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Multi 50s, IMOCA 60s and Class40s turn sharply west in the Transat bakerly

Wednesday May 4th 2016, Author: James Boyd, Location: none selected

Two of the fastest racing machines in sailing are currently lighting up the top of the leaderboard in The Transat bakerly as they rampage across the Atlantic just a few miles apart.

After two full days of racing in the 3,050-mile race from Plymouth to New York, the leading pair of Ultimes, MACIF skippered by Francois Gabart and Thomas Coville's Sodebo continue to eat up the miles at average speeds of 30+ knots.

The two giant trimarans have already covered more than 1,100 miles leaving Plymouth on Monday afternoon. But most of that distance has been eaten up making miles south, leaving the DTF to the Big Apple still up around 2,500 miles.

This afternoon the two Ultime leaders were about 30 miles apart about 550 miles WSW of the southern tip of Portugal, with Sodebo technically ahead in terms of DTF by virtue of her more northerly position. Current routing models suggests these two will continue on their present downwind course to the south of the Azores to finish in New York in five days time. This would be well inside of Michel Desjoyeaux and his ORMA 60 Geant's record from the 2004 race on the 200 mile shorter course to Boston.

About 400 miles north of the lead Ultime, the IMOCA 60 frontrunners and the Multi50 trimarans are taking a less extreme course having turning hard to starboard and now heading due west out into the Atlantic. As the Ultimes speed off into the distance, the IMOCA 60 and Multi 50s have a relatively benign time ahead of them until conditions pick up ahead of the next front due on Thursday night, bringing with it 30 knots headwinds - ie 'proper' Transat conditions finally

Jean-Pierre Dick, who is lying in third place in the IMOCA fleet on board St Michel-Virbac, reckons tackling this depression will be critical to the outcome of the race.

“On the weather files, I see a snarling depression arriving in two days,” said Dick. “We'll have to make a crucial choice to bypass these very strong winds (40 knots in the forecast or more). This will be very physical and strategic: the key point of the race."

A little further east, Paul Meilhat on SMA in fourth place, and 135 miles behind leader Vincent Riou on PRB, was assessing the same weather feature. Meilhat had a bad start to the race but is happy with his performance to date, having done little by way of build-up to race because his boat was being completely re-fitted after she was left to drift for three weeks in the Atlantic and ended up partiauly sunk. 

“Since the wind came in, it's been going well,” Meilhat reported. “I have not had a lot of sailing with my boat before the race, so it suits me well. We got up to 30-35 knots at Cape Finisterre with great seas amid all the shipping lanes. Now it’s a case of how to negotiate this Azorean depression: I'll look at what others are doing, but overall, I do not intend to confront 50 knots."

Like the Ultimes, the Multi50 race features a duel for the lead between Lalou Roucayrol on Arkema and Gilles Lamirè on French tech Rennes St Malo who are reaching along at 20 knots but since this afternoon has split with Arkema staying with the IMOCA 60s on a due west heading while her rivals spears off to the southwest on a similar course to the Ultimes.

While they will face the same headwinds as the IMOCAs, more than 400 miles north of them, the third-placed entry in the class, Pierre Antoine on board Olmix is hoping to surf on favourable winds on the northern edge of the same system.

Olmix is the oldest Multi50 in the fleet and is currently the most northerly boat taking part in the race, but her skipper is happy with his choice.

"For now, I only have 15-20 knots from the south-west, but it will build,” he said on the satellite phone earlier today. “It's a little wetter and colder than in the south, but it is an interesting option to be in the north. The boat is going well and the skipper too. It's nice to see that everyone does not follow the same road… We will see how it turns out in the Azores.”

In the Class40 monohulls, meanwhile, the race to the west has begun with all the skippers turning hard-right mid-way across the Bay of Biscay. With nine of the 10 starters still racing Britain’s Phil Sharp on Imerys and Thibaut Vauchel-Camus on Solidaires en Peloton-Arsep are jockeying for the lead.

"Life on board is very good," Vauchel-Camus reported. "It’s a little bit cold and wet, but it’s good. I just gybed west and the boat is going well. Everything onboard is ok, I’ve had no breakages, I feel good and I’m eating well – it’s all okay."

"We’ve had about 20 to 22 knots today, we’ve been sailing very fast downwind with one reef. I really like these conditions."

The pair are only three miles apart in terms of distance to the finish and are heading into lighter winds before conditions ramp up later on Friday.

Earlier Francois Gabart reported from MACIF on his race so far: "I didn't have time to hesitate. I crossed the Channel 50% of the time on one float. The central hull didn't touch the water often! I was able to run her at top speeds, since the wind was fairly regular and there was little swell, even if I constantly had my hands on the sheets." The skipper liked how the race started: "The first single-handed sailing emotions are very strong. It is the first time that I have been alone on the Atlantic, since the Route du Rhum. This is not without significance, particularly when you find yourself on a 30-metre trimaran. You cannot be indifferent".
 Before leaving Plymouth, François Gabart chose to set a southern course: "I knew that I would get as far as Cape Finisterre at least, because the Azores anticyclone was positioned fairly high up. This route allowed me to sail quickly downwind down the Bay of Biscay and to slip under the high pressure area. The northern route, which was quicker, was unthinkable with 40 knots wind speed and 10-metre waves."

Constantly in contact with his shore-based router, Jean-Yves Bernot, Gabart is happy with the tactics. "As I like to anticipate, I do my weather routing from the boat, but it's always comforting to have someone to back me up on shore, giving me all the options. This saves time."
Although the weather conditions favour speed right now, they are still quite difficult, due to the rough seas, which mean that Gabart has to be particularly vigilant and must often helm. "There are a lot of waves. It's a little tricky. You have to stay alert. You spend your time catching up with the waves and then there's a moment when there's one that's a little higher and it stops you in your passage. Yesterday, sailing round Cape Finisterre, there was a lot of wind and waves, so I spend hours steering."

Does he still have time to rest? "Yes, I've managed to sleep well since the start. I have my own organisation between holding the sheets, the alarms and always keeping an eye open. You need to stay clear-headed on this kind of boat. You cannot allow yourself to lose sleep. So it's essential to find the time to rest, by taking successive naps. On average, I sleep between 3 and 5 hours per 24-hour stretch."

The same requirements are also true for food, which must not be neglected, particularly when consuming so much energy in manoeuvres. This is the case for the skipper, who was gybing for the seventh time since the Bay of Biscay, on Wednesday morning. "Gybing takes a long time, is tiresome and occupies you. You turn cranks for 20 minutes and this cannot be reduced. You consume a lot of energy, so it's vital to eat properly."

Since the start, Gabart and Thomas Coville have been at close quarters, following more or less the same course, so that MACIF's skipper was practically able to follow his contender on the AIS all night. "Being at such close quarters after two days of racing is remarkable. Having Thomas so close to the MACIF trimaran naturally encourages me to push harder. You don't want do ease up. The race also drives you to surpass yourself and find solutions to win the odd knot here and there. Thanks to the rankings and occasionally the AIS, I immediately know makes the boat perform better. It's a great way to make progress."

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