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An unexpected win for Paul Meilhat

Mark Chisnell looks back at the IMOCA class' trials in the Route du Rhum

Paul Meilhat grabbed a startling victory in the IMOCA class of the Route du Rhum - Destination Guadeloupe after an extraordinary sequence of events robbed Alex Thomson of the title. Meilhat finished at 23 minutes past midnight on Saturday morning, 17th November, just over 12 hours behind Thomson who completed the course at 12:10UTC on the 16th November after a completely dominant performance.

 Unfortunately, Thomson had a 24-hour time penalty slapped on him for using his engine to back off the rocks after hitting the northern tip of Guadeloupe on his final approach to the island. It eventually pushed him back into third place, after Yann Elies finished a couple of hours behind Meilhat, at 02:38UTC on the 17th November and was duly promoted to second place, also thanks to Thomson’s time penalty.

Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

 

Opening moves

It’s been a long and emotional 12 days for these guys, but to see how it all unfolded we need to go right back to the start. The weather for the opening moves of the race was no different for the IMOCA class than it was for the Ultimes – we looked at Francis Joyon’s victory last weekend here.  

 The IMOCAs also started on a port tack reach in the southerly wind, and then had to contend with the low pressure trough and the approaching storm. The difference was the speed that they were moving through all these changes.

 There was also a big difference strategically for the leading pack; while the front-running Ultimes all took roughly the same route across the Bay of Biscay (albeit with Armel Le Cleac’h a little further west that the others), in the IMOCA class, Alex Thomson was fully committed to a westerly route from the outset.

 This is very clear in the image from 02:00UTC on the 5th November, where we can see Thomson (black at the top of the image) going around to the north of the traffic separation scheme at Ushant – alone but for one other boat. It’s a pretty dramatic move for a pre-race favourite and immediately locked in a ton of leverage that took almost a week to play out.

Leverage

The leverage is a measure of risk – just as it is in financial markets – and it’s measured perpendicular to the course to the finish (this is shown by the yellow line). The race was barely half a day old, and already Thomson had created almost half as much leverage as the distance sailed.

 This move was more than just courageous in a strategic sense, it was also physically brave because it sent Thomson much deeper into the oncoming low pressure – more of that in a moment though... The initial problem was getting across the little trough as we see in this image from 04:00UTC on the 5th November.

 The blip in Thomson’s track was dealing with the transition to the northerly – it barely slowed him. While all the way south the early front runners Vincent Riou in PRB (orange at bottom of image) and Jeremie Beyou in Charal (black at bottom of image) – the two newest boats with adjustable foils – were forced to tack when they hit the shift. Not long after Beyou had a problem with his steering and was forced to retire to Brest for a pitstop and repairs that would put him out of contention, before a subsequent electrical failure finally put him out of the race.

Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

Into the northerly

When the dust had settled on the battle to escape the trough it was Alex Thomson in Hugo Boss (black) that led the fleet into the northerly wind on the western side. He was chased by Vincent Riou (orange) and Paul Meilhat (blue) who both did a tidy job of clearing the trough ahead of the chasing bunch – as we see in the image from 13:00UTC on the 5th November.

Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

Progressive shift

The approach of the big new low pressure now began to drag the wind round in the same progressive wind shift from the north-west toward the south-west that the Ultimes had encountered.

 The difference for the IMOCA fleet was that it was followed much more closely by the cold front that came with the low pressure – and that meant another big shift back to the west and then the north-west as the front approached and then passed over them.

 The three leaders tacked to port as soon as they were in the south-westerly, and then tacked back to starboard once the wind had returned to the west. Alex Thomson held onto the port tack for longer and doubled down on his westerly leverage as we see in this image from 10:00UTC on the 6th November.

 Alex Thomson (black) Vincent Riou (orange) and Paul Meilhat (blue) all tacked to port at the same time, but Thomson tacked back over four hours after the other two. It also put him in line for a beating from the front as it rolled over him – but he got into the north-westerly first and that subsequently gave him a wider faster wind angle than the other two.

Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

Seamanship and speed

It was now about seamanship and speed as everyone fought their way south on starboard tack and tried to hold their boats together in the worst of the weather. By the time they eased away from the low and the conditions moderated several more boats had joined Charal for pitstops, or retirement. Vincent Riou also lost miles in this period, leading to speculation that he had sustained some damage – this turned out to be his wind gear, forcing him to run the autopilot off the compass which is much less effective.

 In this image from 19:00UTC on the 7th November we can see that the wind has settled into the west as it blows around the south of the low pressure, giving them a fast reaching angle to go south. Alex Thomson had given up a lot of his westerly leverage to get south, as the next move was all about getting through the Azores High, just as it was for the Ultimes – they were finally crossing into a new climate zone (climates zones and the Azores High were fully explained in the preview).

Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

Harder around the high

There would be no magisterial sweep around the centre of the high for the IMOCA fleet though. The high pressure was expanding eastwards to block the way to the trade winds (just as we expected in the preview) and it was always going to be painful for those that were not far enough south when the high pressure moved.

 To get south, the skippers had to deal efficiently with the slow progressive wind shift they would experience as they sailed around the high. The wind would shift from the west, through the north and on to the east as they sailed from the northern quadrant of the high, around the eastern side and into the southern quadrant. Picking the right moment to gybe from starboard to port was important in optimizing their speed south.

 In the end, the leaders all gybed at about the same time – as soon as they were into the northerly wind that confirmed they were to the east of the centre of the high. This was the moment when the leverage between Thomson and the rest started to close out.

 What settled it was that the more easterly boats now had to contend with the Canary Islands; they didn’t want to sail into the wind shadow to the west of the islands. So they started to give up their easterly position, and in this image from 15:00UTC on the 9th November we can see how the leverage finally closed out five days after the start.

