The History of the Transat

  • 1960
  • 1964
  • 1968
  • 1972
  • 1976
  • 1980
  • 1984
  • 1988
  • 1992
  • 1996
  • 2000
  • 2004
  • 2008
  • 2016

The North Atlantic Alone - "One man, one boat, the ocean"

The Transat is the heir of the oldest singlehanded transatlantic race, the OSTAR, which shaped modern offshore racing. A 2,800 mile North Atlantic course renowned for wild depressions, icebergs and freezing fog. The last 12 editions of the race, held once every four years since 1960, have produced a rich history of triumph over adversity that has accumulated in record-breaking results. The first race was competed by just a handful of pioneering sailors including Francis Chichester and Blondie Hasler who coined the phrase: "One man, one boat, the ocean".

There has been tragedy, dramatic rescues and exceptional drama since the race began. Over time The Transat, as it is known today, has evolved and now serves the professional end of offshore sailing. But there are few modern day races that can reflect on such a long and outstanding history. The next edition of The Transat is planned for May 2016.

THE START OF IT ALL… Fifty declarations of intent were received by the organisers but in the end only five boats crossed the start line off Plymouth, and remarkably all five reached New York on the other side of the North Atlantic. Self-steering gear was in its most basic homemade form, roller-reefing sails were just a dream and there were no satellite navigation systems, just hand-held compasses and sextants. These five pioneer yachtsmen took very different options, with Blondie Hasler (Jester, 25ft) opting for an extreme Northern route, Francis Chichester (Gipsy Moth III, 40ft) and David Lewis (Cardinal Vertue, 25ft) on the Great Circle route and Val Howells (Eira, 25ft) and Jean Lacombe (Cap Horn, 21.5ft) on the Azores route. Little was heard from the competitors during the race and fears grew for their safety but, finally, Chichester arrived in New York after 40 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes. "Every time I tried to point Gypsy Moth at New York, the wind blew dead on the nose," said Chichester. "It was like trying to reach a doorway with a man in it aiming a hose at you." Jean Lacome was the final skipper to arrive after 74 days!

A LEGEND IS BORN... The second OSTAR in 1964 was the launch pad for one of the most influential figures in the history of single-handed sailing. In 1960 Francis Chichester had managed the North Atlantic crossing in 40 days, then 32 year-old French naval lieutenant Eric Tabarly won the 1964 race in just 27 days aboard his 44-ft ketch Pen Duick II. Tabarly, the only Frenchman in the race, was the favourite with the advantage of sailing the largest boat and the only one purpose built for the race. Arriving at the finish in Newport, Rhode Island, he had no prior knowledge of his win - he had not used his radio during the race - and, almost as a passing comment, let slip that his self-steering system had only worked for the first 8 days out of the 27 days it took him to complete the course.

Tabarly became an overnight hero in France and was presented with his country's highest honour, the Legion d'Honneur by President de Gaulle.

THE INVENTION OF ROUTING... The race became truly international with a total of 35 competitors from as far afield as Sweden, Germany, USA and South Africa to add to the usual French and British entries. During this edition, the North Atlantic was swept by a massive depression bringing with it 60 knot storm-force winds. Many competitors hoved to, dropping all but a storm jib to sit out the storm. Only one competitor made a significant gain by taking advantage of the rules, which had not outlawed weather routing at that time. Geoffrey Williams racing the monohull Sir Thomas Lipton was the first to use weather routing; via a hefty high-frequency radio, he would communicate with meteorologists at Bracknell. Warned of the storm, Williams sailed further north missing the brunt of it and gained an estimated 300 miles over his competitors. He went on to win the race but weather routing was banned from subsequent races. In this edition of the race, there were no fewer than 13 multihulls including the 65ft 'monster' (Pen Duick III) entered by Eric Tabarly. But his trimaran lacked preparation and was forced to retire. But this edition was a sign of a new era to come.

