never too far

Three weeks ago when submitting my Transat Jacques Vabre preview to the Editor, I scrolled over to the “send” button and paused in a moment of indecision. Had I gone too far with this piece? Anyone who knows me is aware of my slightly unhealthy obsession with shorthanded French offshore racing, but this article was – even by my standards – a bit over the top. As I proofread it one last time, the article read more like a star-studded, action packed, cheesy-explosion-filled Hollywood trailer in literary form than a preview to a yacht race. Cheesy explosions and all, this eleventh running of the TJV was everything it was hailed to be and more.

The Bay of Biscay was portrayed as the angry sea monster – unpredictable and out for blood – and she played the role to perfection. She delayed the start of the race, diverted the race’s biggest fleet, broke one boat, flipped another and left a trail or rudders and random boat bits all over Western Europe. Biscay may get the Oscar Nominee but she’d be nothing without a supporting cast; the Portoguese Trades delivered in a big way, the doldrums didn’t fuck things up too badly and the Southeast Trades developed the story further by testing the fleet all the way to Brazil, knocking out the leaders in the process. Make no mistake, this Transat Jacques Vabre – the longest course the race has ever sailed – was no mere trade-wind jaunt to the tropics. It was a prolonged ass kicking, boat breaking test of skill, seamanship and heart that produced some absolutely fantastic ocean racing for which we are all privileged to have witnessed.


When we stated that there was a clearly defined “A” fleet and “B” fleet in this race, we didn’t think that the five boats who all train together out of Port la Forêt (MACIF, PRB, Maitre Coq, Safran, Cheminees Poujoulat)  would all five take turns leading the fleet during the first half of the race, but that’s exactly what they did. The top two boats (MACIF and PRB) both made technical stops that helped facilitate this, but to see half of the premier fleet lead the race, not just in the first day or two, but in the first half of the race was simply stunning and we can take away a lot of positives from the TJV.

Francois Gabart and Michel Desjoyeaux were every bit the dream team that we had hoped for, and to watch them navigate and sail their way to a more than 50-mile lead in very demanding conditions during the first two days of the race was remarkable. First to cross through the front that challenged the fleet on the second night of the race, MACIF was in control early until discovering damage to their starboard rudder blade and diverting to Portugal to swap it out. Almost as quickly as Gabart and “Le Prof” had pulled out of the race, they were back in it at speed, re-creating a tight 5-boat pack with the upstart Bureau Vallée showing impressive pace in sixth. PRB and MACIF eventually extended out after the Cape Verdes, but not by much, and the fleet again compressed at the doldrums. Emerging from the doldrums with the lead still up for grabs, MACIF pushed hard to pull away from PRB; perhaps too hard.

Pulling out a 20 mile lead over PRB almost overnight, MACIF dismasted in a gut wrenching case of déjà vu for Gabart and Desjoyeaux, who also dismasted out of the last Barcelona World Race while fighting for the lead on FONCiA. Shortly after dismasting, Francois admitted that a new, lighter mast had been installed on his VPLP-designed boat after winning the Vendée Globe and that it had been more fragile than the original mast. A more traditional, less hectic Transat Jacques Vabre may not have proved the new mast inadequate but in this long and consistently windy race, there was no room for mistakes or miscalculations. Swapping in a lighter rig after winning the VG and then dropping it while leading the TJV only further validates the IMOCA class’ decision to adopt standardized rigs (and keels) for new boats as the class moves forward.

With MACIF headed to port, PRB assumed a lead of just 60 miles and maintained that lead, more or less, until the finish in Itajal. With Safran and Maitre Coq battling it out in PRB’s wake, there was no room for the leaders to falter, just as it should be in top-level yacht racing. To have great champions, you must have great challengers and the IMOCA fleet has this in spades.

While many will remember this race as the “one where MACIF dismasted and somebody else won”, the race itself was nowhere near that simple. MACIF was the fastest (and best sailed) boat in the race, sure, but not by a lot. PRB was almost as fast in most conditions and even faster in the light stuff, while Cheminees Poujoulat was fastest in the heavy stuff downwind. The Sooty Pussy’s meteoric rise through the rankings in the breeze-on Portoguese Trades was a stunning display of boat speed for Bernard Stamm’s venerable Juan K design and bodes well for him in the future. Factor in Safran’s level of development and consistency and Maitre Coq and Jeremie Beyou’s steep learning curve and marked improvement over the past two and a half weeks, combined with Alex Thomson and Hugo Boss’ upcoming new build and the IMOCA fleet looks as competitive as ever with more than a half dozen boats that can mix it up at the pointy end of the fleet.

You know a race is good when even the back of the fleet is filled with quality racing and story lines. Our boy Gutek finally finished a race on Energa, while two SA favorites battled it out to the bitter end with Tanguy de Lamotte on Initiatives-Couer beating out Team Plastique and Alessandro di Benedetto by the smallest of margins; just nine seconds!

MOD 70

The smallest fleet in the TJV this year, as expected, was the MOD 70’s. The class has been a flop due to hard economic times in France, lack of promotion and piss-poor management, but the boats that it has created are awe-inspiring and the racing top notch. The TJV was the first shorthanded race, and longest course, that the MOD 70’s have ever campaigned and was therefore as much of an experiment as a yacht race. Despite just two boats actually taking to the start, the experiment was an overwhelming success.

