the rundown on the route

The Route du Rhum starts this weekend, Sunday to be exact at 13:02 local time. It will quite probably be the greatest sailboat race ever. Let’s just start with the simple facts; 133 sailors will race solo from St. Malo in France to Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, a distance (if you follow the great circle route which no one ever can) of 3,543 nautical miles. That, by any measure, is a long way and a large fleet, but to add to it all, the world’s best solo offshore sailors will be competing. And I mean the world’s best.

There are six classes. At first glance, one would think that the Class 40’s with 53 boats competing would be the ones to watch, and they will be, but I hardly recognize any of the competitors with the exception of my old mate from a very long time ago, Donald Alexander from South Africa. There are 43 French people competing and one American, Greg Leonard from Texas. There is one person of color, Keni Piperol from Guadeloupe. It’s going to be a giant battle.

Speaking of giants. In the Ultime class, those multihulls of a hundred feet in length or longer, there are seven sailed by some real legends. Let’s start with François Gabart who holds the record for the fastest solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the world, an incredible 42 days to lap the planet. Then there is the mighty Armel Le Cleach who won the ’16/17 Vendee Globe. There is not enough room here to list the rest but you can’t forget Thomas Coville who has done, I think, eight circumnavigations. There was a time when a single circumnavigation was considered a major feat.

There is the Ocean 50 class for 50-foot multihulls, and the Rhum Mono for boats above 39 feet that don’t fit into the mainstream classes and then there’s this class that I love; the Rhum Multi for multihulls less than 64 feet. The reason I love this class is because of the sailing legends that are competing in it. Such legends like Roland Jourdain who has won the Route du Rhum twice and finished third in the Vendee Globe and the great Philippe Poupon who also finished third in the Vendee Globe. I knew him from the ‘81/82 Whitbread Round-the-World Race where we raced against each other. I must admit to being a bit shocked to see that Philippe is now 68 years old; until I realized that I am not that far behind him.

Then there is Halvard Mabire who has sailed more than 450,000 offshore miles. He once sat at my dining room table having dinner and it was a great privilege.

I love this class because it’s made up of the old legends who just won’t quit. Their prime days have come and gone but they still keep on trucking. They can’t manage an Ultime multihull (who can?) or a new IMOCA 60 (who can”) but they are still out there getting the job done.

Speaking of IMOCA 60’s. There are 37 skippers competing, most of them newcomers, but some of them old faces like Sam Davies, my friends Boris Herrmann, Conrad Coleman, and the lovely Pip Hare who has a brand new boat. I so love the diversity of males and females in this class. The IMOCA fleet has blown the world of sailing innovation away with massive sail area and foils that make them fly and that’s just the start of it. They are truly at the cutting edge and it’s going to be an awesome race to see who will come out on top.

The Route du Rhum is not the toughest of races (easy for me to say because I have never done it). Getting out of St Malo can be a challenge and most definitely crossing the Bay of Biscay can be risky. Early winter cold fronts can wreak havoc, but once past Cape Finisterre you can pick up the Trade Winds that will slingshot you across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. Still, the 133 sailors doing the race will have to deal with each and every sail maneuver alone and deal with being alone riding the razor edge between fun and catastrophe.

Update – I take back about the Route du Rhum not being the toughest of races. The first 48 hours is going to be a bloodbath with gale-force winds forecast for the Bay of Biscay and wouldn’t you know it, the wind is going to be right on the nose. Dead upwind in 6-meter seas. Ouch. – Brian Hancock.