November has seen a bumper crop of offshore events starting from Europe with no less than four major races and one solo around-the-world record attempt all vying for position out on the Atlantic.
The smallest boats on the water were the 26-foot Mini Transat fleet, whose around 80 solo skippers raced from the Canary Islands, 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to the island of Martinique in the French West Indies.
Mini Transat sailors are a special breed. Not for them the luxuries of the namby-pamby Vendee Globe sailors who can stand upright down below on their IMOCA 60s and are allowed high-tech devices like satellite phones and GPS navigation.
For the 14 days or so it takes Mini Transat skippers to cross the Atlantic they have to put up with just a metre and a half of headroom to live in and use VHF radio and old-school sextants for their navigation.
Aside from the incredible adventure of racing such a tiny boat singlehanded across the Atlantic, for me the big attraction of this class is the profile of the fleet: 11 nationalities, 10 women, 66 rookies and 15 “repeat offenders”. The youngest skipper is 20 and the oldest is 62.
As I’m writing this, the race favourite – Lorient-based Frenchman Ian Lipinski – has just finished in first place, a healthy 300 miles ahead of his nearest Mini Transat rival.
While the mini sailors were battling their lonesome way across the Atlantic, a much smaller Volvo Ocean Race fleet of just seven 65-foot one-designs set off in spectacular fashion from Lisbon bound for Cape Town on the second leg of the eight-month around-the-world marathon.
The organisers put a media helicopter up for the start and thank goodness they did. The footage of the fleet blasting westwards in 30-knot winds and big seas was simply captivating. If you haven’t seen it, then you need to make sure you do so soon on www.volvooceanrace.com.
The racing since then has been pretty compelling too, with plenty for us armchair navigators to ponder over as the fleet scorched its way south to the equator in just over a week.
The predominantly French crew on Dongfeng Race Team has made most of the running, but as I write, Charles Caudrelier’s crew is under fierce attack from the Spanish pre-race favourites Mapfre.
If things weren’t crowded enough out there, the four fleets of the double-handed Transat Jacque Vabre race – Ultim and Multi50 multihulls, IMOCA 60 and Class 40 monohulls – also joined in the melee.
For my money, the most interesting battle on paper was going to be current king of the Ultims – and fastest man around the planet currently – Thomas Coville on Sodebo, versus his aspiring arch-rival Sebastian Josse on his newly launched 100-foot Gitana 17 – a revolutionary boat billed as being capable of sailing at 50 knots.
Well not this time it wasn’t. Despite leading for the first three days of the race, Gitana 17 was unceremoniously reeled in, overtaken and then left for dead by Sodebo shortly before the equator crossing.
Coville and his co-skipper Jean Luc Nelias went on to beat Josse and his co-skipper Thomas Rouxel by a little under two hours, setting a new course record in the process.
The excitement of the victory may just have been enough to distract Coville, for a while at least, from the fact that another French Ultim skipper, Francois Gabart on Macif, was ahead of target after the first week of his attempt to break Coville’s round the world solo record.
As I write, after 10 and a half days of racing, Gabart’s 30-metre trimaran Macif is flying along at 35 knots well south of Cape Town, 465 nautical miles ahead of Coville’s pace from last year. Before we get too excited, Gabart has more than 16,000 nautical miles to sail.
To break Coville’s record of 49 days, three hours, four minutes and 28 seconds, Gabart needs to be back in France by December 23. It’s a one boat race, but it’s thrilling stuff to see how the young Frenchman manhandles his monster multihull around the world.
Take a look on the website http://www.macifcourseaularge.com and you will be hooked, just like me.
By Justin Chisholm
Image credit: Thierry Martinez/team AkzoNobel