Route du Rhum 2022 preview: The greatest ever offshore race?

Is the Route du Rhum 2022 the most impressive offshore race fleet yet? Helen Fretter takes a closer look at the entries and how the race might unfold

This Sunday, 6 November 2022, 138 solo skippers will take to a single, 3-mile startline off St Malo for the Route du Rhum 2022 single-handed transatlantic race – the 12th running of the event.

Is it the most impressive gathering of offshore competitors ever seen? It would be a bold claim to say that this year’s Route du Rhum is the greatest offshore race ever, but when it comes to strength, depth, and technological advancements, every single fleet in the Route du Rhum 2022 is so exceptional that maybe, just maybe, it deserves that accolade.

The other reason the Route du Rhum is so special is not only because of who has gathered this year, but because of who has gone before. Since it’s first running in 1978, won by Canadian Mike Birch, who recently passed away, its trophies have been littered with the names of legends – Bruno Peyron, Florence Arthaud, Ellen MacArthur, Yves Parlier, Michel Dejoyeaux, Franck Cammas, Loick Peyron… to win a class in the Route du Rhum is to take your place among the true elite.

Mike Birch helming Fujichrome ahead of the 1990 Route du Rhum. Photo by Nicolas LE CORRE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

And what makes it hard, of course, is the variables of mother Nature. The 3,543 mile race from St Malo, Brittany to Point-a-Pite Guadeloupe tests the solo skippers from start to finish.

Flung from the protection of St Malo’s mediaeval walled battlements and deceptively protected harbours, the fleet is usually immediately faced with the Bay of Biscay and North Atlantic at its November worst – rolling depressions, vicious sea states and strong headwinds often characterise the opening sections of the transatlantic, and early indications are that this year’s race looks set to bring similar.

Two days before the start the weather models remain largely in agreement: a low-pressure system in the Atlantic, with a series of fronts moving in, is forecast to bring strong upwind conditions from the outset.

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The Bay of Biscay looks set to live up to its fearsome reputation with conditions likely to worsen on Monday with a deep low generating an active cold front. Cyrille Duschene from Meteo Consult reported a risk of “50 to 55 knots of wind to the north of the system with 18-21 foot high waves out at sea on Monday.”

Former IMOCA 60 skipper Roland Jourdain, this year competing in the Rhum Multi class in the Outremer 50 We Explore, explained: “Conditions look like being lively for the start, but not dramatic. The first afternoon should go well.

“The questions we have are more about passing the tip of Brittany. For the moment, we don’t know whether it will be manageable or not, as the wind is set to strengthen. There’s likely to be a 6-metre high swell with some strong tidal currents.”

This is a race we will be nervously glued to the tracker for the first 48 hours.

38 IMOCA 60s to start the Route du Rhum 2022

The numbers across the Route du Rhum 2022 are staggering, but the IMOCA pontoon stretches as far as your eye can see, with no fewer than 38 IMOCA 60s lined up side by side. It’s a record entry for the event and perhaps the largest ever gathering of IMOCAs in the class’s history. It’s five more boats than the monster 2020/21 Vendée Globe entry, and almost as many as will be permitted (40) in the 2024/25 Vendée Globe.

There has been much commentary about the current rude health of the IMOCA fleet, where new designs seemingly cannot be built fast enough. But the Route du Rhum 2022 fleet in St Malo is like an exhibition of two decades of offshore racing history, with vintage daggerboard designs nestling alongside latest generation foilers. Nearly every boat has a remarkable history to tell, and above the IMOCA pontoons was an absolute crush of spectators craning to see the iconic yachts.

Charal 2 was designed by Sam Manuard and features a scow-style bow. Photo: Eloi Stichelbaut – polaRYSE / Charal

Among the 38-boat entry are seven brand new launches that were splashed in 2022, for skippers who were able to swiftly move onto the next IMOCA cycle immediately after the 2020/21 Vendée Globe. They are Kevin Escoffier’s Holcim-PRB, Maxime Sorel’s dragon-branded V and B-Monbana-Mayenne, Jérémie Beyou’s radical new Charal, Boris Herrmann’s Malizia-Seaexplorer, Sam Davies’s new scow-bowed Initiatives-Coeur, Yannick Bestaven’s Maitre CoQ V and Paul Meilhat’s Biotherm.

It would be surprising, but not unheard of, for one of the new boats to dominate. Reliability issues, the need for skippers to refine their load management, and well-placed caution, are likely to mean these boats are pushed less hard than those belonging to skippers who have a new boat on order.

Of that latter category, Charlie Dalin and Thomas Ruyant are likely favourites – both sailing exceptionally fast previous generation IMOCAs, but with new boats in the shed for 2024.