THE MULTIHULL AGE… Fifty-five boats qualified for the fourth edition of the race. Eric Tabarly had sold his Pen Duick IV trimaran to Alain Colas, another icon of early French solo sailors, and it had been extensively worked on. In contrast to the previous race, the North Atlantic only threw up one brief gale and it was perhaps due to the light conditions and skill of her skipper that Colas was able to steer the 67ft trimaran across the finish line first in the remarkable time of 20 days and 13 hours – 5 days faster than Geoffrey Williams in the last race.

With Colas’ victory and other multihulls taking 3rd, 5th and 6th places, the future of ocean-going racing multihulls was sealed. This edition of the race also saw the first female sailor to finish the course - Marie-Claude Fauroux (Aloa VII) finished in 14th place after 33 days.

CONTROVERSY AND TRAGEDY… Even before the start, the storm was brewing. Controversy exploded around the entry of Alain Colas’ gigantic monohull Club Méditerranée that measured in at 236ft. Few believed that a boat this size could be sailed safely by one man, and many saw the race as getting out of control. A total of 125 boats started the race, over-shadowed by sadness at the death of Mike McMullen’s wife who accidentally electrocuted herself as she was helping Mike prepare the boat. Sadly, McMullen and his boat disappeared during the race. Five low pressure systems followed each other across the course, relentlessly generating an average wind speed of 35 knots and a raging, chaotic sea for over a week. The fleet was decimated and another skipper Mike Flanagan was also lost at sea. Only 73 of the 125 started finished the race within the time limit. Eric Tabarly’s 73ft ketch Pen Duick VI won the race; although another amazing performance came from Canadian Mike Birth on his tiny 31ft trimaran, who was awarded 2nd place.

TRIUMPH OF THE MULTIHULLS… The organisers had imposed a restriction on length (56ft) and on the number of entries (110) following the 1976 edition. Ninety competitors started the race but there was a noticeable absence of French skippers who objected to the new rules. What was most noticeable about this race was that at the finish, the top 5 slots were filled by multihulls. Not only that it was the ‘Multihull American School’ of sailors that emerged victorious; not least the Corinthian entry of Phil Weld who finished in 17 days and 23 hours, plus Phil Stegall and Walter Green . The wind conditions were ideal for multihulls and the fleet relished the conditions.

Seventy-two boats finished and the course record dropped by another six days in one go – it was fast approaching the two-week barrier.

THE FRENCH COMEBACK…. Ninety-one boats started and in the early stages two French catamarans dominated until they were forced to retire through hull and mast damage. But it was the capsizing of Philippe Jeantot (Credit Agricole) mid-Atlantic that was the talk of the town, which went on to pose a problem at the finish. Philippe Poupon (Fleury Michon) was first to finish in Newport in 16 days, 11 hours and 55 minutes, but Yvon Fauconnier (Umupro Jardin) was declared the winner for standing by Jeantot for 16 hours. That time was deducted from his overall finish time, beating Poupon by just over five hours. Poupon heard the news during the middle of his ‘victory’ press conference and broke down in tears.

Out of the top 10 finishers only two skippers were not French and only the 10th placed boat was not a multihull. All the top 10 skippers had completed the course in under 17 days. The race was fast becoming a transatlantic sprint.

THE RECORD TIME… With 95 entries, the trend was towards onboard electronics, weather files and automatic pilots. It was no longer enough for the solo sailor to be an excellent mariner and a tough racer, he also had to be a computer wizard. 1988 proved to be record breaking as the evolution in multihull design was taking place at a phenomenal rate. Philippe Poupon’s (Fleury Michon) demonstration was exemplary with exceptional conditions on the Atlantic allowing the Frenchman to virtually sail the direct route the whole way. Poupon set a stunning new record of 10 days, 9 hours and 15 minutes at an average speed of 11 knots.

One of the more exceptional stories occurred during this race, when a pod of 50-60 whales surrounded the boat of David Sellings for three days and then finally attacked, holing the boat. Sellings only had time to grab a few belongings and launch his liferaft before his boat sank.

