The Transat Bakerly started this afternoon from Plymouth on the south coast of England. A cold rain and building breeze greeted the 25 sailors as they docked out and made their way to the start area off Plymouth Hoe, the same place where Sir Francis Drake played his famous game of bowls in 1588 while waiting for the tide to change before sailing out with the English fleet to engage with the Spanish Armada. While Drake may have been facing a life or death situation, the Transat sailors are facing their own kind of hell. The Transat is a 3,000 mile upwind slog in early spring across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City. There is nothing easy about this race and that is perhaps the reason why it has become so legendary.
The race was conceived, as these things often are, in a bar and as a bet and over the course of almost five decades has grown to become the Granddaddy of all offshore ocean races. Originally named the OSTAR (Observer Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race) the race has been held every four years (or so) and has attracted some of the best sailors in the world. It was the legendary Eric Tabarly that first put the OSTAR on the map. Francis Chichester won the first race, but Tabarly showed up for the second one on his boat, Pen Duick II, which was the biggest boat in the fleet and was sleek and light weight when compared to the other entries. He knocked two weeks of Chichester’s time and went on to win the race a number of times. For this year’s edition the French sailor Loïck Peyron is sailing the same Pen Duick II in a voyage of commemoration and to honor Tabarly. In a pre-race press conference Peyron said that he wanted to “feel the race just as Tabarly had done almost 50 years ago”. He will be navigating with a sextant and (presumably) eating canned food.
In 1976 Alain Colas showed up with a gigantic monohull, Club Méditerranée, which measured in at a whopping 236 feet. People thought that it was impossible for a single person to sail such a large boat, but Colas made it all the way. This kind of incredulous thinking is mirrored in this years event as three massive trimarans are taking part; Macif skippered by Vendée Globe winner François Gabart, Sodebo skippered by Thomas Coville and Yves le Blevec aboard Team Actual, in the Ultime Class, a division for multihulls in the 100-foot range. At the press conference Gabart spoke about sailing his boat across the Atlantic “at average speeds of 35 knots” as if he was just going out for day sail aboard a mirror dinghy.
The most interesting race will be among the six skippers competing in the IMOCA 60 division. The most interesting because these boats are brand new state-of-the-art Open 60’s designed and tuned up for the upcoming Vendée Globe. Most are tricked out with the new lifting foils and each skipper, including previous Vendée winner Vincent Riou, will be looking to gain a psychological edge before the big race later this fall. The IMOCA fleet my be the most interesting, but the most competitive will be among the ten Class 40’s which includes two women, Anna-maria Renken from Germany and Isabelle Joschke from France.
The forecast is pretty much what you would expect for this time of year. The front that brought the rain for the start will pass though leaving a sloppy seaway for the boats overnight, but the real fun will start on Wednesday when the boats will encounter gusts reaching 40-45 knots and the sea will be “rough and disordered,” according to The Transat website. Rough and disordered and sailing into it on a 100-foot trimaran at 30-something knots. Not sure about that but it’s one of the reasons this particular race has captured the imagination of sailors for almost five decades. If all goes well the first boats will be hitting US soil in ten days or so with the fleet tying up in the brand new ONEº15 Booklyn Marina in the shadow of the Manhattan skyline. – Brian Hancock.