18 competing 60-foot Orma trimarans and 17 60-foot Imoca monohulls, promises a spectacular start on Saturday and Sunday off Saint-Malo in Brittany, France.
The 17 competitors of the Imoca 60-foot monohull class will face some tough opposition. The competition is on between the former Vendee Globe top ten. A tight race is expected between the stars of solo racing, with names like Ellen MacArthur, Roland Jourdain, Mike Golding, Joe Seeten and Dominique Wavre set to hit the headlines.
Ellen MacArthur and Roland Jourdain may prove to be the greatest rivals. Jourdain has won every race he has entered since the Vendee Globe 2000/2001 (3rd), and is keen to win this one as well. Ellen MacArthur is racing her 60-foot Kingfisher for the last time and will, as always, be determined to give the successful boat a grand send off.
Mike Golding has a vast experience of ocean and solo racing with many podium finishes; there is just a first in solo missing. "This will be the first solo since the Vendée Globe and it will be an interesting rematch for all of us. In addition there are some new names not reckoned to be favourites but they are really good. Sebastian Josse [on VMI] and Jean Pierre Dick [on Virbac] are worth looking out for. They are really good sailors and very well prepared,"
said the British ocean race specialist, who finished in a respectable seventh place in the last Vendée Globe, despite dismasting the first night.
Media and public all over the world will be keeping a close eye on race favourite Ellen MacArthur, "I think the expectations of the public will add a bit of tension. Everyone is expecting me to put up a fine result, but for me I will just leave Saint-Malo and do my best - if this leads me to the podium, I will be very happy!"
said the modest young "Queen of the Oceans".
Race veteran Mike Birch will race this year's edition on a boat in the IMOCA class with almost as an impressive history as its skipper. The boat, who has finally got a name for this Route du Rhum, Tir Groupé - Montres Yéma, is the ex UUNET, lent by Philippe Monnet, and has many thousand miles on its track record. She has raced around the world several times, including breaking the record the "wrong way around".
Canadian Birch has moved back to his home country and has not been sailing much during the last two years, but he is reasonably calm about the coming challenge. "I am in good shape and naturally I do not need much sleep. The first week will not be fun, but it will be good for the health,"
said the 71 year-old enthusiast with a physique anyone would envy.
The Orma 60-foot mulithull class is the most spectacular class to be seen, with its 18 competing monster spider trimarans. Never before in history have there been so many competitors of such great quality as in the line up of the 60-foot trimarans in this year's Route du Rhum. 18 strong, thick skinned skippers will battle in tremendous speeds to the finish line on these "Formula 1's of the ocean", and a great number of them have a chance of a podium finish.
The most successful will arrive in Guadeloupe with a boat in one piece after harmonising speed and caution. Never the less there are always some pre-race favourites, primarily those who have a long experience, a boat of the latest generation, and still have had time to get to know the boat. Loick Peyron on Fujifilm and Franck Cammas on Groupama know their boats inside out, have sailed a huge amount of miles both solo and crewed, and have the determination to win. Alain Gautier on Foncia, Jean Luc Nélias on Belgacom Jean le Cam on Bonduelle, Lalou Roucayrol on Banque Populaire and Marc Guillemot on Biscuit la Trinitaine - Team Ethypharm are five more strong names in this group.
The second group are just as good yachtsmen as those above, but have either an older, less high performance boat or have too recent a boat to have had time to sail on it enough.
Yvan Bourgnon skippering Rexona Men (former Primagaz 1994), on which his brother Laurent won the two previous Route du Rhums, knows her inside out, which is surely a great advantage in a solo sail across the Atlantic on these monster machines, even if she is now rather dated. Steve Ravussin on Technomarine, Italian Giovanni Soldini on Tim, Bernard le Broc on Banque Covefi, and Francis Joyon on Eure et Loir-Lorénove all have slightly less high performance trimarans than the latest generation, but are comfortable with their boats.
Michel Desjoyeaux on Géant is probably the best known skipper of those with brand new boats. His Géant dismasted almost as soon as it was put in the water, and the former Vendée Globe winner has not had a lot of time to sail his new machine. It will be the first solo Transatlantic on a 60-foot trimaran for Désjoyeaux, as well as for Lionel Lemonchois on Gitana X, Thomas Coville on Sodebo, Philippe Monnet on Sopra Group, and Frédéric Le Peutrec on Bayer CropScience, all on brand new boats.
Last but not least there is one brave woman in this class, 30 year old Karine Fauconnier, from La Rochelle in France, on Sergio Tacchini. Karine has a vast experience of ocean sailing and has clocked up many miles with her boat since its launch last year, both crewed and single handed, with one main objective - the Route du Rhum.
News in brief
The Race Committee of the Route du Rhum has been spending the last few days visiting boat by boat to do the traditional and highly important safety check of the 59 competitors. They check the presence and the function of all the compulsory safety and communication equipment. The list consists of more than 250 points to tick off, and it could take up to three hours for two to check one boat.
Mike Birch has finally found the funding
Mike Birch has finally found the sponsors for his seventh participation in the Route du Rhum: Tir Groupé - Montres Yema. Short of budget just a few days before the start, the French media has surely helped to contribute convincing the companies Tir Groupé (Chèques Cadeaux) and Montres Yema to sponsor this 71 year old legend of ocean racing. Last night it was announced that the Région Archipel Guadeloupe also had decided to support the grand sailor.
Nick Moloney confirms sponsor
Australian Nick Maloney and Offshore Challenges announced his new sponsor for the Route du Rhum, Ashfield Healthcare. Ashfield first became involved in Moloney's campaign at the Cowes Week regatta in 2001 through a corporate entertainment programme and later became a business partner to Ellen MacArthur's Offshore Challenges Sailing Team.
Moloney is racing the Route du Rhum on Ashfield Healthcare in class 2 monohulls, "The ultimate vision of ocean racing is one person racing around the world. My primary goal is the Vendée Globe 2004 and the Route du Rhum is an opportunity to see if I can handle it," said the well prepared Australian on the dock earlier today.