Much of the focus will be on the freshly launched latest generation Charal of Jérémie Beyou, the updated PRB of Vincent Riou which has been optimised by Juan K now with foils, Yann Eliès on UCAR -St Michel. And although for the British skippers Alex Thomson (Hugo Boss) and Samantha Davies (Initiatives Cœur), it will be their first attempt at the Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe both are in great shape for a possible podium finish.
« The level of the challenge is particularly exciting », says Vincent Riou who will race his fourth Route du Rhum (the same number as his Vendée Globe challenges). The Rhum has not been particularly successful (two retirements and a 5th place in 2010 for the 2004-5 Vendée Globe winner, in 2014 he retired two days in). « But I'm stubborn », he laughs. The 46-year-old will use the Transatlantic race as much as a gauge to measure the strength and depth of his desire to take on another Vendée Globe race around the world.
« There is no question of doing the Vendée Globe at anything less than 100 per cent, it demands full and absolute commitment », says Riou, winner of September’s Azimut Challenge. « So I want to see what we can get out of our ‘old girl’ before deciding what we do. PRB is a third-generation boat from 2009. And it's not really my first wish to go back to the Vendée Globe which really does require total and utter commitment for two years. »
Looking for reliability
At this stage, many skippers are seeking an optimisation path to follow, to test and validate choices and to build in reliability through hard, ocean miles. This is the case for the new Charal of Jérémie Beyou. He won the New York-Vendée race and then took a third place on the last Vendée Globe before contributing to the Volvo Ocean Race victory of Charles Caudrelier and Pascal Bidégorry on Donfeng. The Route du Rhum offers some happy memories for Beyou after he finished second in the last edition in 2014 which was won by Francois Gabart.
This will something of a voyage of discovery for Beyou with his new VPLP design. « I'm still in discovery mode with my boat and all of its subtleties », says Jérémie Beyou playing down his hopes. « My goal is to familiarize myself with this new boat in solo configuration, to make some miles. I have no desire to be too smart! It will not be easy. »
Looking for a co-partner
© Yvan Zedda / UCAR-St MichelFor Yann Eliès (UCAR-St Michel), the Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe is an important step on his course to the next Vendée Globe as he seeks further funding to build a programme capable of winning the next Vendée Globe. « My goal is to shine. This is our last chance especially if I want to play the win on the next Vendée Globe », says Yann Eliès who raced the last edition on the MOD70 Virbac-Paprec.
« If you have a perfectly times project like Jérémie’s, you can do this race and the Vendée Globe but on both my IMOCA projects, the new boat arrived just after the Route du Rhum and so far I have never managed to sustain my projects beyond the end of the Vendée Globe. So I really want to make this one work for me. »
Being in possession of a competitive IMOCA at the right time explains why this is Sam Davies’ first Route du Rhum. « I never had a boat at this time. Now it's different! It's a huge race that I've always dreamed of competing in at least once in my life », grins Davies solo skipper of Initiatives Cœur, the former Maître CoQ of Beyou. Davies, who lives in France, returns to solo racing after six years away during which she did the Volvo Ocean Race with Team SCA when she learned a lot. « With the girls, I learned a lot as all are specialists in their own fields. So I could progress in each area. When you're alone on an IMOCA only you cannot be as good on every single aspect of the boat and sailing it. »
For Davies who won the Drheam Cup last August, the primary objective remains to qualify for the next Vendée Globe by finishing this Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe, « I really want to do well. »
Qualification first and foremost
© Stéphane MaillardDavies is one of many looking to complete a Vendée Globe qualification race. It’s the same for Louis Burton who sails from his adopted home port of Saint-Malo. « This race is such a big part of my childhood. In 1990, 1994, 1998, I was always here. Thanks to its being open to all types of boats and skippers. I was able to race in 2010 (20th). This is where for the first time I met Servane (Escoffier, his life partner) and here I am. »
For Burton the adopted Malouin, who has the Route du Rhum 2014 as his best solo result on an IMOCA, this will be his first big ocean race with his IMOCA which was previously Banque Populaire, winner of the Vendée Globe 2016-2017. « This race will be a bit about our technological developments, and in particular foils. This winter we will put the boat back into the yard and the year after, a year before the Vendée Globe, we will probably install new foils. Our boat is great, but my operating budget is not so so big », Burton reveals. Foiling options, what and when to fit, remains the main axis of development of IMOCA but as a ballpark the cost is more and less about 500,000 euros.
« And so from here on in everyone is full time, full on with their project. These are very sophisticated boats which require you to be there all the time. »
Stéphane Le Diraison and his Time for Oceans do not compete in the top league but his commitment to delivering his message about ocean preservation and sustainability and qualifying for his second Vendée Globe is just as strong as the others. His boat is the former Hugo Boss, the 2007-8 Finot Conq which he has lightened by 700 kilos but the former head of renewable energies at Bureau Veritas aims to have a newer boat for the next Vendée Globe.
« I'm a real battleron the water », he says. « As I am a fighter on land to deliver a message that is dear to me, the urgent need to be doing something. » Le Diraison continues : « This is not a moralizing message but a unifying one; we have planned this with my partners involved in this fight (Suez, Bouygues Construction and the City of Boulogne-Billancourt) to to raise awareness, push people to question their choices in their daily lives, in small but meaningful gestures. It's about telling people: roll up your sleeves, come on and take action! », says Stéphane Le Diraison.