MONOHULLS MOVE BACK INTO THE GAME… The OSTAR became the Europe 1 New Man Star, with three classes and a total of 67 boats. The title holder Poupon lined up against the likes of Loick Peyron, Florence Athaud, Paul Vatine, Philippe Monnet, Francis Joyon and Laurent Bourgnon, to name a few.

During the first week nothing was really defined in terms of leadership, but the Swiss skipper Laurent Bourgnon who managed to take the lead, breaks his mainsail traveller, Florence Arthaud capsizes and Poupon retires. Loick Peyron played it safe at first then moved into turbo mode to eventually cross the line with a 24-hour lead over Paul Vatine. Lying 6th overall behind five trimarans, Yves Parlier on his new Finot-designed IMOCA 60 monohull crossed the Atlantic in 14 days and 16 hours. The French skipper set a new monohull course record that stood for 12 years.

A DOUBLE FOR PEYRON… By now multihulls no longer hit the headlines and this edition turned into a French battle, at least for overall victory. The IMOCA 60 monohulls were mainly absent as to concentrate on the Vendée Globe and the amateurs took advantage to come back in force in the smaller classes, while observers knew that the podium would be a contest between Peryon, Bourgnon, Vatine and Joyon. But it was the latter who created the biggest surprise by choosing a route not used by anyone since Blondie Hasler in 1960, the Northern route. Joyon went far to the North passing over the top of the centres of the depressions that were slowing his adversaries on the direct route. He had more than a 300-mile lead by the time he had reached the Newfoundland Banks and nothing seemed capable of stopping him from breaking the record. But fate dealt him a cruel blow when unstable breezes knocked him down just over 400 miles from the finish. A similar fate befell Laurent Bourgnon. Loick Peyron was able to savour a second successive victory, with a time very close to Poupon’s 1998 record.

BATTLE OF THE MONOHULLS… While seven 60ft trimarans engaged in this race, the more remarkable fleet was that of the IMOCA 60S of which a phenomenal 24 were entered. The reason for this incredible growth was because many were using the event as both a shakedown and qualifier for the up and coming Vendée Globe. In the end the race produced two surprise winners. First trimaran was Francis Joyon’s Eure et Loir – at the start he was ranked least favourite, having just scraped together enough sponsorship to charter his old boat back, and had to prepare the boat himself surrounding by much better-funded campaigns. In the IMOCA 60 fleet, picking a pre-race favourite was much harder with the likes of Thomas Coville, Michel Desjoyeaux, Yves Parlier, Mike Golding and Roland Jourdain lining up on the start line. Who would win? In the event it was none of them but a young 23-year-old English girl, Ellen MacArthur. MacArthur made her race-winning move on day nine when she spotted a lull in the weather ahead and took an unfavourable tack to the north, neatly side-stepping it and putting 75 miles on her competition that she held until the finish.

HIGH SPEEDS, HIGH RISKS… Run as a race for professional solo sailors only under the management of OC Sport and simply named THE TRANSAT, the race’s evolution continued alongside the traditional OSTAR for Corinthian, non-pro sailors, held in the following year organised by the Royal Western Yacht Club. The Transat had a total of 40 entries both multihulls and IMOCA 60 monohulls and 50ft monohulls, with an unprecedented level of offshore racing talent that assured an intense competition. On day four of the race, Michel Desjoyeaux (Geant) led the ORMA multihull fleet, as a close battle amongst the leading IMOCA 60S continued between Jean-Pierre Dick’s Virbac, Mike Golding’s Ecover (who had repaired his canting keel electronics failure from the first night that nearly scuppered his race) and Mike Sanderson on Pindar Alphagraphics. However, the North Atlantic drama reached epic proportions a week into the race, triggering a series of extraordinary rescue operations in a matter of hours. Jean-Pierre Dick was rolled 360 degrees and dismasted in 50-knot winds; Vincent Riou’s PRB lost her rig; and Bernard Stamm was forced to abandon his IMOCA 60 Cheminées Poujoulat-Armor Lux following total keel loss and inversion. At the finish line in Boston, Michael Desjoyeaux on his ORMA trimaran finished just 3 hours ahead of Thomas Coville after 8 days at sea. Meanwhile, at the head of the IMOCA 60 fleet Mike Golding gained the upperhand taking first place in Boston after 12 days, also 3 hours ahead of Dominique Wavre.

