Where it all began
The Transat began life when a handful of British sailors made a bet to see if they could sail across the Atlantic to America single-handed and who could do it the fastest. Among them were Sir Francis Chichester and Blondie Hasler. When they came up with their plan, it was at first ridiculed and criticised as foolhardy. The whole idea of a single-handed yacht race was revolutionary and almost unheard of at the time. But they didn’t care, they were men on a mission.
Hasler sought sponsorship for the race, but by 1959, no one had been prepared to back him (and his mad idea). Finally, The Observer newspaper stepped in, and in 1960, under the management of the Royal Western Yacht Club of England, the Observer Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race, or OSTAR, was born.
Amazingly, 115 people expressed an interest in taking part, 50 declarations of intent were received, eight boats entered but only five intrepid sailors crossed the start line off Plymouth.
Back then there were no satellite navigation systems, just hand-held compasses and sextants. Without the technology that we have nowadays, little was heard from the competitors during the race and fears grew for their safety. But, finally, Chichester was the first to arrive in New York after 40 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes at sea. “Every time I tried to point Gipsy 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 last to get to the Big Apple after 74 days.
The 1960 edition of the race was the only edition without multihulls and also the only edition (until now) to go from Plymouth to New York.
A Legend is born
The 1964 edition of the race was the launch pad for one of the most influential figures in sailing: Eric Tabarly. While Chichester won the first OSTAR in 40 days, Tabarly came along and won the second in an unbelievable time of just 27 days, 3 hours and 56 minutes aboard Pen Duick II.
Tabarly did not even realise he had won at the finish - he had not used his radio during the race - and, almost in passing, let it slip that his self-steering system had only worked for the first eight days. Tabarly’s success was instrumental in popularising the sport in France, the country that in future years would come to dominate solo sailing and The Transat.
Here’s a great moment from that race, reported in the press on 3rd June 1964. The quote is from Mike Ellison, skipper of Ilala. “I have started a series of daily radio contacts with David Lewis on Rehu Moana. I find it both interesting and encouraging hearing about his problems and weather. One evening I asked him about my bread which has started to go green. He said it might have a slight laxative effect. After that call I wondered if he was being helpful or trying to slow my progress. I continued to eat the bread all the way to America.”
THE INVENTION (AND BANNING) OF ROUTING
In 1968 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. 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 outside advice. By means of 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 routing was banned from subsequent races. In this edition, there were no fewer than 13 multihulls including the 65ft ‘monster’ (Pen Duick III) entered by Tabarly but his trimaran lacked preparation and he was forced to retire.
Before the storm British sailor Eric Willis on board Coila had picked up a bacterial infection leaving him only semi-conscious. He had no real recollection of what happened but was able to piece it all together from what he’s been told since. He initially called up Halifax radio with an estimated position. However, while Halifax told him to stay on the line, Willis retired to his bunk and ceased communications. A full-scale search was then launched. Two paramedics with the Apollo Space Programme were flown in through thick fog, sighting only the orange fluorescent paint on Coila’s deck from 60ft up. They jumped straight through the fog into the sea and were able to climb aboard the yacht and administer emergency medical treatment to the skipper. A submarine recovery vessel towed the trimaran on a 600ft line back to Portland, Maine with a crew onboard who, according to Willis, “tidied up my boat and didn’t even drink my whisky.”
Tabarly’s trimaran Pen Duick IV made a return to the race in 1972, sailed by Alain Colas, at the head of a strong French contingent. Of the 55 entrants, 12 were French, and the top three finishers were all French.
The average boat size was increasing rapidly, as skippers sought to maximise hull speed. A sign of the changing times was that the rules included a minimum size to deter unsafe entries, but no maximum. Thus the star of the monohull fleet was Vendredi Treize (transalation: Friday the 13th), a 128-foot (39 m) three-masted schooner - a huge boat for a single-hander, skippered by Bill Howell.
This edition also saw the first female sailor to finish the course - Marie-Claude Fauroux (Aloa VII) finished in 14th place after 33 days. Chichester, now 70 years old, sailed with the fleet in Gipsy Moth V. However, he was unable to complete what was to be his last race, and he died later the same year. Peter Crowther made the longest crossing in the race’s history while sailing the oldest boat, the 66-year-old gaff cutter Golden Vanity. His crossing took 88 days.
