Ultims bound for Cape Finisterre

Monday 30 october, 2023 – Gitana Team

At 12:05 UTC yesterday, the Maxi Edmond de Rothschild and her adversaries were the first to take the start of the Transat Jacques Vabre – Normandie Le Havre. In a SSW’ly wind of around thirty knots and heavy seas, the five duos signed up for the ULTIM class were able to show off the potential of their fantastic giants of the seas, powered up at over 35 knots as they responded to the call of the open ocean… For the reigning champion, this rather full-on start phase was synonymous with stress with two spectacular bear aways, which the photographers and cameramen close to the action are unlikely to forget any time soon. More scared than hurt, once the helm issue was identified and resolved, the five-arrow giant moved back up to the head of the fleet. After 24 hours at sea, punctuated by some relatively boisterous and shifty conditions and a long beat westwards to hunt down a front to the south of Ireland, the ULTIMs are now all barrelling southwards towards Cape Finisterre, which they’re set to reach this evening.

Helm issue during a lively start
The last on-the-water clashes during training offshore of Lorient and the recent 24h Ultim race provided a clear indication that the fleet of giants would be competing with daggers drawn this autumn. The first few hours of this race have already confirmed this, as did the images captured yesterday in the Baie de Seine, which will very likely be consigned to the Coffee Route’s history books.

Early this morning, Erwan Israël shared a quick and concise insight into the state of play with his shore crew, despite being in the midst of manoeuvring in the cockpit of the Maxi Edmond de Rothschild: “The first few hours of racing have been a little complicated aboard Gitana 17. We had a few helm issues during the start phase, which explains two slightly crazy bear aways in the first few miles in the Baie de Seine and our rather mediocre introduction. The problem’s sorted now though and the boat was at ease with the reaching at the start and we got back up into the top trio as we rounded the tip of the Cotentin peninsula. As forecast, conditions were very shifty with some big squalls. In fact, we had up to 50 knots as we passed Cherbourg. We were sailing with 2 reefs in the J3, which was the right sail area for tackling the race start,” explained the co-skipper of Gitana 17. “Further down the racetrack, we played around in the Channel Islands and came off pretty well, which enabled us to snatch back the head of the fleet in the evening, ready to tackle the rounding of the north-west tip of Brittany. Like Banque Populaire and Sodebo, we opted for the inside track at the Ushant TSS  in line with our weather strategy, whilst SVR went around the outside. We tacked this morning onto a long starboard tack southwards to our new course mark level with Madeira.”

Indeed, whilst the small Brazilian Islands of São Pedro e São Paulo, around 1,000 km to the north-east of Natal in the North Atlantic, were supposed to be the first course mark for the ULTIMs in their descent of the Atlantic, an amendment has since been published by Race Management. The latter indicates a new mark level with the Madeira archipelago and more precisely its northernmost island of Porto Santo, which the 32-metre giants will have to leave to starboard.

Advantage to the west
At the 17:00 UTC position report, the duo aboard the Maxi Edmond de Rothschild lamented a 33-mile deficit in relation to the men on SVR-Lazartigue, who are positioned further over to the west and are currently heading the fleet, and around fifteen miles shy of Banque Populaire, which is making headway to the east of her, closer to the great circle route. These deficits are relatively small given the scale of the ULTIMs’ performance capabilities, and also the upcoming weather scenario, with a ridge of high pressure blocking the way forward for the leaders at the latitude of Gibraltar. 

“We were a bit too keen this morning and ideally, we should have waited a few more miles before tacking southwards. We ended up being trapped for a few hours between the old and the new breeze, which took its time latching onto us. The atmosphere as a whole has been very unstable with a number of squalls rolling through. From one cloud to the next, there were very big variations in the intensity of the wind”, admitted the onshore weather cell for the Maxi Edmond de Rothschild, which is made up of Erwan Tabarly and Simon Fisher for this transatlantic race. 

Caught up in this buffer zone posting speeds barely in excess of 10 knots for part of the morning, whilst François Gabart and Tom Laperche were driving along at over 30 knots further out to the west, the sailors of Gitana Team have logically lost some ground: “It’s not very pleasant seeing your competitor making headway 20 knots faster as you await the favourable breeze. However, given the area of light winds sprawled out in front of us from tomorrow… we’re keeping things in perspective! Very soon we’ll all be together,” assured Charles Caudrelier. 

Staggered starts for the four classes
95 duos signed up for the Transat Jacques Vabre – Normandie Le Havre 2023, but the organisers of the 16th edition have had to resort to splitting up the four fleets to adapt to the particularly boisterous weather conditions of this late October. As such, 55 boats from three classes (ULTIM, Class40 and Ocean Fifty) set sail from Le Havre yesterday, whilst the IMOCAs have been forced to remain dockside for now.

However, thanks to their speed potential and hence their ability to get down to the southern latitudes more swiftly to avoid the worst depressions, the ULTIMs will be able to sail their 7,500-mile course without stopovers. Meantime, the fleet of Ocean Fiftys made landfall in Lorient earlier today and that of the Class40s is expected to enter the port in the coming hours. It is in the Maxi Edmond de Rothschild’s port of registry that the fifty or so boats will sit out the worst of the weather expected to lash France’s Atlantic coast on Wednesday evening, with the situation set to deteriorate again over the weekend.

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