Almost six months after they competed in the world’s most brutal race, the single-handed non-stop lap of the planet that is the Vendée Globe, many of the IMOCA fleet will be returning to the race course for the first time in August’s Rolex Fastnet Race.
Aside from the added attraction of the race now ending up in home waters, with the finish moving for the first time to Cherbourg, for the IMOCA teams the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s flagship event is also a qualifier for November’s Transat Jacques Vabre.
Running from Le Havre to Martinique (via Fernando di Noronha off Brazil), this event is double-handed, and the world’s most advanced offshore monohulls will also sail in this configuration for the Rolex Fastnet Race.
The line-up is impressive. It includes Charlie Dalin on Apivia which was first home into Les Sables d’Olonne in late January. That was until Maître CoQ, skippered by Yannick Bestaven, subsequently became the race’s winner after he was awarded time compensation for his part in the rescue of Kevin Escoffier.
The American Ocean Race team 11th Hour Racing has not one, but two IMOCAs entered. This includes the 2016 vintage former HUGO BOSS, being campaigned by the mixed Anglo-Swiss crew of Volvo Ocean Race veteran Simon Fisher and Justine Mettraux.
But all eyes could be on the campaign’s latest steed, to be sailed by American Charlie Enright and top French offshore sailor Pascal Bidégorry. Whether she will make it is in the balance.
The launch of this new Guillaume Verdier design, built by CDK Technologies and project managed by Francois Gabart’s company MerConcept. It is scheduled for end of July, leaving precious little work-up time before the 8 August start.
Significantly this will be the first new flying IMOCA launched with the Ocean Race in mind, rather than the Vendée Globe. However, Enright, who two years ago was outright winner of the Rolex Fastnet Race as sailing master on the Askew brothers’ VO70 Wizard, explains they are hedged.
“In some ways we are optimised for both crewed and shorthanded racing, and in other ways we have definitely compromised to be able to wear both hats in this fleet. It is the first IMOCA built with ‘the Ocean Race as its primary objective’.”
What this means in terms of the specifics of the new hardware, we will have to wait and see. Theoretically with the potential to trim the foils more regularly, they could be more optimised and less draggy than the present generation foils.
For sure it will require more interior and cockpit space to accommodate four crew plus a media crewman and it will be interesting to see the degree to which the cockpit is enclosed.
There is also a tricky engineering balance to be reached in that the extra crew equals extra weight and righting moment and they can potentially drive the boat harder, but at the expense of extra structural weight, which in turn is bad for light airs foiling.
In with a strong chance of line honours is Britain’s Alex Thomson and HUGO BOSS. After leading the Vendée Globe fleet into the South Atlantic, the boat suffered structural damage to her bow, and Thomson was subsequently forced to retire into Cape Town with ‘irreparable rudder damage’.
Thomson’s boat is back in the water with two new rudders and he and the team in Gosport, UK are keen to prove the potential of their radical craft, the first IMOCA with a fully enclosed cockpit.
For Thomson the Fastnet Race has played a major part in his sailing career. “I love the Rolex Fastnet Race. I got my sailing instructor [qualification] in 1994 and in 1995. I joined Britannia Sailing who were the first people to do amateur ‘pay to play’ racing and did my first Fastnet within a few months of joining them.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but that was when I found out that offshore was what I loved to do.”
After winning the 1998-99 Clipper Round the World Race, it was in the 2003 Fastnet Race that Thomson first raced under the colours of HUGO BOSS. With the company’s support, he has gone on to become Britain’s most successful Vendée Globe skipper, podiuming on two occasions.
Of his past Fastnet races, Thomson recalls: “My first was in 1995 on a Sigma 36 and it took us more than seven days. The most painful one was when it took us the four days on an IMOCA in 2005!”
Sam Davies, the British Vendee Globe and Volvo Ocean Race skipper, says that the Fastnet Race inspired her as a teenager growing up in Portsmouth, UK: “As a kid I remember seeing all these boats, the Admiral’s Cuppers, the maxis – the best of the best boats there in Solent to do the Fastnet Race.
“Hearing the stories from the 1979 race made it even more awe-inspiring. And it seemed just so far! How could people do a race that long?! That’s funny now.”
This will be her ninth Fastnet Race following her first when she was 19 with the parents of top pro sailor, Gerry Mitchell, on their Jeanneau Sun Legende 41.
“It was a good family-owned racing boat where the husband and wife sailed all the races together. We did all the RORC races and qualifiers – it was very competitive.”
At the time, Mitchell was en route to the 1993-94 Whitbread Round the World Race on the Dolphin & Youth Whitbread 60, and occasionally he and some of his talented friends would join them.
The experience of racing with the Mitchells and the chance to meet future and existing legends of the sport all helped set Sam on track for her future career. It is for this reason that she feels great pride returning to the Solent on board her state-of-the-art boat as a major wheel within the world’s most significant offshore fleet.
This time she will be racing her IMOCA Initiatives Coeur with French Solitaire du Figaro winner Nicolas Lunven.
Also significant for Davies is that racing in the IMOCA fleet with her, will be her partner, Romain Attanasio. He recently secured funding for his next IMOCA campaign from Fortinet-Best Western, and has acquired Boris Herrman’s IMOCA, originally the 2016 vintage Edmond de Rothschild
“There is a group of us – me, Isabel [Joscke on MACSF], SiFi and Jojo [Simon Fisher and Justine Mettraux on 11th Hour Racing] and Romain – on old boats that have been optimised. I am looking forward to that race.”
Davies says the likely IMOCA winners will be the latest generation boats, all of which at least started the last Vendée Globe, and which their skippers know better than ever.
The latest generation of foilers come into their own in 12 knots, at which point they foil when the older generation do not. However, while they are optimised for the round the world course, to the extent that some are not great upwind, a course like the Fastnet’s could benefit older more all-round boats.
“If we get a light spot or a tricky spot, if it is downwind spinnaker sailing and we are more in the water than out, then all our group of boats will still be in with a chance. That is the good thing about the Fastnet Race, because it is coastal, and tricky racing and there’s tides. It’s summer so there’s probably light winds at some point,” Davies said.
The latest generation IMOCAs competing currently include HUGO BOSS, Apivia, Sebastien Simon’s Arkea Paprec and Nicolas Troussel’s Corum L’Epargne. Another to watch will certainly be Jérémie Beyou and Chris Pratt on Charal, which returns as the defending champion in the IMOCA class.
“This is the first event of the season for us,” Beyou says.” It’s a good rehearsal for the Transat Jacques Vabre on a sporting level and also to prepare the team. We have to be ready for the delivery, the stand-by in Cherbourg, the choice of sails, etc – the whole pre-race routine that’s important to test.
“It’s a race we won two years ago, so we hope to do as well, but there are a lot of people, and it will be a bit tricky at the start exiting the Solent. There’s a lot to avoid, but it’s great fun, a great show and we’re going to enjoy it too.”
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