The Transat – single-handed ocean racing at its best. Up to 3,500 miles of open water from southwest England to New York City. A challenge dominated by the progression of low pressure systems sweeping across the north Atlantic that produce the headwinds that define this classic race.
To start with the fastest time was in the order of 40 days. Now the world’s top solo sailors in the world’s fastest boats can make the same passage in as little as 8 days. After skipping an edition four years ago, The Transat is back with up to 40 boats in four classes expected on the start line off Plymouth on May 2nd 2016.
What's so tough about The Transat? It's neither the longest nor the most dangerous of the professional solo ocean races yet it still has a fearsome reputation. Why?
So it’s big respect to the winners?
Not just the winners. Anyone who sets out on The Transat should be applauded for their endeavor and courage. And, yes, it’s still one of the great races to win, alongside the Route du Rhum and the Vendee Globe solo round-the-world race for which it is often a useful form guide.
And solo ocean racing is always hard in any case?
Exactly. Any solo race is tough on the skipper and the boat. The Transat used to be considered a long-distance race. Nowadays it is a full-on sprint and to win it, you have to drive both your boat and yourself to the limit. Unlike all of the other east-west transatlantic courses, this one does not promise a warm, downwind second half after a big bash of a start. The Transat can be a grim struggle all the way from Plymouth to New York.
There are other hazards aren’t there?
Ice and fog are the main ones, but there is shipping to look out for as well - fishing boats especially - plus the usual danger of debris in the water. There have been collisions with whales in the past that have damaged yachts. There’s a lot to contend with on The Transat.
But you can go south or north to avoid the worst of the weather can’t you?
You can go north to try to get on top of the depressions tracking east that produce westerly headwinds. But the northerly option can be highly dangerous with bits of ice drifting down from the Arctic and freezing fog south of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia reducing visibility to less than a quarter of a mile. That is not fun when you are so tired you can hardly keep your eyes open. Going south is another option but it can add hundreds of miles to the route and there is always the danger of being trapped in light winds.
That’s because it’s largely to windward isn’t it?
The course is not always bang into wind. That depends on the prevailing weather conditions at the time. But often skippers in The Transat find themselves bashing into big storms and heavy seas, going to windward for hundreds of miles, slamming and crashing their way westwards. The strain on the boats and the men and women in charge of them is immense.
It’s partly the history
There is an aura about the race because it goes right back to the earliest days of solo ocean racing. This was the one on which the likes of Chichester and Tabarly cut their teeth. Early on people thought they would die trying to get to America and since then the race has produced tales of spectacular successes and failures. Today it feels doable but, if the weather turns against you, The Transat can still be hell on a boat.