CONTROVERSY AND TRAGEDY
Even before the start in 1976, the storm was brewing. Controversy exploded around the entry of Colas’ gigantic monohull, Club Méditerranée, that measured in at a whopping 236ft. Few believed that a boat of this size could be sailed safely by one man, and with 125 entries on the start line - many concluded the race was getting out of control. The start was over-shadowed by the death of Mike McMullen’s wife Lizzie who accidentally electrocuted herself as she was helping Mike prepare the boat.
During the pre-start formalities it was also discovered that one of the entrants, David Sandeman, was under age, at just 17 years and 176 days. David was not allowed to officially join the race but he crossed the line unofficially after the last boat had left. Halfway across the Atlantic a Russian trawler ran into him in the dark during a storm. The collision damaged Sandeman’s rig which the Russian sailors helped him repair sufficiently to allow him to continue. Sandeman was later listed in the Guinness Book of Records as being the youngest person to sail the Atlantic single-handedly between Jersey and Rhode Island.
Several major depressions hit the race and caused a record 50 retirements. Britain’s Tony Bullimore was rescued by a passing ship after his boat caught fire, and Englishman Mike Flanagan was lost overboard from Galloping Gael. A particularly sad story was that of Mike McMullen on board Three Cheers. Believing that his wife would have wanted him to go on, he started the race, but was never seen again.
The race was won by Tabarly once more with a time of 23 days 20 hours 12 min. Clare Francis finished 13th and broke the women’s single-handed transatlantic record by three days.
TRIUMPH OF THE MULTIHULLS
The race was once again dominated by multihulls in 1980, with the top five places all taken by trimarans marking the end of even competition between monos and multis. 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.
The race continued its history of innovation with the first use of the Argos satellite-based tracking system. This technology allows boats to be monitored remotely during the race, and could also be used to signal distress, a popular method still used in ocean racing today.
The winner was American Phil Weld, in only his second OSTAR, whose trimaran Moxie was custom-built to the 56-foot (17 m) limit. He set a new course record of 18 days. Many were impressed by this popular sailor’s victory at the age of 65. Seventy-two boats finished and the course record dropped by another six days – it was fast approaching the two-week barrier.
TEARS AND TRAUMA
The start of the 1984 edition was manic. The first day of the race saw several dismastings in strong gales, and several skippers were awarded time for rescuing other competitors. However, it was the capsizing of Jeantot (Credit Agricole) in the mid-Atlantic that was the talk of the town and went on to pose a problem at the finish.
Poupon (Fleury Michon) was first to finish in Newport in 16 days, 11 hours and 55 minutes. But Fauconnier (Umupro Jardin) was declared the winner for standing by Jeantot for 16 hours. When that time was deducted from his overall finish time, he beat 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 less than 17 days. The race was fast becoming a transatlantic sprint.
WHALE, WHALE, WHALE
With 95 entries, the trend was towards more sophisticated 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.
Poupon’s (Fleury Michon) enjoyed exceptional conditions, allowing the Frenchman to virtually sail the direct route the whole way. He set a stunning new record of 10 days, 9 hours and 15 minutes at an average speed of 11 knots.
One of the great stories of this race was Mike Birch’s trimaran Fujicolour that was badly damaged in a collision with a whale. A few days later British sailor David Sellings found himself surrounded by 50 to 60 whales for three days. Eventually the whales attacked, holing the boat. Sellings only had time to grab a few belongings and launch his liferaft before his boat sank. “It was terrifying,” he said later while on board the German freighter that rescued him.
© Christian Février
PLAGUED WITH HAZARDS
Due to changing sponsors the OSTAR became the Europe 1 STAR. Sixty-seven boats started the Europe 1 STAR, Loick Peyron (Fujicolor) was just one of the many favourites with the French now completely dominating this side of the sport.
