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Not into the eye of the storm

by Mark Jardine 31 Oct 2023 13:00 PDT
Ocean Fifty Realites, skippers Fabrice Cahierc and Aymeric Chappellier are taking the start of Transat Jacques Vabre in Le Havre, France, on October 29, 2023 © Jean-Marie Liot

Quite rightly, the Transat Jacques Vabre start didn't go as initially planned on Sunday. Storm Ciaran is set to be exceptional, and not in a good way, with winds of 80-90 knots during Wednesday night.

Let's put that into perspective. A force 12 hurricane on the Beaufort scale is winds above 64 knots.

The 40-strong IMOCA fleet didn't leave the port of Normandie Le Havre on Sunday and are now being put into 'safe mode' to ride out the storm in harbour. As Benjamin Dutreux, skipper of Guyot Environnement - Water Family explained, "We are all trying to point the bows more into the wind. Our boats have a lot of wind resistance, so we are putting them all alongside the dockside."

The storm is already being compared to one which hit France in 1999, so this has the potential to be a once-every-25-years weather event.

"It's a very explosive depression, with very strong winds and especially heavy seas," commented Damien Seguin (APICIL).

Yoann Richomme (Papes Arkéa) added: "At sea, forecasts show 80 knots, gusts of more than 100 knots (more than 185 km/hour), in seas with waves of 12 meters. This is unthinkable and no rescue could provide assistance to a sailor in case of need."

The IMOCA fleet are quite rightly preparing for the worst.

Which brings up the question as to why the Ultim trimarans, the Ocean Fifty and Class 40 fleets set off. Why not postpone the entire fleet? The answer differs according to the classes involved...

Firstly, the massive foiling Ultim trimarans are simply outrunning the story. They're all well past Cape Finisterre and are well south of the course of Storm Ciaran. The Class 40 plan from the off was to head round the corner on Sunday and dock in Lorient, which the majority of the fleet have already done, with just the last few making their way there now. The Ocean Fifty trimarans have followed suit, all now safely docked in Lorient.

Having the Class 40 and Ocean Fifty fleets out of the port of Le Havre has given more space to the IMOCA fleet to secure alongside the docks, which should help the fleet avoid damage. Once the storm is through the organisers will send the IMOCA fleet off on their start, hopefully with the entire fleet unscathed. Similarly, the Class 40 and Ocean Fifty fleets will restart from Lorient.

The race in the Ultim trimarans is close, with the top three separated by just 35 nautical miles this morning. François Gabart and Tom Laperche on SVR Lazartigue are leading the way ahead of Charles Caudrelier and Erwan Israel on Maxi Edmond de Rothschild in second, followed by Armel Le Cléac'h and Sébastien Josse on Maxi Banque Populaire XI.

The rate that these leviathans of the sea eat up the miles is staggering, and even upwind they can achieve speeds of 25 knots with relative ease. The race record of 7 days, 22 hours, 7 minutes and 27 seconds was set in 2017 by Thomas Coville and Jean-Luc Nélias on Sodebo Ultim' and, while the latest generation of foiling trimarans are more than capable of beating this, much depends on the weather they encounter. Completing the 7,000 nautical miles at an average speed of 25+ knots is no mean feat and every time they have to go upwind, or dead downwind for that matter, they of course increase the distance they have to cover.

The popularity of the Transat Jacques Vabre is incredible with a record-breaking 95 boats taking part in the 2023 edition, the 16th running of the race. With the next Vendée Globe just over a year away, it's a superb time for the IMOCA fleet to gauge where they are speed-wise against their competitors. Things are of course slightly different from the Vendée, with the boats all sailing doublehanded instead of singlehanded, but the basics are the same.

The latest generation of IMOCAs are a huge step up in speed from the 2020-21 Vendée Globe, and have shown they can be more reliable as well, but this Transat Jacques Vabre will certainly put that reliability to the test.

One of the favourites though won't complete the race. Due to medical reasons French skipper Charlie Dalin, who won this race in 2017 in the IMOCA class, will only start the race on his new Verdier designed MACIF with his co-skipper Pascal Bidégorry, before returning to the port, thereby satisfying a part of the Vendée Globe qualifying process.

When I met Charlie in London a few months back I was highly impressed with the technical approach he takes to his sailing, combined with raw talent. Ed Gorman wrote a super article on 'the small steps to super-competitive performance' about Charlie's new boat, and it was great to get his input for my article 'The Next Generation'.

The IMOCA fleet is exciting to watch, and I can't wait until they're out at sea, battling it out in the Transat Jacques Vabre. At the same time, I'm very thankful of the sensible decisions the race organisers have taken to limit the fleet's exposure to Storm Ciaran.

For all those in the Atlantic, on the West and Northern coasts of France, in Ireland and throughout the UK: stay safe. Make sure your dinghies are tied down securely, your yachts are secured well to their moorings or berth, with sails properly stowed. It's looking like it's going to be a big Wednesday.

Mark Jardine
Sail-World.com and YachtsandYachting.com Managing Editor

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