never say never

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When I was ten years old there was a huge news story in South Africa. A local sailor from my hometown had just won the single-handed transatlantic race from Plymouth, England to Newport in Rhode Island. It was an unbelievable achievement. Bruce Dalling, a quiet spoken, humble man had beaten out 38 other competitors to win the race which back then was called the Observer Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race, or OSTAR. Four years earlier a 32 year-old French naval lieutenant by the name of Eric Tabarly had won the event and was propelled into sailing stardom. So it was no small accomplishment that Dalling had beaten some of the best solo sailors around and to a ten year old kid it was pure juice. It’s a bit  too far back to remember now but I am sure that the seeds of my wanderlust were born on the back of that victory.

Fast forward to 2004 and the twelfth running of the event. Over the previous years the race had become variously known as the CSTAR, Europe 1 STAR, and the Europe 1 New Man STAR as sponsorships came and went, but in 2004 there was a dramatic shift. The race had outgrown the capabilities of the organizers with a slew of professional sailors showing up to compete. Indeed in 2000 the practically unknown Ellen MacArthur had stormed to victory beating the best of the best among them Thomas Coville, Michel Desjoyeaux, Yves Parlier, Mike Golding and Roland Jourdain. It was time for some professional management and Mark Turner and his group at OC Sport took over the event. The race was renamed simply The Transat and the 2004 race attracted the elite solo sailors among them Desjoyeaux who won the multihull division and Mike Golding who won the IMOCA division. Earlier in the race the fleet had been decimated by a severe front that rolled and dismasted Jean-Pierre Dick on Virbac, dismasted Vincent Riou on PRB, and forced Bernard Stamm to abandon his boat Cheminées Poujoulat-Armor Lux following a capsize and subsequent loss of his keel.

To understand the challenge of The Transat you need to know a little bit about the course. The great circle route, the shortest distance between the start and finish, takes the boats slap bang into headwinds. It’s essentially a 3,000 nautical mile hard upwind slog every inch of the way. Rarely do the sailors cop a break and when they do it’s generally unwelcome. Numerous times as the boats have approached the Eastern Seaboard of the US the winds have let up for the leading boat only to have someone from behind keep the breeze and sail on to victory. Such was the case in 1996 although it was not a lack of wind, but too much wind that scuttled an almost certain victory from Francis Joyon. Joyon had defied logic by choosing a very unconventional route. Instead of pounding upwind Joyon had sailed the northern route passing over the top of the depressions that were hammering his adversaries sailing the great circle course. By the time he reached the Grand Banks off Newfoundland Joyon had a 300 mile lead and victory looked certain, but some freak squall knocked him down causing damage which slowed him up. In the end it was Loick Peyron that won claiming his second race victory.

The last time the race was held was in 2008 and as with previous events there was much drama, but then the race was no more. How could such an iconic race that had enjoyed a rich and varied history and one that had made sailing superstars out of some of the winners just cease to exist. For that I turned to Mark Turner, Chairman of OC Sport for an answer after having read that the race will be returning in 2016. Below are Mark’s comments.

The race was never ‘no more’ – unfortunately some IMOCA politics and legal difficulties for the class, combined with the demise of the big multihulls at the time (post ORMA, pre-MOD70, pre-Ultime), meant it wasn’t possible to hold the 2008 edition. IMOCA had got itself in to difficulties with a Turkish operator who had promised the earth (well 7 figure $s) for the Class to commit to his Round Europe Race event, an event profile which personally I had pushed for the Class to support in concept to help internationalize it – but the class signed a legal document committing them to a number of entries in exchange for very good conditions for the entries and the Class’s coffers. This was all prior to the deal I put in place for IMOCA with BWR/FNOB. This Round Europe event was initially due to run in 2007, late European summer – but due to insufficient entries the starting gun was never fired – the Turkish operator himself having contractually committed to his backers a minimum fleet size.

IMOCA however were legally committed to providing a minimum sized fleet in the first instance, and were compelled to offer a new date and chance for the race – which could only be first part of 2008 with the Vendee Globe ‘owning’ very much the second half of the year as normal. We hadn’t signed any binding, or un-cancellable contracts for The Transat 2008 when the issue became a major legal and financial threat for IMOCA – and The Transat 2008 very much depended on IMOCA that year because of an almost total lack of multihull class in the lull between ORMA60s and MOD70/Ultime eras. So we decided to simply not hold that edition of the race, but with always the clear perspective of maintaining the event, the ‘original’ solo ocean event that in particular through Eric Tabarly, kick-started the virtually the entire sailing scene today in France, and ultimately then through the consequences of it, the careers of many of the Anglo-Saxon names in the past 15 years.