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Transat Jacques Vabre: Can 'the Juju's' still collect or will the defending IMOCA champions prevail?

by TJV Media 16 Nov 15:51 PST
Paprec Arkéa - Transat Jacques Vabre 2023 © Jean-Marie Liot / Défi Azimut

With just less than 700 nautical miles to sail to the Fort de France, Martinique finish line of the Transat Jacques Vabre Normandie Le Havre race for the leaders of the IMOCA fleet, there is still a question mark over who will win what has been a hugely competitive race from Le Havre.

One day ago there was nothing to choose between 'the Jujus' - Swiss female skipper Justine Mettraux and French counterpart Julien Villion on who last Saturday night broke away from the fleet to route 'by the north face'. They moved quickly away from the main peloton which made the collective decision to stay south. When they split Mettraux and Villion's gain was touted to amount to winning move... by as much as 24 hours.

Hoping the trade winds would strengthen again, the main group carried on south. They mostly cited their collective desire to avoid five or six days of slamming hard upwind. Instead they sought to protect their boats and to profit from the very close speed testing which they say is more valuable in optimising and fine tuning in the lead up to next year's Vendée Globe.

This morning the IMOCA race is still finely balanced. Opinions as to whether the Swiss flagged team can descend fast enough from their northern summit are divided. On second placed Paprec Arkéa three times winner Yann Eliès said, "We're feeling some stress, because we went for an option which had the wind veering further West, but the wind isn't as forecast. That change in direction should happen at some point. We'll see in the next 24 hours. Things are looking good for the two Jujus. It still looks like they will cross in front of us. There's going to be a lot of suspense for the finish."

Co-skipper to Yoann Richomme, Eliès continued, "The trade winds have been more unstable since this morning and we have a few wind shifts to deal with, a move to find areas with a little more wind, but nothing complicated. We do a couple of gybes a day and have to be trimming all the time. What we have is completely different from the skippers to the North, as they face a tricky sea state and have sail changes, so must be getting exhausted. It is hard too for their boats. We have seen that in the North, some boats have had technical problems. With our(new) boats, we don't really like putting them into such conditions. We have a new boat that hasn't been tried and tested. The older boats that are reliable, like Teamwork the former Charal, can withstand better that sort of option."

British The Ocean Race winning navigator Simon Fisher, who has sailed tens of thousands of miles with Mettraux on the triumphant 11th Hour Racing programme and two handed, also says the race is still open but maybe tipping in favour of the boats in the south.... perhaps.

"From what I can see it could still go either way, Justine should now come reaching in on a better angle than the others in the south whilst they are very much downwind VMG sailing. There is really nothing in it. It can get down to how hard they push, especially for those downwind who can be very much at the mercy of the sea state. Juju has so much grit and determination it would be great to see her pull this off, all credit to them for their choice. Certainly looking back at when they made their choice that decision was much clearer. Just now the guys in the south are a little quicker and they should just be gybing into the finish whereas Justine has likely the chance to reach in.

"Lying in seventh this afternoon, with over 200 miles of a deficit to the leader For People (Thomas Ruyant and Morgan Lagravière, Mettraux said this morning, "We had an issue with our mainsail hook which was not really working properly, so every time we were reefing and taking it out it we were struggling a bit so we decided to change the piece as it was starting to work really badly. We did the change yesterday afternoon, so we lost a bit of ground there. But it has been working fine now. Right now we have around 20-25kts, so it is good but the sea state is still pretty big and disorganized, it is not easy to keep the boat going fast. For us we hope now it should be a straight line to the finish towards Martinique. it is hard to see right now, we will try to finish in the best possible position. I think it will be hard to win from here now. Linked Out (sic, For People) have a good lead and Paprec are not far from them, so that really depends on the conditions they have in the south and how we can keep the boat going here in the north. We are still two days away from the finish.

"The adrenalin fuelled charge to the finish line is entirely befitting of the record sized 40 boat fleet which are competing on this race as a qualifier and key indicator of potential form for the 2024 Vendée Globe. Ruyant and Lagravière have sailed an immaculate race, always fast and well positioned and have the upper hand on their new For People, more than doubling lead on their sistership Paprec Arkéa today. But all things being equal Ruyant and Lagravière are on course to defend the IMOCA title they won last edition.

Richomme and Eliès have been slowed and could yet be passed by British skipper Sam Goodchild and Antoine Koch (For the Planet) who were only a handful of miles behind.

Sam Davies and Jack Bouttell (Initiatives Coeur) are steeling themselves for the final sprint in fourth, doing all they can to hold off the hard charging Charal (Jéremie Beyou and Franck Cammas) also a very similar Sam Manuard design. The British duo had actually earned three miles over their pursuers.

Davies, who raced round the world with Mettraux on Team SCA, reported, "It is all good we have more breeze, we are really happy where we are and pushing as hard as we can to keep this place and see what happens with Juju in the north. I think we have over 100 miles of lead on Juju now. I have not really analysed her position recently as our side of the race here is pretty competitive and we have some good guys behind and in front. And so we want to get that bit right. We could see Charal this morning when the sun came up, a little speck on the horizon so we are doing all we can to keep them behind us."

Every metre, every windshift counts at the front of Class40 where Ambrogio Beccaria and Nico Andrieu still hold a slender lead on Alle Grande-PIRELLI over long time Italian rivals IBSA. Beccaria says they are not looking too closely at the progress of a pack some 500 miles in the north led by Groupe SNEF (Xavier Macaire and Pierre Leboucher).

Beccaria, an Italian naval architect, reported on the morning call, "Today it is too light for us, and too hot, especially for Nico (Andrieu, co-skipper). The battle is going on, it's about every shift and every knot of wind more or less. Our position? Well we have almost stopped looking at the north group because we cannot do anything about them. We need to just concentrate on our position in the south, a decision we made a few days ago. We are happy to be in front. We gained a few miles on the boat which is second but now we are not so pleased because they are bringing in wind from behind and we have less wind. We cannot do anything so let's see. We have 15 knots going downwind and so it is not super adrenalin sailing, so the goal is to use all the shifts and so we do a lot of gybes but that is good as it can be the only real physical exertion of the day. Physically I had a bit of pain with my rib a few days ago but now it is better. Nico is suffering in the heat as he is an old guy, I am just starting to feel it as I am much younger!

"Britain's Alister Richardson and Brian Thompson on T'quila have wriggled ahead of the group they have been tussling with for the last few days and have got themselves up to third, also in the south pack. "For sure the boats in the north are going to come in hot, reaching fast but that is a long way off. And for sure our boat is well suited to these conditions, it is quite fast in these conditions. And so we may as well go with what we are best suited to. It won't play out for another week. And we have our own group here with La Boulanger and Inter Invest and we are racing with them. We have gybed on to starboard and are heading towards Martinique and should cross a few bows. Then the next gybe will determine how far we go south to find the best of the tradewinds. Now is a long, long starboard."

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