The Imoca and the Class40: One favourite to beat and a tough top ten
With eyes and time narrowing to the start of the 13th edition of the Transat Jacques Vabre at 13:35 (French time) on Sunday, November 5, and winds of 40 knots waiting for them a couple of days after, we take a look at the two monohull classes in the Bassin Paul Vatine in Le Havre: the 60ft Imoca and the most open and varied, the irrepressible Class40. See the Ultime and Multi 50 analysis here
Imoca: 6 contenders, 5 foilers, 4 latest generation, 1 big favourite
There are few more relaxed skippers at the start of a Transat Jacques Vabre than Jean-Pierre Dick. The tall sailor from Nice is a top soloist, but an even more formidable double-handed specialist. No one in the history of the class can match his three victories in the Transat Jacques Vabre (2003, 2005 and 2011). He has the boat – the latest generation foiling St Michel –Virbac and the co-skipper – Yann Eliès – to match. “We have done our homework properly, we are ready,” Dick said, with a matter-of-fact calm ominous for those that would challenge them.
Along the Quai de la Réunion, where the 13 Imoca are moored, lie the other latest generation foiling boats launched in 2015: Bureau Vallée, Des Voiles et Vous, Malizia II. Initiatives-Cœur, is the old Maître CoQ, a 2010 boat with foils added by Jérémie Beyou for the Vendée Globe 2016, but Tanguy de Lamotte and Britain’s Sam Davis are a team that are as formidable – having finished 5th in the Transat Jacques Vavre 2015 in a much less capable boat – as they are likeable. It is that team factor that makes SMA, the former Macif that won the 2012-13 Vendée Globe, real challengers. If it is not a long downwind drag to Salvador, Paul Meilhat and co-skipper Gwénolé Gahinet will be in the mix.
illustration media for St Michel – Virbac, skippers Jean-Pierre Dick and Yann Elies, during pre-start of the Transat Jacques Vabre 2017, duo sailing race from Le Havre (FRA) to Salvador de Bahia (BRA) in Le Havre on October 28th, 2017 – Photo Jean Louis Carli / ALeA / TJV17
Eliès, who finished 3rd in 2015, does not hesitate in naming SMA as their biggest rival, and perhaps pointedly names no one else. “I think SMA is the best,” he said. “We’ve done five training sessions together (in Port le Forêt), so we know them very well. It’s an older boat, yes, but…They are faster than us upwind by nearly one knot and 10 degrees higher and they go faster than us downwind in light wind, because they are lighter and have nearly a metre more mast. But in reaching, yes, there is no game. We’re the same at 15 knots of wind, but after 20 knots of wind we are faster by two, three sometimes four knots.”
Dick, forced to abandon with structural problems in 2015, casts his eye a little, but not much, wider: “Des Voiles et Vous and SMA and (after a little pause) Malizia.” Meilhat demurs modestly, saying, truthfully that their three victories in major French races this season were over much shorter distances and in conditions that favoured them, but both young skippers are impressive and on the rise.
Louis Burton and Servane Escoffier’s Bureau Vallée 2, is probably the fastest in the fleet, being the old Banque Populaire VIII that won the 2016-17 Vendée Globe, but the partners, a couple on land as well as at sea, are still learning to control their new Imoca. Boris Herrmann, the German skipper of Malizia II, is in a similar position having acquired the former Edmond de Rothschild. Des Voiles et Vous, formerly Safran, has the same skipper, Morgan Lagravière, but joined by Eric Peron they are new team.
Behind these six there should be race-within-a-race between five older generation boats from 2007: La Mie Câline – Artipôle, Bastide Otio, La Fabrique, Newrest-Brioche Pasquier and perhaps Generali, Eliès’s old boat that finished 5th in the last Vendée Globe. Concluding the fleet are Vivo a Beira (2004), privately funded by Pierre Lacaze, a banker living the dream and Famille Mary – Etamine du Lys, easily the oldest in the class (1998).
The Class40: Five contenders, but which five?
All the Quai des Antilles – where the Class 40s are moored – agrees there are probably five boats that can win it, but few seem to agree on which five.
The Class40 is the largest (16 boats) and definitely most competitive and international fleet with no clear favourites and a host of powerful pretenders to the throne.
