“ All is well on board at this time but I have a couple of hours ahead when conditions will not be easy but then it should settle again”
After their first night at sea the 25 boats in The Transat bakerly solo transatlantic race from Plymouth to New York are spread out over 100 miles of ocean with the leaders now well into the Bay of Biscay.
At the head of the fleet the three-strong Ultime class are powering their way southwards towards the northwest tip of Spain, looking to benefit from downwind conditions that could propel them west towards America.
Fourteen hours into the race, the overall lead was being disputed by Thomas Coville on Sodebo and Francois Gabart on Macif who were just a couple of miles apart and romping along at over 20 knots of boatspeed.
With only one exception all the skippers in each of the four classes – Ultimes, IMOCA 60s, Multi50s and Class40s – are favouring a southern route in the early stages that will take them towards Cape Finisterre and then further south before they begin heading west.
Most skippers will have had just a few minutes sleep as they recover from the challenges of the start and then the early stages, racing in close company with other boats and having to deal with the French Brittany coast and its commercial traffic.
Speaking on the satellite phone from on board Sodebo early this morning, Coville was in good spirits and said he had no doubt that south was the best option in a race more usually associated with the shorter, but more brutal, northern route.
“In fact, in recent days, we see that the southern route is somewhat less exposed than the northern route,” said the Sodebo skipper. “With the north affected by the ice gate (an exclusion zone imposed by the race director to ensure competitors avoid icebergs) which will force people to turn south, this southern route has advantages.”
Looking back on the start on Monday afternoon in Plymouth Sound, Coville said it had been a tricky getaway close to the breakwater and during the passage of a weather front. “We had to make the right sail choice before leaving and there was lots to think about – I did not want to take too much risk; I wanted to do it properly,” he said.
“Francois (Gabart) was a little early on the startline and had to bear away and then we were next to each other just like a classic race – it was magical. He gradually pulled away but it was nothing dramatic,” added Coville. The two giant trimarans raced on in sight of each other into Monday evening until they lost touch passing the island of Ushant off the French coast.
Behind the Ultimes, the leaders in the IMOCA 60 class are tightly-bunched in the north Biscay sailing downwind and making around 12 knots of boatspeed. The leading boats are both fitted with foils – Armel le Cleac’h’s Banque Populaire and Seb Josse’s Edmond de Rothschild – and are only six miles apart. The first of the non-foilers in the leading bunch is Vincent Riou’s PRB which is 15 miles behind Josse.
In the five-strong Multi50 class, Pierre Antoine on board Olmix has decided to go it alone on a westerly heading, giving him the class lead at this stage, while his rivals head south. In that group Lalou Roucayrol on board Arkema is ahead, just over 10 miles to the good of Erwan Le Roux on Fenetrea-Cardinal.
Further north and still just south of Ushant, the 10-strong Class40 fleet are enjoying close racing with the lead being disputed by Britain’s Phil Sharp on Imerys and his French rival Maxime Sorel on Vandb.
Sorel said he had seen 35 knots of wind overnight but conditions were moderating. He joked that he was following the same course as he had taken in the Route du Rhum in 2014 – a predominantly downwind race – as he surfed before a fresh northerly wind, even though it is a bit colder and wetter this time.
“The sea has calmed down a bit compared with the beginning of night,” he said. “All is well on board at this time but I have a couple of hours ahead when conditions will not be easy but then it should settle again. I haven’t eaten too much but I have been drinking lots and managed to get some rest.”
At the back of the fleet, meanwhile, Loick Peyron on board the 1960s-vintage 44ft ketch Pen Duick II is ploughing a lonely furrow due south of the Isles of Scilly. Peyron is taking on The Transat bakerly outside the main race in a tribute to the great French offshore sailor Eric Tabarly who won this race in 1964 on board Pen Duick II.
This morning Peyron was making just over five knots and heading west - for him the option of sailing fast to warmer weather south of the Biscay is not an option.