The Route du Rhum is one of the most gruelling sail races existing, 3540 miles across the Atlantic in repeated storms, battered and beaten by a violent sea, southerly or northerly options, and catching the trade winds as soon as possible.
With only one day to go until the first start, weather patterns are being studied and routing options being discussed. Many competitors have access to a high level of routing information but as you'll see below - The best way to go is anything but clear cut.
The Channel and the North Atlantic are more often than not, subject to a barrage of gusts generated by the depressions which file into the North of Britain. The scene is set: generally the wind from the dominant westerly sector sweeps into the Channel at the start of the Route du Rhum and the boats plunge from the outset into cold and wet headwinds. The first 36 hours can be vicious and a deciding factor in the result.
The exit out of the Channel is the first important challenge and the competitors head either to the north of the shipping lane towards Britain or stick to the coast of North Brittany (France) to avoid the breaking sea. Currents, important shipping lanes and fishing pots are difficult problems to handle.
Once out of the Channel the ocean opens out. Hard weather and a demanding sea are often present in the Bay of Biscay and the competitors will with caution try to get out of there without breaking the boats or themselves. This is when the tactical options are made and a split in the fleet can be seen.
A northerly, southerly or median course: anything is possible. In 1978 Mike Birch opted for the south, Marc Pajot in 1982 passed in between the two courses as did Philippe Poupon in 1986, Florence Arthaud chose the north in 1990 and Laurent Bourgnon in 1994 and 1998 headed north at the start to plunge south into the centre of the course. Each of them winning on completely different options
The competitors traditionally face repeated depressions in the first half of the race. They must choose their course according to the position of the anticyclonic Azores High which they have to cross in the right place at the right time. The larger the anticyclone the more difficult it will be to find the right trajectory.
One single error could mark the end. There are storms to endure, and everyone will have a taste of it. Every edition of the race has had its fair share of strong winds on the nose and on average between two and three depressions have to be endured.
The next big difficulty affects all the boats, you have to find the balance of pushing the boat and holding it back. You have to know how and when to take your foot off the accelerator to preserve your boat for the fast rides to come.
The deliverance comes at the end of around six days of racing. The aim is of course to catch the trade winds as quickly as possible and to cross the intermediate no man's land between the systems. And though the multihulls haul themselves out faster than the monohulls, it is in the second part of the course that the gaps really start to open up between the two fleets. The warm winds will push the multihulls at full speed towards Guadeloupe either by stringing together a set of gybes or by descending on a direct course for those who have opted for a northerly option.
At this particular point in the race, the waves are less likely to trip up the racers, the multihulls are at full speed and the sailors can rest a little more after days of permanent battle and stress. The finish is not far away but the weather forecast and its complexities will have contributed a number of challenges along the way.
The Route du Rhum is a cocktail of highs and lows, hot and cold, tension and relief, suffering and joy.