During the first week nothing was really defined in terms of leadership. It was difficult to make a forecast especially as weather conditions were not very favourable at the start with the fleet quickly becoming scattered across the Atlantic – Joyon headed north, Vatine south and Bourgnon and Peyron took the middle course. It took almost a week to sort out the lead. Bourgnon, in the lead, broke his mainsheet track, Florence Arthaud capsized off Newfoundland and Poupon had long dropped out because of a broken daggerboard. There remained just one, Peyron. He put his foot down near the finish and came in with more than a 24-hour lead over the second boat.
The 1992 edition saw the fleet plagued with hazards such as story storms, icebergs, trawlers, fog and whales hit boats on the northern route.
Here is a passage from Jack G. Ganssle onboard his boat Amber on 12th June 1993:
“The wind continued at gale force all night, not relenting till midmorning. I was surprised to hear that Poupon (fondly called “Gray Poupon” by some of the American sailors) had retired after breaking his centerboard in the gale. Philippe had been considered the race’s most likely winner. Franck Ravez (Salsa), the 22 year old Frenchman, had retired just after the gale because he was too tired to continue. The announcer mentioned that others had retired as well but didn’t name names. I was dying to know more details. Where were the rest of my new friends? Was Corkscrew making the great progress Trevor hoped for? How was diminutive Nord holding up? Was Little Fritzz still tossing extra gear overboard?
I knew there must be competitors all around. Fraser was ahead somewhere, and David most likely to the southeast, though no targets showed on Amber’s 16 mile radar. It gave me a strange sense of not being alone; I felt that all of us, though each alone and possibly hundreds of miles apart, were together at least in spirit.”
A DOUBLE FOR PEYRON
By now multihulls no longer hit the headlines and the Europe 1 STAR had turned into a French battle, at least for overall victory. Amateurs took advantage to come back in force in the smaller classes while observers already knew that the podium would be a contest between Peyron, Bourgnon, Vatine and Joyon. But it was the latter who created the surprise by choosing a route not used by anyone since 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 for the crossing. But it was without counting on the unstable breezes that knocked him down over just 400 miles from the finish. A similar fate befell Bourgnon. Peyron was able to savour a second successive victory, with a time very close to Poupon’s 1988 record in spite of significantly less favourable weather conditions. Paul Vatine came in just four hours behind the winner.
The following passage is from Crowther’s diary after this boat Galway Blazer sank on 24th June 1996.
“I was standing by the chart table when we slid off a wave, hitting the starboard side aft of the mast with a horrendous thud. It was as if an invisible shoulder had surged at the door and bust it apart. A torrent of green water poured in and I knew instantly that there was no stopping this miniature tidal wave, given the sheer power behind it.
I fumbled like hell to put out a distress call on the SSB radio, shouting my name, position and ABANDON SHIP! In this short time the water was up to my knees. I grabbed the EPIRB and climbed in the life raft. The bow was submerged as I cut the restraining ropes and also the foresail sheet which was in the way.
I sat on top of the deflated canopy, soaked. Thank you for all those wonderful years of sailing, I said to myself quietly. The life raft was very claustrophobic, enclosed with no horizon. I decided to set of flare but my flares were old and didn’t work. Great.
Suddenly I saw a Nimrod plane and contacted them on my VHF. They told me a vessel was on it’s way and kindly stayed in contact between myself and the captain.
Shortly after I saw the ship ‘Atlantic Compass’ approach the horizon. A line was thrown and I scrambled to a doorway 3 metres above the water where a rope ladder was thrown to me. I knew I wasn’t safe yet. In my panic I realised I had one leg around the back of the rope ladder against the hull and one around the front. I got there in the end and thanked everyone I could see. Then I called my wife and the girls and decided that that phone call was worth surviving for and we shared our grief over the loss of such a happy and beautiful boat.”
This edition of the race we are going to refer to as the ‘Ellen Era’. At just 23 years old she was one of the youngest competitors of the race and unexpectedly she absolutely blew her competitors out of the water.
While seven 60ft trimarans engaged in the 2000 Europe 1 New Man STAR, the more remarkable fleet was that of the Open 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 a qualifier for the Vendée Globe the following November.
