PLYMOUTH, England — Twenty-four yachts will set out to race 3,050 nautical miles across the North Atlantic on Monday, each crewed by a single skipper in one of the greatest challenges in the sport of ocean sailing.
They will leave the safety of Plymouth on the south of coast of England and set course for New York City in the 14th edition of the famous Transat race, now called the Transat bakerly thanks to sponsorship provided by the bakerly company of France.
Each yacht is sailing in the wake of history.
The Transat began life in 1960 as a dare between British sailors to see if the North Atlantic could be crossed solo and who would be fastest if it could. They included two legends of single-handed yacht racing in Sir Francis Chichester and Blondie Hasler. When they devised the concept it was at first ridiculed, then criticized as foolhardy; all of which combined to make the first competitors even more determined to meet the challenge.
The whole idea of a single-handed yacht race was revolutionary and almost unheard of at the time, but they didn’t care. Eight men sailed off into sporting history under the auspices of the Royal Western Yacht Club of England.
Fast forward to 2016. Today the Transat race is seen as a fixture in the sport of sailing and a test of character for competitors challenging the sea and themselves. There are 24 competitive boats this year — 10 Class40, six Imoca, five Multi50, and three massive Ultime multihulls. The final boat is Pen Duick II which is not racing, but will make the voyage at the tail of the fleet.
The biggest entrant is Macif, a 100-foot Ultime multihull. The next two largest come in at around 90 feet.
For an idea of the scale of some of the yachts competing across the four classes — and their speed — see the video below shot off the coast of St Malo, France, during a warm-up race.
Thomas Coville, 47, is one of the world’s most accomplished offshore sailors and the Frenchman has been at the top of the professional scene for over 20 years. His score sheet includes numerous Jules Verne Trophy runs and a Volvo Ocean Race victory. He sees the Transat as an elemental challenge steeped in sporting folklore.
Coville is inspired by Eric Tabarly of France, the man who won the race in 1964 and sparked a generation of French offshore sailing talent to emulate his feats – but he is also driven by some more recent memories.
“When I was a kid, I remember my dad speaking about Eric Tabarly. My dad’s admiration for him was inspiring. The French taking on the English at their game – that confrontation was great,” Colville said.
“For me, it is that combined with lots of other little memories that make it a special race. Racing against Michel Desjoyeaux in 2004, and arriving into Boston after such a big battle – for me that is still one of the best battles Michel and I have had and he is one of the best solo sailors in the world.
“This race is also the historical Transat – it existed before all the others and it is the hardest. The wind, the waves, and most of the time racing close to icebergs. It is for the adventure that we go offshore and this race has a lot of that.”
The slowest passage in the Transat is 88 days completed by British sailor Peter Crowther and his boat Golden Vanity. The fastest time goes to Frenchman Loick Peyron onboard Gitana Eighty with a run of 12 days, 8 hours, 45 min.
This year that record could be sliced to as little as eight days for the three skippers in the Ultime class, Thomas Coville, Yves le Blevec, and Francois Gabart, or last as many as 15 days for the 10 Class 40s competing.
The 2016 Transat bakerly starts off Plymouth on Monday, May 2nd.