 When Vincent Riou (orange) and Paul Meilhat (blue) gybed to starboard to avoid the wind shadow, Alex Thomson (black) was able to cross in front of them on port, and gybe into a solid lead of ten miles over second-placed Meilhat. Five days of sailing, well over two hundred miles of leverage at its maximum and in the end it came down to a ten mile advantage for the Brit – you gotta love ocean racing!

 The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noted that it wasn’t Thomson at the top of the leaderboard at this moment. It was Boris Herrmann, whose position far to the north and west of the rest of the fleet made him closer to Guadeloupe. Unfortunately for Herrmann, he was never going to make it through the high in time to close out that leverage and take a real lead on the water.

Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

Trade wind options

The opening upwind section of the race had ended with Alex Thomson’s western strategy giving him a narrow advantage. It was a nice job, because his foiling IMOCA was probably at a disadvantage to the slightly older generation with straight daggerboards – like Paul Meilhat’s SMA.

 It was what happened next that really stamped Thomson’s authority over the race though. At first glance it appeared that this was a straight-forward downwind, trade wind drag race from the Canaries to Guadeloupe... but there were plenty of strategic options.

 Firstly, the north-easterly wind they had as they went past the Canaries was going to shift to an easterly by Guadeloupe, because of the wind bending around the south of the Azores High -- as we see in this image from 13:00UTC on the 10th November.

 In a long-term progressive wind shift like this the strategy is to sail the favoured gybe at all times – initially that would be starboard, and then the closer they got to Guadeloupe the more it would favour port. However, starboard gybed risked sailing closer to the light wind in the centre of the high.

 There was a balance to be made between optimal wind speed and optimal wind direction – a very old and familiar ocean racing conundrum. Overall, the advantage looked to be with the northerly track, closer to the high, but not too close... It was all a question of balance, as the Moody Blues might have said.

Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

Picking a sail

 The other strategic issue was boat-dependent. The foiling boats like Hugo Boss (black), Yann Elies’ Ucar-StMichel (orange and to the south) and Vincent Riou’s PRB (also orange) needed to sail a little narrower wind angle to get the best Velocity Made Good (VMG), compared to the previous generation of boats like Paul Meilhat’s SMA (blue) with straight daggerboards.

 This plays out in another way, as they also had to choose between a gennaker and a spinnaker. The spinnaker allows the boat to sail a wider wind angle downwind and reduces the number of maneuvers. However, it also makes the boat harder to sail and requires more time on the helm as the autopilots aren’t as good with this sail.

 Sadly, we have no way of knowing what the choices of each skipper were – but we can see the outcome. On Friday 9th November at 15:00UTC Alex Thomson was just ten miles ahead of Paul Meilhat. By Monday 12th November at 01:00UTC as we see in this image he had extended that lead to 90nm.

 He did it by consistently sailing a narrower, faster wind angle that should – and certainly appeared to – better suit his boat. He also took the most northerly line of the leading pack and that appeared to have worked as well.

Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

Still going

Alex Thomson and Hugo Boss (black) weren’t done yet though, they needed to bank those gains because there was still a couple of hundred miles of north-to-south leverage between the leading bunch. He was now in the easterly wind, and it was time to get onto port and start to close the leverage out.

 Thomson gybed for the first time an hour after the previous image, at about 02:00UTC on Monday morning 12th November. Over the next couple of days through to this next image from 01:00UTC on the 14th November, Thomson closed out the leverage with a second well-placed gybe, and all the while continued to do damage to the pack behind him. He had now extended his advantage to almost 200 miles over Paul Meilhat (blue) in second.

 It was a remarkable performance and as Vendee Globe winner, Alain Gautier said in his commentary on the race website, “But above all, it is how he is sailing his boat that has made all the difference. We know that Alex’s foils are especially designed for downwind sailing, but his performance remains remarkable.”

 It’s worth noting that it was over this period that Boris Herrmann’s (grey) extended westerly option finally closed out and he dropped into fifth place behind the leading pack of Thomson, Meilhat, Riou and Yann Elies. Everyone else was a long way back, after their struggle to get through the high pressure.

Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

Endgame

We saw from the finish of the Ultimes that the final lap around Guadeloupe can be tricky, but the lead that Thomson took into the island was a lot bigger than Gabart’s. Not just in miles (230nm versus 40nm) but because the IMOCA boats are slower, it takes longer to do the same mileage.

 So it should have been straight-forward, and it would have been if an electric shock wristwatch alarm hadn’t failed, and the back-up audio alarm hadn’t been unable to wake him. In the open ocean a problem like this might have cost him a few miles with the wrong trim or wrong sails up. At this moment it cost Thomson a lot, lot more, as Hugo Boss ran into the cliffs just south of the Grande Vigie lighthouse on La Pointe à Claude – at the north end of Grande Terre island – at about 01:45UTC on Friday 16th November.

 Tomson lowered the sails and started his engine to get the boat off the rocks, before rehoisting and sailing to the finish alone and unaided, despite damage to the crash box in the bow, the bowsprit, starboard foil and the keel structure. The finish time would have been a new class record for the IMOCAs, and a huge race win.

 Unfortunately, the race jury saw it differently and hit him with the 24-hour penalty for the use of his engine. Thomson was incredibly gracious about this at the finish; “The jury has decided that I have a 24-hour penalty which will mean I will not win the race. How do I feel about that? Well I think that is very fair because I don’t think I should win the race after hitting Guadeloupe.”

 It was a big penalty for such a tiny technical failure that – should it have happened at any other time – would have gone completely unnoticed save for a small comment in the debrief notes. And so Alex Thomson is still waiting for his first major IMOCA solo title, but after this performance he must surely have his Vendee Globe rivals worried.

Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

 

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