On Sunday 7 January, under a wintry sun, six sailors set off on the very first edition of the Arkea Ultim Challenge-Brest. To analyse the first few days of this single-handed round the world Ultim race (to be followed on our website), this week Tip & Shaft interviewed François Gabart, who has left the helm of SVR-Lazartigue to Tom Laperche, Franck Cammas, former skipper of the Maxi Edmond de Rothschild, and meteorologist Dominic Vittet, a member of Sodebo Ultim 3’s routing team.
It was in idyllic conditions and a light north-easterly flow that the start of this long-awaited round the world voyage in an Ultim was given on 7 January. It was “an extraordinary stroke of luck at the time”, says Dominic Vittet, which will leave “some really intense memories” for François Gabart, whose first experience of “a start where you had to leave the boat”. The result was “a little tear at the moment of the start”, especially as his Tom Laperche took the lead on the line. “Overall, everyone got off to a great start, which is never an easy thing to do on this type of boat and under this kind of pressure,” says the sailor.
These clement conditions have “enabled the skippers, who were already very emotionally charged, to get off to a calmer start”, enthuses Franck Cammas, who sees this as an explanation for the “immediately very high level of competition, which we weren’t necessarily expecting. No one was left with any margin, and the pace was right off the mark”.
A “surprisingly homogenous” fleet
The descent of the Bay of Biscay and then on to Madeira was in fact “hotly contested”, emphasised the skipper from Aix-en-Provence, who had not imagined “such a homogeneous fleet” and was “pleasantly surprised by the performances of Tom Laperche and Thomas Coville, who delivered a very fine performance and showed that we’re going to have to rely on them”. For François Gabart, “Anthony Marchand on Actual Ultim 3 also made a fantastic start to the race with a great trajectory, which is obviously a pleasure on my old boat”, who still holds the solo round the world record in an Ultim (42 days 16h40).
With several zones of light airs on the course, the instability of the North Atlantic has made for a close battle: “There have been a lot of transitions, which have enabled each sailor to take the lead for a while“, analyses Dominic Vittet, with the logical exception of Adagio, the oldest boat in the fleet, skippered by the newcomer to the class, Eric Péron, but which “is also holding its own”.
The meteorologist acknowledges that the first few days of racing were “intense, but in the end not very fast”, giving the sailors and the routing cells no respite. “These were conditions that made you want to be very reactive, but you couldn’t neglect the enormous inertia of the manoeuvres, so it was important to protect the skippers. It wasn’t easy to find the right balance.” In these conditions, “we felt our little lack of well-filled Excel tables and reliable data with Sodebo Ultim 3, after the major changes recently made to the boat. The others took less time to find the right settings“, estimates Dominic Vittet.
First level crossing
The cold front encountered on Wednesday night to the west of the Canaries was the first turning point in the race. “It turned out to be more violent than the weather models had predicted, with gusts of 50 knots, where we were expecting 32 knots maximum”, analysed Franck Cammas, who imagined “some really hard conditions on this type of boat, especially at night“. All the skippers can testify to these difficult hours, with heavy seas and waves of up to five metres. “These are not at all surprising conditions at this time of year and in this area, but it’s good that it didn’t happen in the first few hours of the race. Everyone had already got into the swing of things,” emphasised François Gabart.
In the hours that followed this crossing, “we saw several boats slowing down, which suggests that they were suffering from minor injuries“, added the skipper of MerConcept, with the Maxi Banque Populaire XI, in particular, noticeably slowing down in the early hours of Friday 12th January. “It’s far from being the first bouts of tinkering on this round the world,” qualifies François Gabart, who is nonetheless delighted that SVR-Lazartigue has been able to take the lead alongside the Maxi Edmond de Rothschild. “For a boat which was still on land in the yard just a week ago, we can only be satisfied.”
This small gain for the leading pairing is set to increase on Friday evening, “with the elastic being stretched as Sodebo and Maxi Banque Populaire XI have fallen into light winds,” stresses Dominic Vittet. “Clearly, we’re going to lose 200 miles.”
Towards a 24-hour record?
This will be considerable advantage before tackling the Doldrums on Saturday, which is shaping up to be “not as easy as we imagined just a few days ago”, according to Franck Cammas. Satellite images are showing a thickening of this tropical convergence zone, which augurs “a wonderful weekend of Russian roulette“, predicts Dominic Vittet.
The stakes in this crossing will be all the higher as, behind them, the South Atlantic looks set to be very favourable for the sailors, and could enable them to widen the gaps. With a well-formed Saint Helena High to the south, “we’re going to have a fine straight stretch of 2,000 miles on one tack, which is going to be very powerful”, enthuses Franck Cammas, who sees it as “a great opportunity to break the 24 hour solo record“, still held by François Gabart since 2017 with 850.68 miles. “Given the performance of the boats, it would be quite logical,” confirms Cammas.
However, this obviously doesn’t mean that the match will be over as soon as they round the Cape of Good Hope. “If Anthony Marchand manages to hang on, the top five boats should remain in the same weather system, which would be the best scenario for continuing to see some great racing,” hopes Franck Cammas. This new phase should also enable the sailors to “really get into the rhythm of a round the world race“, anticipates Dominic Vittet: “For the moment, they’re all in the adrenalin of the competition and we haven’t seen much emotion come through in front of the camera, everything has been very controlled. Time and solitude will crack the solid shells of these cold-blooded killers.”
“Right now they’re still in the Route du Rhum spirit, but they’re going to become a little more poetic when the ocean widens,” confirms Franck Cammas. A prospect that François Gabart is delighted about: “What we can learn from these first few days is that the race is well and truly underway, and that the boats and the sailors are more than up to scratch. Hopefully there won’t be too many breakages, and all the ingredients are there to make this a great race to follow.”
Photo: Vincent Olivaud