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Light winds, great expectations at the start of the Transat Paprec

by Transat Paprec 30 Apr 2023 18:55 BST 30 April 2023
Transat Paprec start: EDENRED (Basile Bourgnon and Violette Dorange) under gennaker after the start © Alexis Courcoux

The 11 mixed doubles crews starting the 3089 nautical miles Transat Paprec on their equally matched 10 metre Figaro BENETEAU one designs had only a light, changeable breeze for the starting circuit which took them out of the Bay of Port La Forêt before heading out to what is forecast to be a moderate passage across Bay of Biscay.

This double-handed race from Concarneau across the Atlantic to Saint Barthélemy in the French West Indies was first contested as the Transat AG2R in 1992 but now transitions to male-female duos only following the initiative of sponsors, French recycling giants Paprec, and race owners and organisers OC Pen Duick.

The relatively benign conditions at the start, a shifty, 3-8kts NW'ly breeze under leaden grey skies, set the tone for the first 24 hours on passage across the Bay of Biscay. The pairs should have mainly downwind and reaching conditions in a building breeze before a key strategic phase, negotiating their exit out of a high pressure ridge which might well establish the long term hierarchy on this 1280 miles southwards march to a turning mark off La Palma, the tiny volcanic Canary island NW of Tenerife.

For all that the eager duos had a Transatlantic ahead of them - their first for over half the 22 sailors - the start had all the intensity of a typical Figaro race short course training session on the famous Finistère stretch of water where so many French sailing legends have prepared. Two boats were closed out at the start buoy and had to recross the line, immediately putting them on the back foot.

After a short round-the-buoys circuit in the bay, probably enjoyed more by the sizeable spectator fleet on the water than the racers who had to contend with big shifts in wind direction and strength, many of the favourites were already imposing themselves. Région Normandie's Guillaume Pirouelle - runner up on last year's La Solitaire du Figaro - sailing with Sophie Faguet - were setting the early pace. Pirouelle, a past 470 Olympic dinghy youth world champion finished fifth on this course last year racing with Alexis Loison.

While this new initiative is partly about facilitating and opening high level ocean racing to many more women, improving access and fast tracking skillsets, France has already led the way in producing top female solo offshore sailors who have ranked on equal terms with male counterparts.

Indeed in 2000 this race was won by Karine Fauconnier racing with Lionel Lemonchois, the only mixed duo to triumph. And the younger generation of French offshore sailors, especially, already show equal respect for their female counterparts. Elodie Bonafous, 27, who was a favourite on this event until she had to withdraw last month due to a knee injury, already finished third on the final leg of the 2022 La Solitaire du Figaro and will be among the favourites for the solo pinnacle race in late August.

Among those new generation top seeds expected to do will this time are Gaston Morvan, whose father Gildas is many time French offshore champion in the Figaro who won this race in 2012 with young Figaro rookie Charlie Dalin. Morvan forms something of a dream team with Anne Claire Le Berre who at 41 brings an incredible breadth of experience to Région Bretagne CMB Performance. A mother of two young children who has been a successful Olympic classes sailor and match racer, Le Berre put her career as a long time Technical Director on Sam Davies IMOCA project on hold to go ocean racing in the Mini class.

And at 20, sailing EDENRED with Violette Dorange, the powerful Basile Bourgnon shows poise, talent and of charm as the youngest skipper on the race, He is the son of famous Swiss racer Laurent Bourgnon who at 20 sailed a Hobie 18 across the Atlantic with his brother Yvan before going on to win La Solitaire as a rookie in 1988. He twice won the Route du Rhum and also the Transat Jacques Vabre but disappeared in a diving accident in 2015.

It looks like the fleet will have to be patient before they get into fast trade winds sailing for an express passage to the Canaries mark. The duos which extract themselves first from the main high pressure later in the week and get into the trades will gain a big advantage accelerating downwind under spinnaker. But often this course goes to the wire and minutes separate the finishes into Saint Barth's while large quantities of weed in the western Atlantic will certainly tax the teams' patience and perhaps their inventiveness.

The light winds are due to veer to the East and build on Monday afternoon when the pace should build towards Cape Finisterre on the NW corner of Spain.

The first transition in the morning of Monday as the high pressure ridge moves east pushed by a depression to the west in the Atlantic.

"By the afternoon there will be about 15 kts from the east but after that is seems more uncertain how to model the evolution of the depression. But there are no Portuguese trade winds as it is hot in spain with no thermal low and the Azores high is quite far north. So it will not be easy." Explains Yann Chateau, Assistant Race Director.

Christian Dumard, weather adviser to some of the teams such as Skipper Macif (Lois Berrehar and Charlotte Yven), says, "The first key is the first transition then the second is after Cape Finisterre and at Portugal where it is very messy, there are no Portuguese trade winds at the moment and so the wind there is shifty and erratic so they need to have a clear idea of what is going to happen. On the 5th (Friday) there is a high pressure ridge. So the question then is crossing the high pressure ridge do they cross it in the west or the east? And how is it going to develop? That is a key issue."

He adds, "The trade winds really start at about Cape Saint Vincent, maybe between Lisbon and Cape Saint Vincent, and after that it is quite straightforward in the trades to the mark at the Canaries. There are some routings which go quite west."

But he cautions, "The race might even be won or lost on the first night... Depending who gets out of the high pressure first but really the advantage can come in five days time who gets out of the big ridge and gets away under spinnaker downwind in the trades."

They said:

Basile Bourgnon and Violette Dorange (EDENRED):
"We will have to position ourselves well and be on the attack from the start."

Gaston Morvan and Anne-Claire Le Berre (Région Bretagne - CMB Performance):
"It's really great this start, we feel good (Anne-Claire)! It makes me really weird, it's my first big race like this, with a real 'adventure' dimension. We hope to have fun to finish with a good place and enjoy a good atmosphere. We are well prepared and hope to be pushing at the top of the flee. We know that there will be random elements but everything we can control we will try to control."

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