting the boat ready and with my own development as well. My background is basically inshore racing on small boats, so to be ready to do this was part of the plan, but it's kind of amazing to be here and to feel as comfortable as I do about it. That said, I'm still nervous as heck..."

Shawyer is quite open about his modest goals for this first outing. "Our prime objective is to finish with no real damage or breakages - finish safely and in good shape," he said. "We joke about having another objective to not come last. But when you look through the list of skippers, I mean these guys are the legends of the sport right? And even the ones on older boats have tons and tons of experience. We have set a performance goal of coming mid-pack of the daggerboard boats and we'd be absolutely ecstatic if we were able to do that."

Mermod says the current good health of the Class reflects its increasing attractiveness to a wider range of commercial partners, both in terms of their range of activity and their geographical spread.

"We are doing a thorough job of improving the commercial and marketing appeal of the Class and the return of all the races that we are proposing to all the teams," he said. "We have been working on this for a few years now and it seems that it is getting better and better. On the one hand, the costs of a campaign may be higher than before but, on the other, the return is a lot better. The ratio between costs and return is better than ever before. That's why IMOCA is attractive."

And the nature of the partners is changing too. "Before we had a lot of food companies and banks and insurance companies, but we now also attract luxury brands like Biotherm and Hublot and a lot of technology companies, especially cyber security. And compared to a few years ago, there is much more variety of markets - it shows that the model we are building all together is valuable for these kinds of companies - that's why it works," said Mermod.

In The Ocean Race, he believes, there is all to play for following the dismasting of overall race leader Holcim-PRB skippered by Kevin Escoffier. "It's a shame what happened to Kevin, but the race is now coming back into IMOCA's backyard in the north Atlantic and it's going to be very intense all the way to the finish," he said. "It's going to be very interesting to see what happens in May and June."

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