“In my opinion, Charlie Dalin and Thomas Ruyant are in the best position with their super well proven, very reliable IMOCAs. Especially Dalin who won everything this year and who even beat fully crewed boats [on the Azimut Challenge]. It’s beautiful to see,” said German entrant Boris Herrmann.

In Charlie Dalin’s hands Apivia has proven itself to be a bit of a rocketship. Photo: Pierre Bouras

“There is a risk that not all new boats will finish into Guadeloupe because of teething problems. I really don’t want to be part of the battle but want to get there. The weather is not looking easy, it is going to be a real adventure.”

The winner of the 2018 Route du Rhum, Paul Meilhart returns this year, also sailing a brand new boat, Biotherm. Meilhart’s boat was launched at the very end of August this year and he admits that he is not expecting to defend his title, though he hopes to be competitive. “You have to choose your battles. I am setting off feeling humble…” he said.

“I’m still currently testing [Biotherm’s] reliability and getting used to my IMOCA… My main goal is of course to finish, but I want to do battle with the others to see what potential Biotherm might have. In spite of not having much preparation, I still want to be up there in the contest.”

However, it’s not just the skippers of new boats who will be making some delicate risk versus reward calculations. The more stringent Vendée Globe qualification rules for 2024 mean that almost all IMOCA skippers are now in a race against time to accumulate sufficient qualification miles in their Vendée boats.

Even those who’ve taken delivery of a well-proven previous generation design will be keenly aware that a race-ending breakage would shave thousands of valuable miles from their total, and pile the pressure on for 2023.

Pip Hare now has a foiling IMOCA 60 having completed the 2020-21 Vendée Globe on a 1999 vintage boat.

“It is all fantastic for the Vendée Globe to have all this interest and it is fantastic to be part of it and I definitely respect the need for a qualification. But I do joke about the fact that everyone got a free pass before this and then the year I come back to do it again you need to qualify!” commented Pip Hare, who’ll be returning for her second Vendée Globe next year and is sailing the new-to-her Medallia in this year’s Route du Rhum.

“But it really has changed the whole dynamic as it is now just mostly about a race for miles, even for the new boats. Everyone has a lot to lose if they don’t finish this race. And that includes the guys who are doing The Ocean Race who have to get the boat back quickly and then have, like, three weeks or so for a refit to do The Ocean Race.”

Another factor which Hare says is playing on her mind is the record fleet size. “This is a massive fleet. I am really, really nervous about the start.

“Can you imagine having a collision at the start and in the first 24 hours? And it looks like it will be upwind which then means the fast, new Class40s will be in with the IMOCAs so it will be … busy.

“I think I will approach this all with a sail plan I can handle quickly and easily with the top (roof) open, fully kitted up, alarms on and the minimum possible sleep. I need to be super vigilant and if the situation looks ‘iffy’ at all then just back off a bit.”

François Gabart’s foiling UItime, SVR-Lazartigue

8 Ultimes

Though numerically the smallest, there’s no question that the Ultime 32/23 fleet is the most impressive, with no fewer than eight of the extraordinary trimarans taking part – also the largest ever gathering of the latest generation foilers.

Lined up nose to tail in the race village, their retracted foils looming over the pontoons and leviathan-scale wing masts towering over everything, the Ultimes form a multi-million-Euro kilometre-long F1-style pit lane. To say it is impressive would be, well, an understatement.

(And, quick reality check, they’re also sailing solo)

Charles Caudrelier on Gitana is the obvious favourite, with the longest optimisation programme and most race victories behind him, including the double-handed Transat Jacques Vabre last November (2021).

However, in this fleet, and in this race, past success does not guarantee future glory. That’s something François Gabart discovered in 2018 when, a few months after setting his solo around the world record on the 100ft Macif, he lost out to Francois Joyon in the much older, and slower Idec in the final miles of the Route du Rhum finish, finishing just 7 minutes behind.

Gabart is back this year with his brand new (and controversial, foiling Ultime SVR Lazartigue). As is Joyon, on Idec.

“The standard of the competition is high with a few boats that were there four years ago and have been updated and the new ones, which learnt a lot from the older ones. As for the conditions, I feel curious rather than apprehensive. Is it going to be stronger than what I have already sailed upwind? You can suffer damage because the boat is new and hasn’t been tried and tested, as is the case for some of my rivals, or suffer damage because the boat is too old with its original gear like mine, so it remains open…” commented Joyon before the start.

Banque Populaire Xl is the result of a colossal 150,000 hours of design and construction
work. Photo: J Lecaudey/BPCE

Getting across the Atlantic unscathed is far from a given for these giant trimarans, and the Route du Rhum 2022 sees the return of Armel le Cleac’h with his new Ultime Maxi Banque Populaire XI. His previous maxi trimaran capsized and broke up 24 hours into the 2018 Route du Rhum. The boat was a total write off.

