The weather forecast for the first few days of La Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe seems to suggest that the 3,542 miles from Saint-Malo to Pointe-à-Pitre will be quick. But first up there will be an active frontal system to cross before Ushant.
Sunday afternoon’s start will see the SSW’ly breeze at around 15-18kts with some squally bursts perhaps. But the first three days of racing will be quite tough for the 91 solo skippers competing on this legendary Transatlantic. And with such a promising forecast it seems there might be every chance the outright race record of 7 days 17 hours 19mins 6 secs of Lionel Lemonchois, set in 2006 on Gitana XI, might fall.
It had to happen some time. The blocking high pressure system which has provided summer-like weather for most of the times in Saint-Malo will give way to more usual Autumnal conditions, an Atlantic low pressure arriving on cue for Sunday’s start. The weather will worsen progressively along the Brittany coast and there will likely be rain just after the 1400hrs local time start gun.
The 91 solo skippers gathered for their final meteo briefing this morning as Meteo Consult provided them with their final weather analysis. Sunday afternoon will see SSW’ly winds of around 15-18 kts but with some much bigger gusts. The breeze will veer more west behind the front, easing slightly initially but it will always be gusty. The air temperature will be around 13-16 deg C. The Ultime leaders might well have passed Cap Fréhel ahead of the front but for most this will mean headwinds.
The soloists will have a long port tack to get out of the Channel. But around midnight a second, more active front will bring a big increase in wind strength from the SW, gusting to 40-45kts with a chaotic sea. And this will be one of the key phases of this Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe. Approaching and around the tip of Brittany there are a powerful combination of big untidy waves, busy maritime traffic and gusty winds, so the real strategy here will be trying not to break anything whilst still keeping the pace on.
By daytime Monday the biggest Ultimes should be into the brisk NW’ly which will make for a fast descent to Madeira which they should reach by Tuesday night. But meantime for the first part of Monday the IMOCA and Multi 50s will have a pretty tough time trying to find the right tempo across the first part of Biscay in an unruly, nasty sea making a messy, stressful passage to Cape Finisterre for Tuesday morning.
Overall it is quite a promising forecast. Class 40 and the Rhum fleet will need to take it more carefully but there really is only one general route south and the fleets should enjoy more of a speed rather than strategy race.
In the Class 40 fleet Briton Conrad Humphreys says he has never been better prepared or felt as good before a race start but the pressure will be on from the start. There is a critical stage early on where the skippers must time their approach through Sunday night’s front to make sure they can get comfortably inside the Ushant traffic separation zone, or not. There is a tactical danger in being squeezed out to the west by the zone when the main opposition is inside, able to cut the corner and get south across Biscay earlier.
“The critical thing will be how far west you get and whether you are positioned inside or outside the separation zone at Ushant. If you are caught half way you can’t cross the separation zone. And so the timing of that shift is important. After that the Bay of Biscay is going to be quite lively. I think the sea state will be one of the worst things, 4-5m swell with waves on top and then a lot of rain. The further south we get the High will have an effect and it will start to calm down a bit, but I think for most of the first 24-36 hours it will be quite wild. It is so critical to be with the pack and to get through that first shift with them. If you don’t they can be going quite fast and the ones who don’t will be still on the wind, have less runway to get around Ushant and so on. I have to say you will have to sail quite aggressively.”
In boisterous sea and wind conditions, with rain showers passing through, the start itself holds the possibility is problems. Indeed that is the phase that concerns Miranda Merron (Campagne de France) most immediately. The France-based English soloist said after the weather briefing:
“It’s November. You are going to take a kicking some time and this first bit looks tough, but it is the start with all the traffic and stress around that worries me most. I just want to get away cleanly and safely.”
Ari Huusela (FINLAND) – Rhum Class, Neste Oil:
“It is a victory to be here. In total we have had almost 20 people involved in the project at home in Finland. It is my passion to sail alone, that is why I want to do this race. This is the pinnacle. I have had this boat two years after it took me seven years to realise my dream. I think the boat is good, I am going to enjoy it as much as possible.”
Yann Guichard (Ultime) – SPINDRIFT 2:
“Everyone knows that the start phase is always critical. I know that if I have to do an emergency change of tack, it can’t be done in two minutes. The first twelve hours are going to be complicated. It looks like we’re going to have to do two changes of tack. This isn’t where the race is going to be won, but it is where it can be lost.”
Loïck Peyron (Ultime) – MAXI SOLO BANQUE POPULAIRE VII:
“The start is never easy for anyone. And here it’s going to be violent. There is going to be wind and lots of rain: typical sailor’s weather. This will make things a bit more dramatic, as we’re straight into the rough stuff.”