The final stage involving the circumnavigation of Guadeloupe was reminiscent of half of Yann Guichard’s passage across the Atlantic, with both sections completely disrupted by zones of calms. Indeed it took more than six hours to make the finish line from the Basse-Terre mark, some thirty miles or so away… However, he had barely set foot in Pointe-à-Pitre to accept the warm welcome provided by the local people of Guadeloupe, as night fell, before the skipper of Gitana 11 reviewed his first solo transatlantic race.
What is your initial assessment of your first solo transatlantic?
“I really enjoyed myself, even though it was especially tough on the water. If I had to set out again today, I’d be very happy to do so. Naturally I feel a slight sense of incompletion as I don’t feel like I made any big mistakes. This is especially true when you finish so far behind the top three, even though I was always in the thick of the action until the midway mark… In fact, the further behind you were, the more miles you lost, which also seems to be the case for the other categories. The calms, which have settled over the West Indies for the long term, drastically changed the face of the race. At one point, Francis was even on the way to getting ahead of Franck Cammas. I learnt a lot about myself during this transatlantic and particularly about pushing back my limits, getting to know myself better in fact!”
Can you identify the weather conditions which characterised this ninth edition of the Route du Rhum-La Banque Postale?
“Conditions at the moment of the start were fairly classic, behind a front with a strong NW’ly air flow in the Bay of Biscay, which transformed into a Portuguese tradewind after the passage of Cape Finisterre. On the other hand, level with the Azores, the situation became rather atypical since there were no longer any tradewinds at all over the southern course, but there were zones of squalls and calms to be traversed. That’s not very common, especially given that the storms were very active for four days! It was really difficult, impossible even, to predict anything with certainty after the Azores.”
You covered over 800 extra miles in relation to the direct course, but above all within a 200 mile radius, the weather conditions were radically different…
“There were a lot of local phenomena, but there are always some tricky passages in oceanic races. This time it was after the Azores, where I got stuck in the zones of calm: after that there was no way of coming back… I still find this stoppage very hard to swallow, because according to the grib files, it wasn’t forecast to be that light at all! It’s all the more galling given that I was ahead of Francis Joyon at the time.”
Was it down to bad luck?
“No, but it’s certain that victory always involves an element of luck. I have the most extreme trimaran of the fleet in terms of its responsiveness, but she lacked length in relation to the sea conditions we experienced.”
How do you deal with such long zones of squalls?
“You hardly sleep at all! In the daytime, you manage to apprehend them all the same, but given that there wasn’t a moon, at night it becomes impossible. When the wind switches from 5 to 35 knots in the space of a few minutes, that requires you to be on deck at all times and to be really responsive. This is especially true with Gitana 11, which had conserved her 60 foot Orma handling in contrast to the other large trimarans, which were more stable and hence able to withstand these wind variations with a greater degree of safety. I had to sail with only a little sail area aloft at night between the squalls to avoid the risk of capsizing.”
How do you handle yourself when one competitor is making a clean break from the first day?
“I was confident about the next stage because logically, there should be less wind at the end of the course. However, I knew from the outset and especially after the first night, that it would be virtually impossible to catch Franck Cammas. His boat was really powering along: as long as he didn’t have any problems, victory was guaranteed. But there was still second place…”
And these past three days where you weren’t spared by the weather?
“They were the worst of my sporting career to date! Even when I finished fourth in the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, I quickly came to terms with it. Here though I think it’ll take a bit longer. You complete the race virtually in delivery mode as there are no longer any competitive stakes to fulfil: you suffer without being able to do a single thing about it.”
Gitana 11 was a boat which was well adapted to these atypical weather conditions?
“Of course! If the passage through the front had gone as smoothly for us as it did for Francis, we’d have been vying for second place. You had to be on top of things, but the boat was very much in on the action, even though you don’t have the same race as your rivals. I hardly slept at all for four nights during the first six days and I was in a drysuit the whole time… In any case I couldn’t rest for chunks of more than quarter of an hour.”
Some good memories all the same?
“Loads! Prior to the front in the middle of the Atlantic for example, I really came back into the race, even snatching second place. This race really appealed to me because the challenge was intriguing. To battle against great sailors on boats with a different potential was great. Each one had their pros and cons, which made it a very open challenge and gave us a race coloured by considerable jockeying for position. It was also great to have Sylvain Mondon from Météo France and Billy Besson with me on shore. Not one edition of the Route du Rhum has been the same: that’s the beauty of this great race! I’m very happy to have brought this fine boat that is Gitana 11 from one side of the Atlantic, especially as she is still in superb condition. Now I know what it’s like to race across the Atlantic single-handed, I’d really like to have another go! And if tonight they asked me to sign up for the next edition, I’d say yes straightaway!”
Ranking for the Ultimate Category on 12th November at 1500 GMT
1- Groupama 3 finished on Tuesday 9th November at 15h16’ GMT (9d 3h 14’ 47’’)