It was appropriate for the record fleet of 85 skippers who set off from Saint Malo this afternoon on the ninth edition of the Route du Rhum-La Banque Postale that the send off proved nearly perfect in every way.
Given the choice a large proportion of the solo skippers spread across the five different classes, from the 105 feet long giants of the Ultime class, to the venerable 12m multis in the Rhum class, might have preferred a little more breeze than the gentle SE’ly which sent them on their way, answering the start gun off Saint Malo’s Pointe du Grouin at 1302hrs.
But the light going was ideal for those feeling their way into the first few hours of what promises to be an engaging race, a complex weather situation marking the early strategic decisions on the classic 3542 miles passage from Saint Malo to Pointe-a-Pitre in Guadeloupe.
The early grey skies rolled back to offer a day of pleasant Autumn sunshine for the huge crowds who had begun assembling from long before dawn.
Undoubtedly the enthusiasm and warmth of the send-off was buoyed by the appreciation that the magnitude of the fleet has broken records already, 24 multihulls and 60 monohulls: nine Ultime giant multis, nine IMOCA Open 60’s, 12 Multi 50’s, 44 Class 40 monos, and 11 Rhum monos and multis. Visitors numbers passing through the Corsair City’s Route du Rhum-La Banque Postale race village also surpassed all expectations.
With the final morning check out, the mononhulls locking out from 0615hrs this, by breakfast time Saint Malo’s streets was strangely quiet.
The hubbub and hype of a week of frenetic activity, more than 1million vistors, suddenly replaced by empty docks and deserted quaysides.
Instead there were many who lined the beaches, piers, slipways, rocks and took to their boats to bid farewell to the skippers as they made their way out on to the Bay of Saint Malo to wait for the start.
Through the morning for most spectators their race was always to secure the best possible viewing point to see the armada depart.
Cape Fréhelis traditionally the best vantage point, where the first mark of the course – 18 miles after the start – compresses the fleet. More than 50,000 spectators mustered there, and an estimated six thousand more on the water in a huge variety of carefully marshalled craft.
With 8-11 knots of SE’ly wind, the start – when it came – was just brisk enough. As the gun went the huge fleet of spectator boats swarmed into action.
Franck Cammas on Groupama 3, the most powerful of the Ultime’s – setting out for the first time on their first ever head to head showdown of the giants – forged steadily ahead of the pack in this nine boat class, as befits the holder of the Jules Verne crewed non stop around the world record, and was first to pass the first mark at Fréhel, challenged initially by a surging Yvann Guichard on the race record holding Gitana XI, but Groupama eased slowly and steadily away, leading by nearly two miles after four hours of racing.
But, in a breeze which is forecast to build initially from the NE, there will be no shortage of activity over the first few days and Cammas might have his hands full dealing with all of the expected changes.
Jean-Pierre Dick on the new Virbac-Paprec 3, one of the three new VPLP/Verdier IMOCA Open 60’s launched this year, lead the IMOCA Open 60’s at Frehel, just ahead of Michel Desjoyeaux on the even newer Foncia, both boats making their maiden big race outings. At 1630hrs local time Sunday the duo had earned themselves a lead of over 1 mile on third placed PRB.
In the 44 boat Class 40 fleet the early leaders were scarcely a surprise. Bernard Stamm on Cheminées Poujoulat lead after the gun, but at Fréhel it was Sam Manuard who lead but there was only just over half a mile separating the leading five boats. Theirs is going to be a long and particularly high tension first night in this white hot fleet, where emerging first into the brisker headwinds due later in the evening will be important.
The forecast for the following few days is not easy a small high pressure ridge Monday in advance of a front, then generally NW’ly F4 to F5 winds winds, heading W’ly during Monday afternoon with a swell of three metres, a first cold front Monday night continuing with W’ly headwinds Tuesday.
The general consensus is of a comparatively slow upwind race as the Azores high pressure area basically comprises two systems which seem to limit any obvious southerly routing option.