Phil Sharp: To hell and back in The Transat bakerly

I feel in some ways that I’ve been to hell and back, but I’m a better person for it.

21.05.2016

“The race was always going to be tough, but I didn’t know it was going to be that tough,”

For some of the big multihull skippers The Transat bakerly was a most unusual race. Far from being a boat-breaking uphill test against storm force headwinds in the north Atlantic, they enjoyed a downwind romp more typical of races from Europe to the Caribbean.

But for others in the 24-strong fleet, the race lived up to its reputation as among the toughest in the professional calendar – a remorseless battle for boat and sailor against often horrendous sea conditions for days on end.

In the second category were most definitely the Class40s, the slowest boats in the fleet – not that they are slow in comparison to most ordinary cruising yachts. But the Class40s had no choice but to face the weather head-on, on the direct route from Plymouth to New York. For these skippers the option of heading into the deep-south was simply not available.

Britain’s Phil Sharp took on that challenge and sailed a remarkable race. A talented and proven trans-ocean racer who won the Route du Rhum in the class in 2006 - he was very late in his preparation for The Transat bakerly, stepping on Imerys for the first time only three weeks before the start.

Four days before the fleet set sail, Sharp missed one of the last major skipper’s briefings by race management because he had to travel from Plymouth to London to pick up his American visa in person. It was a last minute inconvenience that would have a big impact on his race.

Despite being rushed, Sharp set out to win The Transat bakerly and for much of the passage to Manhattan he was either leading or disputing the lead with the eventual winner Thibaut Vauchel-Camus on SoIidaires en Peloton-Arsep or Isabelle Joschke on Generali-Horizon Mixite, who eventually retired when her boat started taking on water.

Sharp pushed Imerys to the limits as he tackled the first big storm of the race and then subsequent depressions in the north-western Atlantic. Early in the race he paid for his absence at the skipper’s briefing when he failed to comply with race rules forbidding competitors to sail through the Traffic Separation Scheme off Ushant. But even a subsequent mid-race six-hour stop-go penalty did not stop him fighting back to the front.

In the end, however, the battle of attrition with the Atlantic and the relentless pace took its toll on Imerys and began to compromise Sharp’s performance. In addition to numerous minor gear failures, he had water coming in on a daily basis and spent hours bailing; he had charging issues; his forestay detached itself from the deck and then, in the final stages, his mainsail ripped in half, reducing it – as he put it – to little more than a flag.

He may have lost the battle for overall honours in the class but Sharp arrived in New York today the proud third-placed skipper on the Class40 podium behind Vauchel-Camus and second-placed Louis Duc on Carac. Sharp reached the finish off Sandy Hook one day, 11 hours and 48 minutes behind Vauchel-Camus. He had been at sea for 19 days and 31 minutes and had sailed a total of 3,798 nautical miles at an average speed of 8.32 knots.

On the dock he reflected on a tenacious performance and an experience that, he said, had changed him. “The race was always going to be tough, but I didn’t know it was going to be that tough,” he said. “The Transat has a history of extreme weather conditions, but we went through the worst conditions I’ve ever experienced and I think the Class40 fleet got hit the worst.

“The boat was quite new to me. I didn’t have long to prepare and I always knew it was going to be tough and I would have some issues, but I wasn’t expecting to have quite so many issues. I had a lot of problems with the sails and the weather out there was absolutely relentless. We got a hammering.

“I’m just so happy to be here in New York. There were a lot of things trying to stop us getting here, and even after the mainsail exploded I had power issues and the forestay became detached, so there was quite a lot going on to stop me. The fact I’m standing here right now and I’m on the podium, I’m very happy about indeed. It’s a good as result as I could have ever expected given the preparation time I had.”

Sharp added: “I feel in some ways that I’ve been to hell and back, but I’m a better person for it. It was a crazy race, but amazing and it’s made it that much more special to be standing here in New York.”

With the podium in Class40s now complete, there are still four of the original 10 starters in the class out at sea. The next finisher will be either Edouard Golbery on Region Normandie who is currently just over 100 miles from New York in fourth place or Robin Marais on Esprit Scout who is less than 10 miles behind him in fifth.

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