Fort-de-France – Fort-de-France, the colourful capital of the French island of Martinique, is making ready for the first finisher of the 16th edition of the Transat Jacques Vabre Normandie Le Havre. The leading ULTIM, looking quite likely to be Armel Le Cléac’h and Sébastien Josse on Maxi Banque Populaire XI, is expected to break the finish line in the late evening Sunday, around 0100hrs UTC.
As the Race Villlage opened this Saturday afternoon in Martinique Maxi Banque Populaire XI had a lead of over 100 miles over SVR Lazartigue (François Gabart and Tom Laperche) with just on 1000 miles left to race. If Le Cléac’h can win it will be the first time in seven participations that he has won the double handed Coffee Route race. His best so far was in 2015 when he finished second in the IMOCA class with Erwan Tabarly whilst Josse won the 2013 race on the Gitana MOD70 with Charles Caudrelier.
The IMOCA fleet saw a notable split last night as Swiss flagged Teamwork.net sailed by Justine Mettraux and Julien Villion and Seb Simon and Spain’s double Olympic medallist Iker Martinezon Groupe Dubreuil transitioned to port tack to sail upwind around the northern side of the Azores high pressure system. Theirs is a move which many observers – on and off the water – approve of – but no others seem prepared to take.
Speaking today from Malizia Seaexplorer, Germany’s Boris Herrmann outlined his thinking, “We said, yes, we can be like strong guys and go north but is it then a race or is that just taking a weather gamble. Yes, all the models look better going to the north, but we are here to learn and compete with the best boats in the fleet. And the biggest majority is going south. Actually I am not so sure why, but we kind of were 60-40 to go south and we said to each other if more boats are going west we are super happy to go west as well. But as soon as it calms down like now, you forget about the roughness of the first days when we were saying ‘no way do we go west, we wanna go south this is horrendous. And so chapeau! to Seb Simon and Justine going out there. They most likely will win the race but we want to compete with a big number of boats which we did not have in The Ocean Race and that is one of the big motivators. And the safety concerns, we really want to be on the Retour à La Base.”
Britain’s Pip Hare and Nick Bubb on Medallia had also tacked to the west this afternoon. “The southerly route is not going to be an option for us so we are going west. We are in a group of daggerboard boats and they are making the same decision so we are in some good company. It is light airs right now and we don’t do well upwind against the daggerboard boats but by tomorrow we should see 20kts and hopefully we should get flying again.”
The NW-SE separation between Teamwork.net and Thomas Ruyant and Morgan Lagravière on For People, leaders of the southerly peloton, was already 250 miles this afternoon and was increasing all the time as For People had gybed again to try and finally escape the south side of the high pressure and find the trade winds corridor to the Canaries.
Swiss skipper Ollie Heer was this afternoon trying to come terms with having to finally pull out of the Transat Jacques Vabre after damage to their forestay and J1 tack fitting which pulled away from the bow in the small hours of the morning, leaving the sail flying from the top of the mast. The composite repair required is significant and so he and co-skipper Nils Palmieri were heading to Sanxenxo where they are expected this evening.
The Class40 leaders continue an intense, close match as they line up for the passage of the Canaries. Ex Figaro aces Achille Nebout and Gildas Mahé on Amarris are credited with the lead of the 38 boats still racing but they are the most westerly pairing. Furthest south is Ambrogio Beccaria and Nico Andrieu on Alla Grande Pirelli, who might look to pass to windward, east of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura while others were looking to pass through the Canaries archipelago and benefit from the acceleration of the breeze as it is squeezed between the high mountains.
In third place Xavier Macaire who is racing with Pierre Leboucher on Groupe SNEF said, “We don’t yet have any sunshine, which is a bit frustrating. We were hoping for some sunshine but we have 15-20 knots of wind from the NNE, which isn’t bad. That pushes us along towards the Canaries. It’s nice to be back in the pack at the front, as the race didn’t start well for us. The Bay of Biscay was horrible to us and we kept losing out. So early on we found ourselves 25 miles behind the group leading the race. But we kept hard at it, even in the rough conditions, so now we’re back up with them, and we can be pleased about that.”
Fighting in the top 10 are Britons Alister Richardson and Brian Thompson on T’quila. Thompson said, “It was a tactical night last night which is good as we have caught up with some boats. I think the tracker shows us sixth or something but that is an illusion as we are still with our group between 10th and 14th. We are in the Goldilocks zone now – not too hot and not too cold. We are looking forwards to some clear skies coming up and then probably tomorrow afternoon we will see the Canary Islands and then at night going between some of them to get the acceleration that you get between the big mountains on the islands.”
The leading Ocean50 Solidaires en Peloton (Thibault Vauchel Camus and Quentin Vlamynck) was approaching the Cabo Verdes islands this afternoon with just over 2000 miles to sail and lead of 150 miles.
The village opened its doors today in Martinique with celebrations continuing until 19th November. This is the second time Fort-de-France has hosted the finish of the Coffee Race. Located on the seafront, the Village is home to around fifty exhibitors for the next ten days. Among the main features, presentations of ocean racing and biodiversity.
Hervé Jean-Marie and Jean-Yves Aglaé, the two skippers on Martinique Tchalian, can hardly wait to get back home. They stressed the importance of “The family, the warmth and the culture of Martinique. The island has become home to sailing and here it will be celebrated. We hope to underline the idea of ocean racing for Martinique by putting the island in the spotlight.”