The twenty sailors competing in the eleventh edition of the Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe put on a remarkable show, at the end of which Paul Meilhat (SMA) came out on top ahead of Yann Eliès (Ucar-StMichel) and Alex Thomson (Hugo Boss). Out of the twenty sailors that set sail from Saint-Malo, fifteen made it to Pointe-à-Pitre. Antoine Mermod, President of the class and Guillaume Evrard, delegate general and assistant Race Director for the Route du Rhum give us their appraisal of the event in terms of the outcome and the technical aspects.
The picture they paint indicates we can look forward to an exceptional 2019 season with a new race on the programme and between 25 and 30 IMOCAs expected to compete in the Transat Jacques Vabre next November.
Looking beyond the race itself, the Route du Rhum is also a very popular, festive event. “The enthusiasm of the public was incredible, both in Saint-Malo and in Pointe-à-Pitre,” declared a pleased Antoine Mermod. “It was an exceptional welcome and the cities lived up to the event. This edition of the Route du Rhum confirmed that this ocean racing event is one we really have to take part in. We can only be pleased to be involved in such an event.” Once the race was underway, the IMOCA skippers enthusiastically shared their adventures with no fewer than 115 videos being made available during the race.
A retirement rate of 25 %, no rescue operations
Out of the twenty skippers that set off from Saint-Malo, five were unfortunately forced to retire (Jérémie Beyou, Sam Davies, Isabelle Joschke, Louis Burton and Yannick Bestaven), while eleven completed the race without stopping and four others carried out pit stops. Fifteen sailors made it to Pointe-à-Pitre. “The retirement rate for this edition of the Route du Rhum comes to 30 % overall and 25 % for the IMOCAs,” explained Guillaume Evrard. “Last year in the Transat Jacques Vabre, the percentage of boats finishing was 100 % for the IMOCAs, with thirteen out of thirteen making it to Brazil. We would have liked to have repeated that performance in the Route du Rhum, but we can be pleased that in spite of the very tricky weather conditions, all of the sailors returned through their own means and we didn’t have to launch any rescue operations. That proves how well prepared the boats are and how professional the racers are, as they all acted wisely and never put themselves in danger.”
Among the fifteen sailors that completed the 2018 Route du Rhum, fourteen have taken a step forward on their way to the Vendée Globe. Apart from Alex Thomson, who already has his admission ticket, the others managed to obtain their qualification for the next solo round the world race.
Unprecedented excitement during the race
All of the skippers stressed at the finish in Pointe-à-Pitre that the 2018 Rhum was raced at fever pitch. “The racers, particularly the frontrunners, never got a moment of rest,” confirmed Antoine Mermod. “It required total commitment from the start. Then, they had to deal with a series of fronts with winds and sea states that were often difficult. The trade winds were complicated with lots of squalls and a wind that was up and down between 18 and 22 knots. In that strength of wind, you are between two sail configurations and it is not easy to find the best solution, so you have to keep at it.” The unprecedented level of commitment that was required was also something that Guillaume Evrard noticed: “There was an unprecedented degree of excitement throughout the race. The sailors forced themselves to keep up a mind-blowing pace and gave it their all. During the first eight days, the fight was never-ending.”
Alex Thomson dominating, Paul Meilhat winning
The race was characterised by the clear domination by Alex Thomson, and the incredible upset when he ran aground just before the finish. Alex looked like he was going to win the race, but exhausted, he made one simple mistake, falling asleep at the worst moment as he approached Guadeloupe, and found himself with a 24 –hour time penalty putting his dreams of winning beyond reach. Antoine Mermod: “Alex proved that he was the best during 99% of the race. He was much faster, kept up a quicker pace and found better settings than his rivals. His performance, in terms of both the sport and the technology, was absolutely exceptional. He is way ahead of the others and is now the man to beat.” He avoided the worst looking after himself and keeping the boat safe, as Guillaume Evrard explained. “As he decided to use his engine to extricate himself from that situation, the jury was forced to decide. In the chart listing the penalties, it states that in such a case, the outcome can vary from 24 hours to disqualification. In the end, the jury gave him the smallest penalty possible.”
