27 October 2019 - At 13:15 (French time) the Transat Jacques Vabre Normandie Le Havre starting horn was sounded and the 118 skippers in their 59 multi-coloured boats weaved across the start line in front of Cape de la Hève, beating into 12-14 knots of north-easterly wind.
The bi-annual double-handed 4,350-mile race, the longest and toughest transat in the sailing calendar, will take them to Salvador de Bahia in Brazil.
Both IMOCA and Class40 fleets were tightly bunched, but line honours appeared to go to Bureau Vallée II(IMOCA) and Aïna Enfance and Avenir, the Class40 favourite.
The Route de Café is a marathon not a sprint, but the start along the coast is never simple, especially when the blood is up and adrenaline flowing in front the crowds lining the pontoons, channel, beaches and coast. Not to mention the live TV audience. And, of course, the a choppy shallow sea with plenty of current against them as they race the 16 miles of coast to round the Region Normandie buoy off Étretat. The fastest among them should take a little under three hours before they turn to head west towards Cotentin under spinnaker.
There should be an intense downwind race in the Channel overnight when the wind will continue to strengthen. Through that time and the morning, as they all exit the Channel, it will be decision time as to whether to go east, west or further west. That could provide an early test of the different trajectories the latest generation foiling IMOCA may take, although Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss has said his priority is finishing not winning, especially after being helicoptered to safety when his boat capsized four years ago. Britain’s Samantha Davies, in an older boat but with hugely upgraded foils on Initiatives-Cœur, is keeping an open mind.
“Once we’re west of Ushant then we’ve got to make a decision,” she said. “I don’t want to make a decision yet because it’s not clear enough and sometimes if you decide in your head you influence yourself when you’re making further decisions.
“We’re pretty open at the moment, (laughs) we’re going to have all the sails out on the deck to work out which one we’re going to use. We are at one with Initiatives-Cœurand super happy to be finally at sea and heading for Brazil.”
The small Class40 have the same dilemma
“Do we go west fully, for me there is still an option, but it’s a bit of a tricky one,” Luke Berry (Lamotte – Module Creation) said. “We’re still waiting for the info from our weather routers - you’re allowed a weather router before you start - so, we’ll make our decision sometime tonight. It’s not a (Class40) group decision, there are some that are going to go their own way and we’re not here to follow the others, but we’re not going to do lone cowboy either. It’s going to be more of downwind race out of the Channel, but it’s do we go up into the Celtic sea or not?
Britain’s Sam Goodchild, one of Berry’s main rivals, on Leyton, says that the risks and rewards are not clear.
“We don’t think we have to make our decision until tomorrow morning,” he said. “We’ve got all the ideas in our head, we don’t know what the risks and the gains are yet, it’s not as straightforward as if you go west, you break or you win, and if you go south you’re safe.”
There were emotional scenes on the pontoon before departure as the said goodbye to their friends, family and partners, except perhaps for Miranda Merron and Halvard Mabire, who are partners on both land and sea.
Jean-Baptiste Gastinne, Mayor of Le Havre, president of the urban community of Le Havre Seine Métropole
“There were a lot of emotions this morning seeing these boats go, and watching families kissing the skippers goodbye. The Bassin Paul Vatine is empty now after these ten days of festivities. The salt and spice of the Route du Café is that it is a race, an adventure, a sporting challenge and a mix of technologies. This year we can see the rapid change in sailing with these new boats with exceptional foils. The Transat Jacques Vabre Normandy Le Havre is a great event with this mix of man and machine that skippers that the skippers share in pairs.”
Juan Amat, President of JDE France
“I saw a start full of emotions. There are a mixture of feelings seeing the skippers say goodbye to their families from excitement to sadness at leaving loved ones. With all these new boats, it feels like watching a Formula 1 of the seas. All this week, the public were able to be close to the race, see the boats in their every detail and meet the skippers, which is very rare in high-level sport. I will be following the race closely, there is Virtual Regatta and we’re also having a competition internally, and I’ve also made my own little forecast, but I’m keeping that a secret.”
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