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Défi Azimut 48-Hours: Sorel looks to continue strong season

by Ed Gorman / IMOCA Globe Series 21 Sep 08:10 PDT
Maxime Sorel - Défi Azimut © Jean-Louis Carli / IMOCA

With no less than 34 teams on the startline, an interesting weather picture and many new skipper-co-skipper pairings, this year's Défi Azimut-Lorient Agglomération 48-Hours double-handed race is going to be something special.

We have already enjoyed The Ocean Race, The Guyader Bermudes 1000 Race and the Rolex Fastnet Race this season, but the Défi Azimut marks the beginning of the build-up to the two big tests this year - the two-handed Transat Jacques Vabre, which starts at the end of October, and then the solo Retour à La Base which sets sail a month later.

Gathering at the IMOCA headquarters at Lorient, the skippers are looking forward to trying out their boats and testing themselves and their teammates in what could be challenging upwind conditions on the Bay of Biscay.

Among them is the V and B - Monbana - Mayenne skipper Maxime Sorel, whose recent achievements include conquering Mount Everest and finishing in a strong fourth place in the Rolex Fastnet Race in his new Guillaume Verdier foiler alongside his Défi Azimut co-skipper Christopher Pratt.

"It's great to bring together so many boats with such a rich line-up in Lorient for this kind of event - it's really magnificent," said the 37-year-old who sails not only for his main sponsors but for the French charity Vaincre la Mucoviscidose (Overcoming Cystic Fibrosis). "It feels like a new boat show - it's great," he added.

Sorel, who finished tenth on debut in the last Vendée Globe in a 2007 daggerboard boat, is enjoying seeing the fleet on the dock assembled in full for the first time this season. "It's nice to see everyone again," he said. "During the Rolex Fastnet Race everyone went their own way, so we didn't have much time to chat."

And the race itself - how is Sorel viewing what could be a tough couple of days in autumnal weather on the eastern fringes of the Atlantic? The watchword seems to be caution - not breaking a boat with such a short time left to the TJV start in Le Havre. "We haven't set ourselves any particular goals. But we saw that everything went really well in the Rolex Fastnet Race, where we managed to stay in the game despite the conditions, so we're going to keep going in that direction. After that it won't be 'putting the pedal to the metal' if the conditions are too rough - we won't hesitate to slow down a bit and let the rough conditions pass us by," said Sorel.

While the Concarneau-based Sorel is certainly an IMOCA veteran these days, there are some new skippers starting their journey in the Class this week, among them the young French star Violette Dorange at the helm of DeVenir (the former Hubert / Yes We Cam!), sailing alongside co-skipper and boat captain Damien Guillou.

For 22-year-old Dorange from La Rochelle, who cut her teeth in 420s, the Mini Transat and then three seasons on the Figaro circuit, this is a step up to the big time as she races alongside some of the sailors she has looked up to as a record-setting youngster. Not surprisingly, she is feeling the pre-start nerves.

"It's a bit of a mixture of everything," said Dorange, taking a break from her preparations at La Base. "I'm a bit shy one the one hand thinking, 'Oh, this is too much' because these are the skippers I've been following since I was a little girl, so to be among them is really impressive and it's a source of pride.

"On the other hand, there's my reason which tells me that I did my years in Figaro, I did top level 420 racing - I've done a lot of things and I've always been a bit ahead and that's why I'm still ahead in terms of age. That's why sometimes I'm impressed and I think 'no, I've got my place. I just need to get my bearings, stay focused and I'll be fine.'"

Nervous or not, Dorange can't hide her joy at starting her first IMOCA event in a proven older daggerboard boat in which she will look to take on the likes of Benjamin Ferré and Guirec Soudée, amongst many others. One of five female skippers in this year's Défi Azimut, and among eight female sailors altogether in the fleet, she is relishing every moment. "I feel like I'm starting a new sport," she said. "Everything is different, the set, the technique, everything. Right now, I'm living my best life!"

Dorange is also enjoying sailing with the vastly experienced racer and preparateur Guillou who started as favourite in the recent Golden Globe Race only to be forced to retire with self steering system failure at Cape Town. "We communicate very well - he's a good sailor and that's important because he is teaching me a lot about being alone at sea - doing the right things, avoiding getting into trouble. And then he's got the competitive side and that's great - we've got a great balance," said Dorange.

With so many boats on the startline on Thursday, and strong westerly winds pushing in a big swell off the Brittany coast, all the skippers will be focusing on getting away cleanly with no incidents at the start. Both Dorange and Sorel mentioned this element of a short race which can have big negative consequences for the remainder of a busy season if things go wrong.

"Like the Fastnet, it's going to be hot at the start," said Sorel. "Thirty-four boats on the same line - that's no joke. We don't want to get into trouble right from the start of a 48-hour race. We're going to be cautious and go head-to-head on slightly longer tacks, all alongside each other, trying to go as fast possible without making any mistakes."

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