Though there wasn’t the excitement of constant lead changes, tons of boats, passing lanes and drama, the racing was actually very close. In a drag race to Cape Finisterre, Seb Josse’s Edmond de Rothschild pulled out to a 50-mile lead after what Oman Air-Musandam skipper Sidney Gavignet called “the toughest conditions i’ve seen on this boat”, including gusts of 40-50 knots and sustained breeze in the mid-30’s with “a huge seaway”. The Omani boat was more deeply reefed, slower and generally more conservative in the rough stuff, allowing EdR to gain this crucial advantage.

With Edmond de Rothschild maintaining their fragile 50 mile lead, the two MOD’s were barely even slowed by the doldrums, averaging 16 knots across the dreaded light-air zone. The pair of 70-foot tri’s continued their match race towards the Brazilian coast at breakneck speed with the Omani boat reaching up slightly higher to try and catch their competitors on Edmond de Rothschild, and nearly succeeding at that, before falling off the back of a cold front and getting trapped in the light air behind it. Mix in a few technical challenges, a hydraulic failure and the aforementioned slowing at Finisterre and it’s amazing that the race came down to just 5 hours. But that’s the beauty of one-design; close racing.

Josse and co-skipper Charles Caudrellier on EdR collaborated to create something incredible, masterfully sailing the course at an average of more than 22 knots. Establishing a new course reference time of 11 days, 5 hours and 3 minutes from Le Havre to Itajal, the duo came in well quicker than the expected 12-14 days. A phenomenal performance by both teams. After this TJV, we can only hope that Virbac-Paprec 70, Spindrift and the others in the MOD fleet will engage in next year’s Krys Ocean Race!

Multi 50

A class almost unknown to North Americans, the Multi 50‘s again provided some of the closest racing of any fleet while undoubtedly creating the most drama. With any of four boats that could conceivably win at the start and an impending thrashing in Biscay, the half-dozen Multi 50’s quickly spread out into their own “A” fleet and “B” fleet. Two days into the race, Maitre Jacques, a veteran of multiple trans-atlantic races, was first to break through the front and gain westerly leverage over the fleet. Battling for the lead while also battling the conditions, the veteran trimaran slammed off of a wave that quite literally broke the boat, ripping the front of the starboard ama off and compromising the forward cross beam. The boat diverted to La Coruña, Spain.

Next it was Arkema’s turn. The newest boat in the fleet and winner of this summer’s Roue des Princes, Arkema had become part of a close ménage à trois with defending TJV champ Actual and FenêtréA-Cardinal. Rounding Cape Finisterre at speed and flying before the Portoguese Trades in a gusty, shifty 20 knot northerly, the duo aboard Arkema was caught out by a gust and capsized some 230 miles west of Lisbon, Portugal. FenêtréA-Cardinal was less than a mile away at the time of the incident and communicated with Arkema via VHF radio. Cardinal co-skipper Yann Elies confirmed to the race direction that the pair onboard Arkema was uninjured and did not wish for the crew onboard FenêtréA-Cardinal to stand by or delay their race in any way, instead urging them to continue fighting for the lead. You have to love the French ocean racing mentality of “We flipped, we got this… Have a good race.”

With the four contenders now whittled down to two, it was to be a match race to the finish between FenêtréA-Cardinal and Actual. Cardinal gybed to the west while Actual rocketed south. When Actual gybed off of Madeira and re-consolidated with Cardinal, they fell in behind their rival and trailed them all the way to Brazil. Actual continued to attack all the way to Itajal and kept FenêtréA-Cardinal honest, but could not overcome the almost perfect performance of Erwan Le Roux and co-skipper Yann Elies, and that’s one of the great story lines of this race. Making his multihull debut in this race was Yann Elies, and now he’s a Transat Jacques Vabre champion.

Many readers know him simply as the guy who broke his femur in the Vendée Globe in 2008 and was rescued by the Australian navy near Christmas. Elies has come back from his death-defying southern ocean nightmare to become the first sailor to ever win the Solitaire du Figaro, the world’s most competitive singlehanded race, back-to-back. Overcoming a broken headstay (!) in this year’s race to claim victory in the über-competitive one-design fleet and now winning the Transat Jacques Vabre in his multihull debut… Incredible stuff. Yann Elies- a champion among champions.

Class 40

This article may be a TJV recap, but that’s only because of the massive difference in speed between a 70-foot multihull and a 40-foot monohull. The Class 40’s are just now finishing, with most positions still up for grabs. Leaders since the start, pre-race favorite GDF SUEZ have fought off attack after attack from their pursuers, overcoming the crippling disability of ruining two of their three kites in the doldrums. Bleeding miles to the impressive Spanish duo of Alex Pella and Pablo Santurde on the new Botin-designed Tales Santander 2014 and class stalwart Jorg Reichers and Mare, the lead was whittled down to 50 miles this morning, but Seb Rogues and crew have continued to sail masterfully and should hold on to win the Class 40 fleet by the time that this is posted.

With close to two dozen Class 40’s still on the race course, and over 500 miles of racing for most of them, we’ll recap it when they’re done but for now check out the TJV site and tracker!

-Ronnie Simpson