The finish line for the 2022 Route du Rhum officially closed yesterday at 5pm Wednesday 7th December, so I think now is as good a time as any to take a look back at the 12th edition of this incredible race.
The race holds a certain mythic quality among sailors and always promises to be an exciting sprint from start to finish. This edition did not disappoint, with course records broken, incredible demonstrations of seamanship, and some fantastic insights into the future of the sport.
Of the 38 starters in the IMOCA fleet, 34 finished – the best finish ratio since the IMOCAs got their own start in 2002. It’s a testament to the strides made in the class to improve reliability.
138 sailors across six classes crossed the start line on the afternoon of Wednesday 9th November, three days later than planned because of adverse weather in The Channel that would have caused chaos in the fleet on the first night. When the gun finally went, the conditions were perfect; the 15-20 knots of wind from the west-southwest meant that the boats were sailing upwind away from St Malo and towards the Atlantic Ocean in lumpy seas and sunny skies.
The start of the Route du Rhum is always a spectacle as the classes share the same start line – this leaves no room for error, and considering how difficult these boats are to manoeuvre alone, there is no way to stop or slow down if you find yourself crossing the line early. Two IMOCA skippers felt the pain of jumping the gun as both François Guiffant (Kattan) and Nicolas Rouger (Demain C’est Loin) received a four-hour penalty.
There is never time to relax on the first night of a race; you are still reeling from the madness of the start while trying to get into the groove of being alone on the water and looking ahead at what is to come. For some, the first night was particularly rough; Kojiro Shiraishi (DMG MORI Global One) and Ollie Heer (Oliver Heer Ocean Racing) collided close to the buoy off Cap Fréhal just hours into the race. Koji was forced to retire but took full responsibility for what happened. With the help of the DMG MORI team and Pete Hobson (designer manager of HUGO BOSS 7), Ollie managed to get back out sailing three days later, albeit with added pressure. He had to adjust his goal to ensure he crossed the finish line within the time limit to allow him to gain crucial miles towards his Vendée Globe qualification.
On the morning of the 11th, a little over 36 hours after starting, Damien Seguin (Groupe Apicil) collided with a container ship in the Bay of Biscay, causing his mast to fall and damage to his foil and hull. Damien was able to secure his boat and sailed back to port with the help of an emergency kite, specifically packed for use in these situations.
The early part of the race was a story of weather fronts. Fronts are a boundary between two airmasses of different temperatures; they can bring a variety of conditions, but most of the time, there is a big increase in wind and waves, and once it has passed over, a change in wind direction. Fronts can bring winds of upwards of 50 knots and towering waves, but if you are positioned correctly, they can also be a huge help in your race.
With two retirements, the fleet was down to 36 boats. All of them would be sailing upwind for a while, trying to thread their way south and into the downwind trade winds. But, straight out of The Channel, the skippers had to try and figure out how to attack their first big challenge – a front that was set to meet them on day three.
Three distinct options appeared. The riskier northern option that should pay off better; the safer, southern option; or something a little between the two. For those that had chosen a more northerly route, all hope of an advantage was quickly extinguished when a secondary front began to move in quickly from the west, closing the door to any favourable conditions that were forecast.
In the south, Charlie Dalin (Apivia) took the lead early on, which was not much of a surprise given his speed advantage in upwind conditions. He managed to eke out a lead of nearly 100nm on the boats behind him when he crossed the first front, which had weakened considerably by this point. Once the fleet crossed the front, there was little respite as the sailors were met with an extensive patch of light, flukey winds. But still, they had to be looking ahead; just 20 hours after the first front, the skippers had a second, more brutal one to navigate.
Louis Burton (Bureau Vallee) lost his mast when the conditions were at their worst, facing 40-50 knot winds. There has been very little information from the team as to what caused the mast failure – a lot of the other IMOCA teams will be very interested to know if it was a user error or a failure of the mast itself. All of the IMOCAs launched since 2015 share the same mast design, so understanding why a failure has occurred is essential to ensure safety across the fleet. Louis did not require assistance and constructed a jury rig, sailing back to shore using his small storm jib.
During the passage of the front, one of Fabrice Amedeo’s (Nexans – Art & Fenêtres) internal ballast tanks ruptured. (Ballast tanks are large tanks spaced throughout the boat that the sailors pump full of seawater. They add more power to the boats by helping keep them more upright.) The rupture caused more than 900 litres of water to spill inside the living space, drenching everything, including the batteries. Fabrice rerouted to Cascais, Portugal, reporting a loss of power onboard, hoping to repair and restart. The damage to his batteries worsened overnight, sparking a fire which caused an explosion and forced him to abandon his IMOCA. Fabrice recalls watching from his life raft for around 30 minutes as his boat was engulfed in flames before it finally sank. The Portuguese Coastguard rerouted a passing cargo vessel to his position, and he was recovered safely to the Azores.
I know first-hand the horror of abandoning a boat, but to do so in the face of fire is extraordinary. IMOCAs have been getting more and more power-hungry over the last few generations as teams install more sensors, screens and cameras to make the skippers’ lives easier and the boats faster. However, this increase in power demand means an increase in required battery capacity, with most opting for lithium batteries for the best power-to-weight ratio. Despite their fantastic performance, lithium batteries can result in catastrophe if exposed to water or excess heat. The IMOCA class will need to improve the safety of battery storage spaces onboard in the future, as this situation could have ended very differently and should not happen again.
