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Ultime-8 victory for Francis Joyon - by Mark Chisnell

Ultime-8 victory for Francis Joyon

The fortieth anniversary race of the Route du Rhum - Destination Guadeloupe ended with victory for Francis Joyon early on Monday morning, 12th November. Joyon is one of the legends of long distance passage racing; at one time or another he’s broken the 24-hour solo distance record, the solo trans-Atlantic record, the crewed (Jules Verne) and solo circumnavigation records.

 He’s now won one of the great trans-Atlantic races on its 40th anniversary... at his eighth attempt. Joyon snuck across the line seven minutes and eight seconds ahead of the (vastly) better resourced François Gabart. In doing so, Joyon set a record time of seven days, 14 hours and 21 minutes for the 3542 nautical miles from St Malo in Brittany to Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe – 47 minutes quicker than Loïck Peyron in 2014.

 Just as extraordinary is the fact that Joyon’s boat, now called IDEC, was Peyron’s ride in 2014 (then called Banque Populaire VII) – a victory that came on the heels of Franck Cammas’s win with the same boat in 2010 when she was called Groupama 3. No other boat has won the race three times.

Image credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

Opening hurdle

 It has to be said that Joyon seemed an unlikely winner for most of the race; but his strategy could have been designed to keep the gap to the leader as small as possible and look to the final miles around Basse Terre to overturn whatever disadvantage remained. The final lap of Guadeloupe has a reputation for being tricky, as I mentioned in the race strategy preview

 Let’s rewind to the start though, to see how it all played out. The race began in the predicted southerly breeze. This was coming around the eastern side of a small low-pressure system, and it meant that the first tactical hurdle would be crossing the trough associated with the low, to get into a strengthening northerly on the western side of the system.

 It’s this situation that we can see developing ten hours after the start in this race tracker image. from 23:00UTC on the 4th November. The Ultime fleet had largely agreed on the strategy up to this point. They had all rounded inside or east of the traffic separation zone (the red block on the chart) at Ushant and headed south-west across the Bay of Biscay – also as expected.

 In this image we can see that they were closing with the trough, the red arrows were indicating the northerly breeze on the other side was not far away.

Image credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

Across the trough

While the big picture strategy was clear for the Ultimes, the detail of crossing the trough was always going to decide who made the early running. A 180-degree wind shift and the inevitable associated variability in conditions tested even the mighty Ultimes – particularly since they had to tackle it in the dark, with no help from visual clues in the clouds.

 We can see from the image of the Ultimes at 02:00 on the 5th November that it was Seb Josse aboard Maxi Edmond de Rothschild (dark blue) that did the best job here, leaving the other contenders parked in the transition zone. Josse had a 30nm lead over François Gabart (light blue) by the time Macif joined him in the northerly wind.

Image credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

Tough out of the trough

Conditions were brutal the other side of the trough though, as a new, bigger and uglier low pressure swept in from the Atlantic to dominate the race with strong north-westerly winds and big seas. It was now that we lost two of the biggest stars from this edition of the race.

 First Seb Josse (dark blue) retired while leading the Ultimes across Biscay early on Monday morning after losing almost 10m of the starboard float. Josse headed for La Coruña on the northern coast of Spain. Not long after he was followed by Thomas Colville (light green) in Sodebo who broke a forward cross-beam. He was only 100nm north of Cape Finisterre and joined Josse on the way to La Coruña.

 And so it was François Gabart on Macif (light blue) who led from Armel Le Cleac’h on Banque Populaire (medium blue), with Francis Joyon and IDEC Sport (red) in third as they passed Finisterre (Romain Pilliard in Remade – Use it Again, the sixth and final Ultime entry also stopped in La Coruña, but resumed the race, albeit out of contention).

Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

Final casualty sets up the match race

 The approach of the big new low pressure continued to back the wind from the north-west toward the south-west. It turned a fast downwind sail into an upwind one. Armel Le Cléac’h (dark blue) had already taken a more westerly option across the Bay of Biscay and he doubled down on this strategy on Monday night by tacking.

 The leading three Ultimes were all sailing into the south-eastern quadrant of the low pressure. There were better westerly winds to the west, behind the cold front, and to the south of the centre of the low.

 The easiest option was certainly to keep the hammer down and go south. Le Cléac’h must have seen an opportunity to the west though, even though it took him both into worse weather and cost an extra two tacks – no small undertaking alone on a 32m multihull.

