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The IMOCA fleet takes on the Atlantic in the last big race before the Vendée Globe

by Ed Gorman / IMOCA Globe Series 29 May 13:02 BST 29 May 2024
Preparations ahead of the New York Vendée-Les Sables d'Olonne © Marin Le Roux / polaRYSE / IMOCA

It's time for the IMOCA fleet to come home. Following a busy stopover in New York for some, and Newport, Rhode Island, for others, the fastest monohulls in world offshore ocean racing are ready to take on the north Atlantic again - this time going mainly downwind.

After an exciting The Transat CIC, that saw the fleet race from Lorient to the Big Apple, the second edition of the New York Vendée-Les Sables d'Olonne race will see 29 solo skippers start off the American coast on Thursday afternoon and then finish 3,600 nautical miles later off the host port of the Vendée Globe.

And that is quite fitting because this is the last major offshore race for the Class before this year's solo round-the-world classic begins on November 10. So it's a final chance for some skippers to qualify for the Vendée Globe, for others to test their boats in big downwind conditions that they might find in the Southern Ocean, and for others to practise once again the rhythm of solo racing.

Several skippers did not take part in The Transat CIC, but had their boats delivered to the US for this race. In that category are Frenchman Thomas Ruyant and the British sailor Sam Goodchild, the two VULNERABLE skippers from TR Racing.

Goodchild is eager to get going again after missing out on the first transatlantic race as part of a plan to preserve his energies in the run-up to the Vendée Globe. "For sure I am feeling ready to go and really excited to get back on the water," said the Briton, the reigning IMOCA Globe Series Champion. "The main reason for sitting out the last race was not to end up at the end of the year with an accumulation of tiredness, which would mean starting the Vendée Globe not in the best form, so I'm pretty happy to be here right now."

He says he might take it easy for the first few days of the race, to ensure he completes his mileage qualification for the Vendée Globe, but after that he is looking forward to putting the pedal to the metal. "This is a last opportunity to really test the boat, try and break things and then see what condition you are in when you get to the other side," he said.

Sam Goodchild last raced in this direction across the north Atlantic in last year's The Ocean Race, when he was part of the crew on Holcim-PRB that set a new monohull 24-hour distance record of 595.26 miles, underlining that this can be one of the fastest tracks in offshore sailing. However, the forecast for this race does not suggest that either that record, or Ruyant's solo 24-hour monohull record of 539.81 miles, set during last year's Retour à la Base, will be overtaken.

Talking of Ruyant, Goodchild believes his illustrious stablemate, who has won three transatlantic races in succession in two different boats - two Transat Jacques Vabre and one Route du Rhum - is the favourite for the win into Les Sables d'Olonne.

"Thomas is the favourite for sure," he said. "It will be interesting to see the clash between him and Yoann Richomme (the Paprec Arkéa skipper who won The Transat CIC and the Retour à la Base), but I'd still put my money on Thomas. The great thing about him is that this is his second boat with the same team and they have done one Vendée Globe, so their experience is huge and they know what they're doing, they know where they're going and they are solid," said Goodchild.

While he will be racing for another podium finish, among those trying to beat him will be the Frenchman Maxime Sorel, who recently conquered Mount Everest. The V and B-Monbana-Mayenne skipper was fifth in The Transat CIC and wants, at the very least, to repeat that on board his 2022-launched Guillaume Verdier design that is now carrying damage to its port foil.

"I'd like to stay in the leading group with the people I'm usually with - like Yannick Bestaven (Maître CoQ), Sam Goodchild and Boris Herrmann (Malizia-SeaExplorer)," said the 37-year-old skipper based in Concarneau.

Sorel is keeping an eye on what looks like being a challenging first few days in changeable conditions and has also studied what happened in the inaugural edition of this race eight years ago. "Although it will be downwind, we risk having some complex transition zones," he said. "I looked closely at what happened in 2016 (when the race was won by Jérémie Beyou in a time of nine days, 16 hours) and there were two groups, one to the north and one to the south, which came together at the end. The finish in the Bay of Biscay can also change the game. Anything can happen and that's how I am going to approach it - even if the start will favour new boats, we mustn't give up until the end."

Just like Goodchild, Sorel will be using this final contest before the Vendée Globe to test equipment for the round-the-world race, something he and his team also worked on during The Transat CIC. "We validated many things on the way over that we didn't imagine, especially because we did a lot of downwind sailing - including sails, the sensors that we changed, and the structure. It's a big plus because it shows that a good part is reliable, which is very cool for the team. We're going to continue validating things on the return, and definitively define the set of sails we'll have for the Vendée Globe," he said.

Among those still not certain of a place on the Vendée Globe startline is the 26-year-old British skipper of Gentoo Sailing Team, James Harayda. He finished 19th in The Transat CIC on board his 2007 Finot-Conq design after missing out on the Transat Jacques Vabre and the Retour à la Base last year because of rig damage.

Now Harayda needs the miles and can only hope he makes the cut as one of the 40 skippers who qualify for the round-the-world race. "The New York Vendée is going to be our last qualification race, so these miles are super-important. That is made even more so because there is a multiplier, so the mileage is 1.5 times what you sail, so it's important for me to get across the finish line," said Harayda.

The young sailor based in Gosport on the English south coast, who finished 14th in the Route du Rhum in 2022, will be devastated if he does not make the start in November. "My heart is set on this Vendée Globe - I am pretty desperate to do it."

During the break between races Harayda's boat required repairs to a cracked bulkhead in Newport and some minor work on sails but is now ready to go. "Traditionally this course is really fast and downwind usually, in a fairly big breeze. We are still a little bit of a way out from the start, but at the moment it looks interesting and a little bit tactical, particularly for the first couple of days. But hopefully we can get into a bigger breeze downwind and Gentoo seems to go quite well in those conditions," he said.

Although Harayda admits this might be his last race in the IMOCA Class if he does not make the Vendée Globe, he says he is going to try and enjoy it as much as possible and carry on improving his performance. "I've learnt quite a lot from The Transat CIC, so trying to just bring all of those learnings forward into this race is going to be important," he said.

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