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Transat Jacques Vabre - great racing and great solidarity in a record-breaking IMOCA fleet

by Ed Gorman / IMOCA Globe Series 24 Nov 2023 10:02 PST 24 November 2023

The 2023 Transat Jacques Vabre-Normandie Le Havre featured a delayed start because of extreme weather and then a shortened course, but it still delivered a classic contest for the record-entry 40 IMOCA teams that took the start.

The race featured great battles at the front between the latest foilers, then within the top-10 for earlier generation of foilers, and then among the daggerboard boats. There was good racing at every level throughout a fleet that saw only only four retirements due to structural or other reliability issues.

In Fort-de-France on Martinique, where the last finishers were still coming in today, Damien Seguin, the Groupe APICIL skipper who enjoyed an impressive comeback race after he and Laurent Bourguès had to stop in Lorient to repair their broken boom, said this was a Transat Jacques Vabre like no other.

"Perhaps in the minds of the general public the transatlantic races follow on from each other and can look the same," Seguin told the Class. "It seems almost normal in terms of ease, but it's still something quite remarkable to cross the Atlantic so quickly and it felt like it happened in two seconds."

And this race packed a punch. "You could almost say 'the shorter, the better' because it's not the longest transatlantic races that have the most twists and turns," added the former Paralympic sailor who was racing his third Transat Jacques Vabre. "There were some crazy options and never have the fleets been so separated between those to the north, those to south and those who crossed in the middle. It was a real eye-opener and it kept everyone on their toes."

Antoine Mermod, the IMOCA Class president, who is also out in Martinique, highlighted the daggerboard competition in a race that saw a real scrap between the top boats - among them Monnoyeur-Duo For A Job, Fives Group-Lantana Environnement,, DeVenir and Mail Boxes Etc. Mermod said this group of boats, many of them built for the 2008-'09 Vendée Globe, remains a highly competitive fleet.

"These boats have been well-maintained for years by different teams and now we have a fleet of maybe 10 boats that are very similar in terms of performance and - most important, as we saw in this race - that are sailed by very, very high level skippers. For these sailors, this Jacques Vabre was a huge race that was both a speed race and a technical race," said Mermod.

He added that the pace of this transatlantic in the daggerboard fleet would have compared well with the 2007 edition when most of these boats were brand new. "I think they were faster than they were in 2007. I think Michel Desjoyeaux, the winner at the time (alongside Emmanuel Le Borgne), would be jealous of the way they are sailing these boats now," he said.

Seguin said this Transat Jacques Vabre was representative of what the IMOCA Class is today - bigger and more diverse in terms of boats than ever before. "There are more boats, more races and it's great," he said. "There are battles at every level in all the races and I don't think there will be many disappointed finishers here, because everyone has managed to compete within their own group."

For Romain Ménard, team manager with Yoann Richomme's Paprec Arkéa, this Transat Jacques Vabre was a key target at the end of the double-handed season, as Richomme, sailing with Yann Eliès, continued his build-up to his first Vendée Globe. The Paprec Arkéa duo had a superb race, finishing a close second to winners Thomas Ruyant and Morgan Lagravière on For People.

"It is the biggest event of the double-handed season," said Ménard. "Some of the choices during the TJV and the preparation for the TJV were more with the Vendée Globe in mind, but it is still a very good event for us that gave Yoann time to develop the boat with somebody with experience in this area, like Yann."

Even with a delayed start, the early stages saw a tough frontal system blocking the way to the west with headwinds of up to 40 knots and steep, short seas off the Brittany coast. Mermod says the boats stood up well to the test, but he is waiting to see how the Retour à la Base race back to Lorient goes before coming to any conclusions about the overall reliability of the fleet.

"We've got a single-handed race coming back to Europe with boats that are a little bit tired. And also it is the first time for 12 months that we have the skippers alone on board and it is December in the north Atlantic, so we will see after that what the final conclusions about reliability are," he said.

In the meantime, the atmosphere on the dockside at Fort-de-France is not unlike a stopover in The Ocean Race with the teams up against the clock to be ready for the start of the Retour à La Base on November 30th. Ménard says Paprec Arkéa have pooled resources with Charal and Teamwork, with the three teams sharing a container of spares to save costs and increase efficiency.

He says the general atmosphere among the IMOCA fleet is one of solidarity in the face of the challenge ahead. "Everybody is trying to help and we are happy to be together. We know it is a rush because, for us it is 10-12 days between the two races, but for some of the boats it's going to be less than a week," he said.

Seguin agrees. "It's a Class that belongs to the skippers, so we've all known each other for a long time," he said. "There's a great understanding and the atmosphere at the finishes reveals that too now. I think there's more and more mutual support between the teams - everyone's pulling together and that's really nice."

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