A DRAMATIC RESCUE AND A NEW COURSE RECORD… The 2008 edition of the oldest solo ocean race in the world, The Artemis Transat, saw 13 IMOCA skippers and 10 Class 40 skippers race at relentless pace across the North Atlantic from Plymouth to Boston, a 2,800 mile course renowned for wild depressions, icebergs and freezing fog. Three world-class skippers failed to make the finish and IMOCA 60 skipper Vincent Riou was forced to abandon his multi-million pound yacht mid-Atlantic in his quest to reach the USA first. The IMOCA 60 fleet was peppered by the best in class including the ‘old guard’ of Loick Peyron, Michel Desjoyeaux, Vincent Riou and Marc Guillemot, challenged by the ‘new guard’ of Seb Josse, Yann Elies, Armel le Cleac’h and Samantha Davies. Despite the challenges this was the fastest edition of the race in its forty-eight year history and from day one the monohull record set by Britain’s Mike Golding on Ecover in 2004 was under threat. It was Loick Peyron who took the finish line first in a new record time of 12 days, 11 hours and 45 minutes - around four weeks shorter than the original time taken by Sir Francis Chichester in 1960.

THE ICONIC SEAFARING CITY OF PLYMOUTH (UK), known as Britain's Ocean City, will host the start of the next edition of The Transat in 2016, ensuring that The Transat, the successor for professional sailors to the original solo race across the North Atlantic that was born as the OSTAR in 1960, will start from its historic 'home' of Plymouth on Monday, 2nd May 2016.

The 14th edition of this historic quadrennial will attract many of the world's leading solo sailors but will also showcase the latest and most innovative ocean racing machines on the planet. 2008 winner and monohull record holder, French sailing legend Loick Peyron commented: "Aptly named 'The Transat', I have had the chance to line up five times for this legendary adventure, and won three times. So you can understand why this is my favourite race! I love its course, its history and now its future."

The 2,800-mile race across the North Atlantic is renowned for wild storms and tough upwind conditions, icebergs and freezing fog in the final part, can take between 8-19 days for all the boats to finish. Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first person to sail solo, non-stop around the world non-stop between 1968-1969 commented: "It is very good news to see this race continuing its long tradition as the most challenging of the solo transatlantic races."

Read the full Press Release from OC Sport here in English or French.

The OSTAR (Observer Singlehanded Trans-Atlantic Race) was created in 1960 by a handful of pioneering sailors. The race was organised every four years by the Royal Western Yacht Club (RWYC) from 1960 through to the 2000 event, albeit with a lot of involvement from the French event organiser Pen Duick, in order to cater for the demands of the professional campaigns that dominated the event. After the 2000 edition with the future of the event in doubt due to the withdrawal of sponsors and then Pen Duick, OC Sport acquired the rights to the professional part of the event for boats 50 foot and bigger. OC renamed it THE TRANSAT in 2004, and with Artemis as Title Partner in 2008, focusing in that year on the IMOCA 60 Class, the boats that compete in the Vendée Globe in the same year. The 2012 edition was deferred at the request of IMOCA due to some commercial complications for them with another event organiser. The next edition of THE TRANSAT is planned for May 2016 in its normal pre-Vendée Globe slot, although not necessarily restricted to just the IMOCA Class at this stage. The RWYC continues to organise a solo transatlantic race for Corinthian and non-professional sailors that is still known as the (O)STAR, and that is restricted to boats of up to 50 foot only. This race usually falls a year after the professional big boat race ie 2005, 2009 and the next edition of the OSTAR starts Monday, 27th April 2013. Both the amateur Yacht Club event and The Transat have the right to link to the history of the original race created in 1960.