 Unfortunately, the strategy may have cost him the race, as Armel Le Cléac’h capsized Banque Populaire IX at 11.00hrs UTC on Tuesday morning in 30-35 knots and five-metre waves. He got no further than the position shown in the image and was rescued from the upturned hull by a fishing boat just over ten hours later.

Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

And then there were two

The attrition of the first two days left just two boats in the race for the win; François Gabart on Macif (light blue) and Francis Joyon on IDEC Sport (red). And so the match race started in earnest – although in an unexpected fashion.

 It was Joyon in the red boat that followed Gabart through a series of four tacks as the wind shifted back into the west; as we see in the image from 23:00UTC on the 6th November. This is what I mean about Joyon’s strategy to stay as close to Gabart as possible until an obvious passing move presented itself – he wasn’t about to allow any unnecessary leverage.

 The reason for the wind shift was that they were moving out of the influence of the low and approaching a ridge of high pressure stretching out from the east coast of the States towards Madeira. The high pressure would be the first climate zone transition of the race as they left behind the westerly storm track (I’ve explained climate zones fully in the preview). It was also the final big hurdle between the two leaders and the trade winds.

Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.


Around the high

The two leaders swept magisterially around the eastern side of the high as we can see in this image from 13:00UTC on the 8th November. François Gabart increased his lead from about forty miles to over a hundred and twenty through these two days of sailing – and it seemed to have cemented his grip on the race.

 The curved tracks show the skipper’s response to the slow steady wind shift; from the westerly blowing across the top of the high, through the northerly blowing down its eastern side, to the easterly blowing along the bottom.

 Once they were in the easterly they were now sailing downwind VMG (Velocity Made Good) angles and with the trade winds to their south a gybe was the obvious next move.

Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

Downwind in the trades

The two boats – once again led by Gabart – gybed at roughly 14:00UTC on the 8th November and the two boats began the drag race into the trade winds. Two more gybes and two days of VMG sailing downwind got them both almost to the layline for Guadeloupe, as we see in the image from 14:00UTC on the 10th November.

 Gabart was still leading by about 125nm at this point, down a little from his high point of around 150nm, but still the same as two days earlier. It was now that the losses started.

Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.


Final approach

In the next 24 hours Gabart’s lead collapsed to just 40nm as we see here at 15:00UTC on the 11th November. The easiest thing would be to ascribe this to the damage suffered earlier in the race; his team revealed on Sunday that he had two major failures in the storms of Monday and Tuesday. First to go was the starboard foil, then the port rudder blade snapped just below the stock.

 Unfortunately, this damage was all suffered days earlier, and Joyon had made little or no impression on Gabart’s lead in all that time. So I think it’s more likely that Gabart was leading into lighter winds around Guadeloupe. It’s not that obvious in the image, but the wind dropped from around 20kts to 15kts on this approach leg.

Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

The trickiest lap

This was nothing compared to what happened next though, as Gabart parked up in the lee of the island of Basse Terre. It does seem slightly perverse to send them anti-clockwise around the island, forcing the fleet to sail through the wind shadow from the easterly trade winds to get to the finish line.

They say that it’s the same for everybody though and ironically Gabart’s lead survived this section, albeit slashed to just four miles as they cleared the southern tip of the island.

 It was this moment in the image – just after 01:00UTC on Monday morning 12th November – that it all went wrong for Gabart; presumably because of the influence of the smaller island of Marie-Galante. It appears that after rounding Basse Terre in a north-easterly, they both got lifted on port tack until they were sailing in what looked like a northerly. Joyon managed to stay in more of the lift and breeze for longer than Gabart and simply sailed right by him.

 In a post-race interview, Gabart said. “Yes, it’s awful, you cannot imagine such a thing will happen. In the last two or three days, Francis made a strong comeback and I thought he was going to sail past me when I started to tackle Guadeloupe, but I held strong. It went fairly well at first, but everyone knows the sail round Guadeloupe. It’s a classic. I succeeded in coming out a little ahead and, in the last hard section between the Saintes and Guadeloupe, I hit one last area of flat calm and I got stuck there a little too long. That’s life and it made for a good race.”

 Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.


 Once he had the lead, the grand old man of ocean racing wasn’t about to let it go. Gabart had superior speed with the Code Zero in the drifting conditions they endured for the final miles and reduced his disadvantage to a few hundred metres, but it was too little too late and Joyon recorded his famous victory.

Credit Trimaran/Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

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