With the newest, more powerful boats not tamed or proven, Britain’s Phil Sharp (Imerys Clean Energy), the clear leader of the Class40 championship this season, is one name on everybody’s lips. Last year, he somehow got the boat into New York in third place in the Transat Bakerly after last-minute flights to America to get his Visa in person, a 6-hour penalty caused by missing the safety briefing, a detached forestay and the watching his mainsail being ripped in half in the final stages. He had only taken charge of it three weeks before the race and was still working on it until 03:00 on the morning of the start.
Now the boat – the former GDF Suez that won the Transat Jacques Vabre in 2013 – is an optimised stallion and Sharp has the experienced Pablo Santurde, Alex Pella’s former teammate, with him. “I don’t really see the point of entering a race unless there’s a good chance of winning the race,” Sharp said. “This year we’ve been able to get the boat properly prepared. We developed and optimised the boat and most importantly got the racing miles under the belt.”
A confident Sharp picks out just three boats: “Aïna, a brand new Mach 40 (designed) evolution of this boat. It’s not only a good boat but they are both competent skippers with a lot of ocean racing experience. Also V and B are going to be right up there as well, they’ve done a lot of racing together and the boat is very fast. They’re both faster boats than us in reaching conditions. Then there’s a brand new boat, Carac, which is a beast in strong winds, but with very good and experienced sailors on board – you can push that boat hard in strong winds and it will eat up the miles.”
Class 40 Carac, skippers Louis Duc and Alexis Loison, training for Transat Jacques Vabre sailing race in duo, from Le Havre (FR) to Salvador de Bahia (BRA), on October 3rd, 2017 – Photo Christophe Breschi / CARAC
Maxime Sorrel was second on V and B in 2015 and is joined this time by the experienced Antoine Carpentier this time. Louis Duc was third in 2015 on the old Carac and has only had a couple of months with Alexis Loison (making his debut, but with 10 years on the Figaro under his belt) to get to grips with his round bowed beast. Aïna’s Aymeric Chappellier and Arthur Le Vaillant are also used to vying at the front and have the radical powerful design to keep doing that.
Then come several serious outsiders like Sidney Gavignet and Fahad Al Hasni (Oman Sail) and Bertrand Delesne and Justine Mettraux (Teamwork 40). “I think nine boats can win,” Gavignet said. “If we finish in the top 6 we’ll have done a good job. There are three or four faster – but if everything goes well this boat can win.”
And we cannot talk of the Class40 podium without mentioning Halvard Mabire and his partner on land and sea, Mirand Merron, who have more miles sailing together under their belts than most of the others teams put together and “more than we can count,” Mabire, the 60-year-old president of the Class40, said. “The level is incredible, ten crews could win. But at my age, if I win is that there is something wrong.” But Campagne de France was launched in 2016 and they are not used to just making up the numbers, lying second in the Class40 championship this season. Britain’s Merron is the only previous TJV winner racing – on the 50 foot Pindar, alongside Emma Richards in 1999.
Two other duos to look out for are Olivier Cardin and Cédric Château (Région Normandie Junior Senior by Evernex) and Tom Laperche and Chrisophe Brachmann (Le Lion d’Or).
Servane Escoffier, co-skipper of Bureau Vallée (Imoca)
“We’re still in a learning phase, we’ve not really faced competition. There were a lot of things to digest about the boat. At first, we were riding with stabilisers. It’s a lot of work. The boat has crazy potential, but the tenths of knots – you have to go and get them.”
Louis Duc, skipper, Carac (Class40)
“V and B and Aïna are the two rivals when we’re reaching and maybe Campagne de France. I think until Monday afternoon all the boats can be good because you have a lot of work with the current and light winds. When we’re tacking all the boats will be competitive, and after we have strong wind – 40 knots – and reaching and that will be good for us.”
Phil Sharp, skipper, Imerys Clean Energy, (Class40)
“Small mistakes can be very costly because this fleet is very tight at the front. On the last day of the Quebec-St Malo, having raced all the way across the Atlantic, we could see five other boats around us, all within 4 miles of each other – after racing 3,500 miles. That’s enormously stressful, you’ve got everything to lose.”
Paul Meilhat, skipper, SMA (Imoca)
“I think it’s so funny because we have 6 or 7 year-old boat and with straight daggerboards, no foils, so I don’t think SMA is one of the fastest boats in the dock. But we’ve worked hard, optimised the boat and changed the water ballast, with the new rules, so it’s a little faster reaching, maybe a half or one knot. So, maybe we have a chance. We won three races, but they were coastal in light winds. It’s not the same, it’s not a Transat. Also, the boats are really fast but the skippers have just taken over, so they’ll improve during the Transat and maybe be really fast at the end.”