The new Maxi Banque Populaire XI picked up a 3rd place in the Transat Jacques Vabre (2021), while le Cléac’h has already completed the equivalent of a world tour in racing and training miles. During this summer’s crewed Ultime contest, the Finistère Atlantique, le Cleac’h enjoyed a close battle with the Maxi Edmond de Rothschild. In the end, le Cleac’h finished 2nd, 26 minutes after Caudrelier after more than 3,100 miles of racing.

Thomas Coville, a previous Rhum winner, returns with Sodebo, also a new generation foiler. This will be Coville’s 7th entry in the race.

The other three older Ultimes are Actual Ultim 3 skippered by Yves Le Blevec, Use it Again! (the original B&Q/Castorama) skippered by Romain Pillard, and Mieux, skippered by 34-year-old Arthur Le Vaillant.

“I’m scared, but I’ll be at 200% on Sunday to get off to a good start. There will be all the sailors I love around me. I’m here for that,” said Le Vaillant before his first Ultim race.

The Class 40 fleet is a hotbed of design innovation. Photo: Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi

55 Class 40 to start the Route du Rhum 2022

With 55 entries, the Class 40 fleet is the largest of all the Route du Rhum classes, and again represents one of – if not the – largest gatherings of the class in its history.

Unsurprisingly, picking out a likely favourite to win is near impossible, with at least 10 boats widely tipped for the top slot. Even then, “there are so many outsiders around that anything is possible. It’s a pity that betting is not allowed,” points out Halvard Mabire, the president of the class.

Among them will surely be Yoann Richomme on Paprec Arkea, winner of the last edition of the Route du Rhum and also a double winner of the La Solitaire du Figaro. “There is no magic formula to decide who the top contenders might be,” Richomme mused ahead of the start.

While the Class 40 has always been seen as a precursor to the IMOCA fleet for many skippers, it is increasingly becoming a design test bed also, and there are now 30 scow-style designs in the fleet. This partly reflects the continued success story that is Sam Manuard’s Class 40 design development, but also the sheer number of well-funded and skippers campaigning in the fleet.

Sam Goodchild’s Leyton is one of the favourites. Photo: Yann Riou/polaRYSE

8 Multi 50

Although the eight-strong fleet of Multi 50s is much smaller, the evenly matched trimarans make it almost equally hard to predict the podium. British skipper Sam Goodchild (Leyton) is often ranked as the favourite, though Sébastien Rogues (Primonial) and Quentin Vlamynck (Arkema) are also likely front runners.

Meanwhile the considerable offshore experience of Vendée veteran Armel Tripon (Les P’tits Doudous), three times TJV winner and former Route du Rhum winner Erwan Le Roux, and the former Figaro, Volvo Ocean Race and Tour de France a la Voile sailor Eric Peron certainly mean they too have clear podium potential.

For the smaller, non-foiling trimarans, the biggest concern is likely to be the early forecast conditions, which will make for a nerve-jangling start for the eight solo skippers.

Acapella (the sister ship of Mike Birch famous Olympus) built by Walter Green in 1980 will compete in the Route du Rhum 2022. Photo: Christophe Launay

16 Rhum Multi, 14 Rhum Mono

The ‘Rhum’ classes represent an eclectic mix of modern and vintage designs, often sailed by passionate but more Corinthian campaigners.

Books could be written about the storied entrants in these fleets. Among them is Catherine Chabaud, the first woman to have raced around the world solo, non-stop in the 1996/97 Vendée. She returns to solo racing in the Route du Rhum 2022 aboard the 1990-built ketch Le Cigare Rouge.

Pen Duick III will be sailed by Arnaud Pennarun. Vendée veteran Jean-Pierre Dick sails his Verdier-designed custom 54-footer Absolute Dreamer, while St Malo resident and Jean-Sébastien Biard, a removals company boss, will be racing his 42ft Beneteau in the Mono fleet.

The Multi fleet has an even more intriguing mix, with former round the world skippers lining up in everything from new high performance cruising monohulls to vintage Walter Green designs.

They include Marc Guillemot, racing a new 50-foot catamaran apparently built using parts recovered from previous offshore racing yachts. Charlie Capelle returns sailing his invincible little yellow trimaran Acapella. Loic Escoffier, brother of IMOCA skipper Kevin, is racing a Marsaudon ORC 50. Roland ‘Bilou’ Jourdain is racing a sustainably built Outremer 50. Philippe Poupon is racing Flo, the iconic 60ft trimaran which Florence Arthaud sailed as 1st Pierre to victory and worldwide fame in 1990.

(Perhaps the question of which is the greatest fleet of all time remains up for debate…)

Nonetheless, this Sunday’s Route du Rhum 2022 start is a tantalising prospect for offshore racing fans.

Follow the 2022 Route du Rhum

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