As with any short-handed race, sailed single-handed or two-handed, the time leading up to the start is strange, and gives rise to mixed feelings for those competing, torn between the strong desire to get into the race and obligations ashore. Pressure increases, not for lack of rough weather, but because after having imagined, prepared, anticipated, analysed and gone over the wide range of scenarios which may arise on a transatlantic race, you never the less find yourself chomping at the bit in the last few hours before the starting short is fired. Nothing new about that in sport, but ocean racing is rather unusual in the sharp cut-off point represented by the start. In a matter of minutes, you wave goodbye to a the landlubber's world where you hardly have a minute to yourself, to find yourself with an ocean to race across where each minute counts, all energy focussed upon attaining the goal. Crew safety, preserving the gear, concentrating on strategy, eating, sleeping and staying on form.
« Once at sea, you are estranged from terrestrial concerns. Our days are marked by the watch schedule, brief instants of rest, relentless concentration on the sea. There is never total let-up on these trimarans. Stress is ever present, with the perpetual underlying sensation of danger which enables us to face up to difficult situations. Without being obsessive about it, it does keep us on our toes, as we have to be highly reactive to the slightest alert, and able to find the energy necessary when tiredness is making itself felt. You can keep going for quite some time in that state, but you have to react pretty quickly never the less. It's the transitional phase between leaving the dockside and getting into the swing of the competition which determines the speed with which you become truly efficient. Being able to fall into a deep sleep quickly, making sure that you eat properly, according to the effort required, getting beyond the seasickness stage if the sea is a little rough. These are the sorts of things which make ocean racing so different from other sports, even from day racing. Something else too, is that sailing is one of the rare sports where competitors are questioned and interviewed when they are in the full throes of the competition. It's a bit like asking a football player how he managed to score a goal ! It's not always easy to switch from our watery world to terrestrial questions. » (Yann Guichard, co-skipper with Frédéric Le Peutrec on Gitana 11.)
And the change will be rude for this Transat Jacques Vabre. A 25 knot southerly wind is forecast for 15h00 in Le Havre on Sunday, veering SW with gusts as the fronts arrive and creating very choppy seas. The fleet are being thrown into the lion's den right from the start. « We'll be donning our drysuits at the start. Last time, we had to wait a week before being able to take them off. In the first few hours of the race, we'll have to force ourselves to sleep if we don't need to manoeuvre. On Gitana 11, our watches last three hours, but the person who is off-watch has to take care of the weather, ship-to-shore relations, food, keeping the boat tidy and resting. But when there waves 6 m high and a 25 knots wind is blowing, it's not always that easy to clear your head enough to get the sleep you need in a bunk stuck along the side of the boat so you don't get thrown out of bed !
The noise, the movement, the tension of the start… you have to be able to empty your head in order to recover as soon as you can. It generally takes a couple of days to be fully in the swing of things, in tune with the boat, in phase with the wind and the sea. Frédéric and I have already been through that sort of thing which should make the change that much easier physically and mentally. It's really important too. The first few miles are always a great chance to stand out, to obtain an advantage, even if it's only psychological. Once that stage is over, there is still many mile to run ! »
The time is nigh for resting on Friday and Saturday (the monohull fleet's start) – alternating between rest and relaxation, weather briefing sessions and strategy analyses. For all their days are fully occupied, their nights are also sometimes quite agitated by dreams and periods of sleeplessness. As if they were already underway …