Finishing twelve hours after Alex Thomson, Paul Meilhat therefore won the 2018 Route du Rhum, which was quite an achievement for an IMOCA without foils. “Paul was a fantastic winner,” stressed Antoine Mermod. “While the performance of the boat is important, it is the sailor that makes all the difference in solo ocean racing. After finishing second in the Transat Jacques Vabre last year (with Gwénolé Gahinet) and after winning the Monaco Globe Series in the spring (once again with Gwénolé), Paul continues his ascension. He is clearly one of the best IMOCA racers.”
A high calibre top five
After his win last year in the Transat Jacques Vabre (with Jean-Pierre Dick), Yann Eliès only just missed out on victory, taking second place just over two hours after Paul Meilhat. “He did a good job and confirmed that he is one to watch,” added Antoine Mermod. “Paul and him are both looking for funding. So if there are any potential sponsors out there, please note that two of the best IMOCA skippers are available and they are bound to have great stories to tell.” In spite of his 24-hour penalty, Alex Thomson made it to the podium, ahead of Vincent Riou, who had a tough race, as he was handicapped by the loss of his wind instruments relatively early on in the race. “He was unable to do what he what he would have liked, but it was nevertheless a great job. His ability to deal with every aspect is amazing,” commented Antoine Mermod. We should add that completing the top five, we find the German sailor, Boris Herrmann, who achieved a magnificent performance, as Guillaume Evrard explains: “Boris was competing in his first solo transatlantic race on an IMOCA. He went for a different option, gave it his all and in the end only finished three hours behind Vincent Riou. He fought it out with three excellent sailors and is now well placed for the 2020 Vendée Globe.”
A crazy pace for those chasing the frontruners
The Route du Rhum will also be remembered for the race between three skippers aboard Finot-Conq designed boats first launched in 2007 and 2008: Damien Seguin, Alan Roura and Stéphane Le Diraison. They too never eased off. Antoine Mermod: “It was an interesting battle, as the boats behaved differently and were all skippered by very good outsiders on their way up, who have found their place in the class. We should give a special mention to Damien Seguin, the least experienced of the three, who managed to get ahead of his two rivals in spite of his handicap (Damien was born without a left hand). It is very encouraging. He should be proud of himself. Behind these three sailors, Arnaud Boissières was unable to keep up with the action, but he made it to the finish and sailed cleanly. He still has the ability to make progress with his IMOCA fitted with foils. He will be one to keep an eye on next year in the Transat Jacques Vabre.”
Very respectable performances from the amateurs
Two other newcomers to the IMOCA class deserve our full respect. Erik Nigon and the Finnish sailor, Ari Huusela had cautious races, but sailed well, while enjoying their adventure. “Erik and Ari are amateurs and both work at the same time as being involved with their IMOCA projects,” Guillaume Evrard reminded us. “They finished respectively tenth and eleventh out of the twenty boats that set sail and did not stop, which is a very respectable outcome.”
Four sailors (three men and one woman) were determined to complete the race after pit stops: Fabrice Amedeo, Romain Attanasio, Manuel Cousin and Alexia Barrier. In order to finish what they had started, their new race was very different without any hope of a good result, but they were able to learn a lot. “They have clocked up some valuable miles for what lies ahead for their qualification for the Vendée Globe and to gain some more experience,” added Antoine Mermod. “With two years to go to the Vendée Globe, there is no better way to prepare than by completing a solo transatlantic crossing. That enables you to advance, make sure your boat is in good shape and to get a better understanding.”
A promising 2019 season
The next date for the IMOCAs will be in July 2019 with the Valencia Globe Series, a new double-handed event (1000 miles) and solo race (3000 miles). In November there will be the start of the Transat Jacques Vabre, the climax of the season, where we can reasonably hope to see a line-up of between 25 and 30 IMOCAs, including seven from the latest generation.