For those still racing, the weather did not improve; a ridge of high pressure sitting between the Azores and Madeira slowed the front runners. Charlie Dalin still had the lead, but there was a fascinating battle for the other podium positions developing behind. Thomas Ruyant (LinkedOut), Jeremie Beyou (Charal), Kevin Escoffier (Holcim – PRB), Paul Meilhat (Biotherm) and Maxime Sorel (V&B – Monbana – Mayenne) had around 40nm between them and were trading tacks among the islands of the Azores. This will have been a particularly tiring part of the race for these skippers; having just powered through strong winds and rough seas, they were now manoeuvring between the islands, finding what wind they could in the shadows cast by the tall volcanoes.
The Azores provided another split in the fleet. For those in the lead, a very slim band of wind allowed them to stay south and move through the high pressure and into the steadier trade winds, but this route was not open for long – leading instead to a widening area of next to no wind. Some decided to follow the leading pack and keep heading south, hoping to squeeze through and find the trades, while others made the call to head west in search of a third front and some steadier conditions.
Pip Hare (Medallia) and James Harayda (Gentoo Sailing Team) were in the group that went west and made huge gains. While taking the initial pain of dealing with yet more upwind sailing and another difficult front, the conditions on the other side were more than worth it as the sailors found steadier trade winds that allowed them to pick up the speed and point towards Guadeloupe. Pip and James did fantastically well throughout the race; I was ecstatic to see James finish his first solo race in 14th position and on one of my old boats, no less!
Sam Davies (Initiatives Cœur), Boris Herrmann (Malizia – Seaexplorer) and Yannick Bestaven (Maitre Coq V) got caught in the patch of no-wind when choosing to follow the leaders’ route. They will have spent days watching the boats that headed west sail around them while they floundered in the light stuff. It’s never easy watching people gain on you, but for these three sailors and their brand-new boats, just crossing the finish line is a huge step in their boat development, and I am sure they learned a lot in their race.
With the unstable and difficult conditions of the first half of the race now out of the way, the leaders were rewarded with the downwind sailing in which IMOCAs thrive. Charlie was still leading, but knowing that Thomas Ruyant’s boat is particularly fast downwind, we were sure to have a real fight for first.
We witnessed Thomas at his best, with a dominating performance that saw Charlie’s lead reduce daily until Thomas took the lead on the morning of the 18th. I know from the Route du Rhum in 2018 how brutal it is to drive that fast in those conditions, and believe me when I say it is not nice. This performance shows why Thomas is now a two-time Route du Rhum winner, along with a string of other fantastic results to his name.
By the time he crossed the finish line, Thomas Ruyant had built up a lead of two hours on Charlie Dalin in second place, with Jérémie Beyou (Charal) a further two hours behind. The top four finished within six hours of each other – breaking the course record in the process – and Justine Mettraux (Teamwork.net) in seventh crossed the line 20 hours after Thomas. This edition was nip and tuck throughout the fleet, the whole way across. The Route du Rhum is a very different beast to the Vendée Globe, much more a sprint than a marathon, and the quality of sailors and boats in the fleet right now made it fantastic to watch.
First and second place are both boats of the previous generation; they were launched in 2019 and finished the last Vendée Globe. Apivia and LinkedOut have been two of the more dominant boats in the IMOCA fleet in recent years, but I think both are at, or even past their development peak. Right on the heels of these two were four new generation boats launched a matter of months ago, all of which still have a huge learning curve to climb before they are even close to their peak performance.
Jérémie Beyou on Charal will be pleased with his podium position, and clearly, his boat has some speed behind it. On the delivery back to France from Guadeloupe, they set a tentative 24-hour IMOCA record, clocking in at 558nm, nearly 20nm more than the record I set with HUGO BOSS 6 in 2018.
Another sailor that should be extremely happy is Paul Meilhat (BIOTHERM). His boat hit the water at the end of August, with sailing beginning sometime in September. To go from launching to finishing sixth in a highly competitive fleet in little over two months is an amazing achievement, and as I said before, he is still firmly on that learning curve. Paul is an incredibly talented sailor who has been out of the IMOCA fleet for a few years, so it is exciting to see him back with a new boat.
Ollie Heer, a good friend of mine and my boat captain for some time, crossed the finish line taking 32nd position and adding some essential miles to his Vendée Globe qualifying tally. They say you learn the most in the hardest of times, and Ollie will have learned more than he could ever have imagined on his crossing, which was plagued by a collision, electronics failures, a fire and who knows what else. Ollie did a great job, and I am very happy to see him one step closer to the Vendée Globe start line in 2024.
This Route du Rhum was a fantastic demonstration of how healthy the IMOCA fleet is right now. We saw a record-breaking number of entries, a record-breaking number of new builds, the lowest ratio of retirements since 2002 and an incredibly close battle from start to finish. Let’s keep an eye on the developments over the off-season and hope for more thrilling racing in 2023.