In the Open 60 fleet, picking a pre-race favourite was hard with a line-up including solo sailing heavy weights such as Thomas Coville, Michel Desjoyeaux, Yves Parlier, Mike Golding, Roland Jourdain and Dominique Wavre. Who would win? In the event it was none of them. Sailing a brand new boat in its maiden race, few were betting on a 23-year-old English girl. However, on day nine of the race Ellen MacArthur monitoring the weather like a hawk, spotted a lull ahead and by taking an unfavourable tack north neatly sidestepped it putting 75 miles on her competition that she would hold until the finish. This result was a defining moment in MacArthur’s career, the first occasion when the sailing world realised that she was not out there simply to take part, but despite her tender years she had the ability to win.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this past year, it’s that deep down in your heart, if you have a dream, then you can and must make it happen.” – Ellen MacArthur
HIGH SPEEDS, HIGH RISKS
In 2004 the OSTAR became The Transat. 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.
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, 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 Wavre.
One of the less fortunate skippers of this race was Bernard Stamm. He was forced to activate his distress beacon and abandon ship When the keel detached itself from his 60ft monohull Cheminees Poujoulat-Armor Lux. Stamm was rescued from his upturned hull by the crew of a small tanker and later salvaged his yacht with an ocean going tug based in Newfoundland, 360 miles away from where it capsized.
A DRAMATIC RESCUE
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 skipper of the 60ft Vendée boat PRB seemingly hit a basking shark, the impact damaging the keel. Riou wished to abandon ship – no longer feeling safe with an impending storm forecast across the IMOCA fleet. Being the closest, Peyron immediately diverted following a request from Sylvie Viant, race director.
In order to simplify the transfer, Vincent Riou got into his life raft which he had securely fastened to PRB, meaning abandoning his ship. The rescue operation was carried out efficiently and simplified by the particularly mild weather conditions at the time.
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 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 rebrith of a classic
The first staging of the event in eight years was a big success with 25 yachts on the startline and the Ultime class – led by Francois Gabart on Macif - making its debut in the race in spectacular fashion.
The Ultimes apart, the other big innovation – the addition of a non-timed, pre-start stage or Warm-Up from St Malo to Plymouth – proved a resounding success with sailors, sponsors and the French public.
Gabart took line honours after a downwind sleigh ride across the Atlantic in just eight days, eight hours and 54 minutes. Gabart’s average speed of 23.11 knots was more than three times that of the final competitor to cross the line - Japan’s Hiroshi Kitada who completed the passage in 22 days, 18 hours and three minutes at sea, with it becoming the first Japanese sailor to complete the race in his Class 40 Kiho.
In between those two boats, the drama of one of the great transatlantic races was played out. The majority of skippers were French but there were five from other nations, including two Germans and two Britons. Six skippers – or one quarter of the fleet – failed to finish, including the Briton Richard Tolkien who transferred from his damaged yacht to a cargo ship in the mid-Atlantic. For almost all the skippers, apart from those of the Ultimes, there was one big storm in the north Atlantic to survive and then a series of less powerful depressions to negotiate.
The Transat bakerly showcased some fascinating match-races between some of the best sailors in the world including Gabart against Thomas Coville in the Ultimes, Armel Le Cleac’h against Vincent Riou at the head of the IMOCA 60 fleet and a three-way battle at the front of the Class40 fleet between eventual winner Thibaut Vauchel-Camus and Isabelle Joschke and Phil Sharp.
Among the most closely-watched rivalries was that between IMOCA 60 class winner Le Cleac’h on the foiling Banque Populaire and runner-up Riou on the more conventionally-configured PRB. Le Cleach’s winning margin was not huge but he controlled Riou for much of the race, showing that even in a mostly upwind race, the foilers can have the advantage.
One very special entry was Loick Peyron, racing on board Eric Tabarly’s old ketch Pen Duck II. His aim was to pay tribute to Tabarly by competing the course in the boat Tabarly won the race in in 1964. However, the though upwind conditions in the north Atlantic in the early summer of 2016 took their toll on Pen Duick II which sustained damage to her headstays, forcing Peyron to turn round on his 13th day at sea when halfway to America.