Transat Jacques Vabre: a long time in the making... Armel Le Cléac’h and Sébastien Josse win ULTIM race
Sailing Maxi Banque Populaire XI crossed the finish line of the 16th edition
Sailing Maxi Banque Populaire XI crossed the finish line of the 16th edition
The biennial, double handed classic ‘Coffee Route’ Race - which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary - started from Le Havre, France on Sunday 29th October and took the five strong ULTIM class on a 7,500 miles course south to round Ascension Island before turning back northwards to skirt the South American coast and finish in Martinique.
The elapsed time for the Banque Populaire XI duo is 14d 10h 14m 50s. They sailed the theoretical course at an average speed of 21.66 knots. They actually sailed 9263 nautical miles on the water at an average speed of 26.75 knots.
Whilst SVR Lazartigue (François Gabart and Tom Laperche) lead out of the Channel and on to the Bay of Biscay, Banque Populaire XI made their winning move at Madeira, has led since just after Ascension Island and was never overtaken since emerging the most southerly mark of the course.
When Le Cléac’h and Josse finished, their nearest rivals, second placed SVR Lazartigue were just over 160 nautical miles behind.
On his seventh challenge it is the first time the 2016-17 Vendée Globe winner Le Cléach has triumphed on the Coffee Route race whilst Josse won the 2013 Multihull race as skipper of the MOD 70 Edmond de Rothschild, sailing with Charles Caudrélier.
In front of a huge, noisy crowd which turned out to greet the first finishers as the race returns to Martinique for the second time, Le Cléach enthused at the victory pontoon, “This is a mythical course which it is great to finally win on. Victory is very much about the fruits of our work as a team, optimising and stabilising the boat, improving the performance of the boat which we have demonstrated on this course with very good speeds, with a great co-skipper in Sébastien. It was a super course.”
Josse, who has been with the team for over a year now and helped Le Cléac;h prepare for last year’s Route du Rhum, confirmed, “There is the satisfaction of doing a job well, the two of us together and with this team, sailing with Armel is incredible, we were always working looking for speed and performance from the tough conditions coming out of the Channel across the Bay of Biscay, coming back at François after he led, and being able to always be pushing for speed, it is very satisfying and to learn more about the boat over mile after mile, to find good speeds and with good humour is very satisfying.”
Le Cléac’h highlighted, “All of the course was fast, we were sitting at 35 knots and more for a lot of today. This is a boat which is coming of age, which is getting to its stage of maturity, thanks to the work of this team. It is a long time since I started a race like that we had 30-35 and up to 40 knots off Cherbourg after the start but the boat was super good. We were always in the match.”
“ I took a lot of pleasure from these 14 days with Sébastien. We had a great mood, a great feeling aboard. Francois and Tom passed ahead of us at Ascension Island and we stepped it up, downwind we had a bit more, and then a bit more still.” Le Cléac’h added
Having finished on all three steps of the Vendée Globe podium, including his triumph in 2016-17, and also winning La Solitaire du Figaro three times, in 2003, 2010 and 2020, this is Le Cléac’h’s first win on the Transat Jacques Vabre ‘Coffee Route’ race, his first victory with the 2021 launched ULTIM Maxi Banque Populaire XI and, indeed – as he was quicky to point out - his first ocean racing victory on a multihull.
This sought after multihull win finally exorcises a few multihull ghosts for 46 year old Le Cléac’h who initially turned his back on multihull racing after a horrific capsize and helicopter rescue from their ORMA trimaran when he and Irish co-skipper Damian Foxall were capsized by a huge wave early in his first Transat Jacques Vabre race in 2005.
On the 2018 solo Route du Rhum Le Cléach hit a large floating object which capsized his ULTIM Maxi Banque Populaire X which subsequently broke up and was lost after Le Cléac’h was helicoptered to safety. Four years later he lost a daggerboard and had to stop to repair into Lorient.
And the victory also has an added measure of satisfaction for Josse who in 2019 stood down as skipper of Edmond de Rothschild in favour of Caudrélier after having represented the team on the 2016-17 Vendée Globe which he had to retire from.
“Sébastien is an amazing sailor in every area, he is a great trimmer, driver, has great energy and a great sense of humour, we enjoyed each other’s company and proved to be a great team.” Le Cléach acknowledged.
“The pressure and intensity often builds up and it is good to break it with a little joke or a fun moment, I think Armel liked my good humour.” smiled Josse.
“Winning this race is great, it is done now, it has such a history. It is very different to winning La Solitaire or around the world. This is about 14 days of intense racing, you get the satisfaction, the enjoyment from sailing these incredible boats all the time, with the Figaro the pleasure comes later.” Le Cléach acknowledged.
In taking victory on this long, multidimensional course, which saw windspeeds from over 45 knots on the exit from the Channel to 10 knots in the Doldrums and long periods of upwind and downwind sailing, Banque Populaire XI also brings to an end the dominance of the Charles Caudrélier skippered Maxi Edmond de Rothschild.
Caudrélier won last year’s solo Route du Rhum Destination Guadeloupe on Maxi Edmond de Rothschild after having triumphed on the last Transat Jacques Vabre which Caudrélier raced with long time co-skipper Franck Cammas.
In the highly rarefied world of the ULTIM class great secrecy surrounded the improvements and updates that the leading contenders had made coming into this race. But Banque Populaire XI had served notice that they had made significant improvements when they won the 24H ULTIM Defi, a warm up 24hour sprint at the beginning of October, but on this Transatlantic race Le Cléac’h and Josse have proven how consistently quick the 2021 launched VPLP design now is across the range of windspeeds and sea states.
Their superior downwind speed has been particularly notable on the downwind climb in the stronger SE’ly trade winds when skirting the South American coasts along an extended exclusion zone. Often they were five knots or more faster than SVR Lazartigue which is lighter and said to be less forgiving than Banqe Populaire XI.
What proved to be their key move was planned well in advance by router Marcel van Triest and discussed with the two co-skippers in the immediate pre=start period. Le Cléac’h and Josse passed to the west of Martinique thus avoiding any wind-shadow and giving them a better angle to get west.
Mallorca based routing ace van Triest recalled, “The North Atlantic kept us in the match. It allowed us to be equal at Ascension Island and then the boat did the work for us. We were much faster after Ascension. The long port run down to the Equator gave us a significant lead, which we then lost to SVR on the beat to Ascension. But if we had come out of the Doldrums together then we would have been 200 miles behind at Ascension and then we would have been in a different system and then maybe they would have held on to that.”
While only time will tell if their nearest rivals on SVR Lazartigue (François Gabart and Tom Laperche) have any damage or technical failure Banque Populaire proved significantly quicker on the fast downwind in trade winds of around 20-25 knots,
“Sometimes it is just how you are trimmed, the sea state, the way you are set up but we seemed to find a mode which was fast and stable and sustainable. It is not about much but on a long gybe downwind. But we are happy, Banque Populaire is very much an all round boat conceived for round the world for bigger seas for bigger winds, but in lighter conditions, especially upwind Tom and Francois had an advantage” concluded Le Cléac’h
Cover photo @ Transat Jacques Vabre 2023