With less than three days to the Monohull start, pressure is mounting on the pontoons of the Paul Vatine Basin in Le Havre for the 22 Open 50 and Open 60 teams. The strong low pressure system forecast for the kick-off has spiced up dockside conversation.
Open 60 Class
With a total of 17 boats on the start, 5 more than the last race in 2001, the IMOCA Class represents the biggest fleet out of the four in the TJV and boasts the most international field of skippers from 8 different countries. It is impossible to predict the strongest teams as the talent is so strong across the board and the proven class designs will be pitted against some new generation Open 60's.
The 2001 winner, World Champion French skipper Roland JOURDAIN is defending his title on board the proven Lombard design Sill, which is now owned by his co-skipper, 29 yr old Alex THOMSON, kicking off his 2004 Vendée Globe campaign in a strong position.
In this class, much attention is also being paid to the two brand new monohulls on their first offshore race. Virbac, the first Farr-designed Open 60, is in the hands of Jean-Pierre DICK. Next to her in the basin is the new Ecover, the third Owen-Clarke design after 'Pindar' and 'Team Cowes'. For British skippers Mike GOLDING and Brian THOMPSON, theirs will be a rude baptism when they hit 40 knot winds on the nose on the first night sailing down the English Channel but if anyone is up for the job, these two heavily experienced skippers are more than capable of winning through. Golding has occupied the other two podium positions in previous races and so the only one left for him to fill is the top spot. Another skipper on for raising the bar on his 3rd place performance from 2001 is Aussie Nick MOLONEY, racing with Figaro skipper Sam DAVIES on Team Cowes. A boat which is likely to threaten these skippers is Pindar, which is a highly competitive boat in terms of pure speed, and with past TJV winner Emma RICHARDS and the transatlantic record breaking Kiwi co-skipper Mike SANDERSON on board, this will be a team to watch out for.
Around Alone winner, Swiss skipper Bernard STAMM, with co-skipper Christophe LEBAS (Cheminées Poujoulat/Armor Lux) is renowned for his 'heavy foot', there are no brakes on this boat. Three ex-Vendée Globe skippers appear in the line-up: Joé SEETEN and Eric DUMONT (Arcelor-Dunkerque) as well as Dominique WAVRE, who has announced his new sponsor and boat name as Carrefour Prévention. The Vendée's winning boat, PRB, is now in the hands of skippers Vincent RIOU and Jeremie BEYOU, new to Open 60's but well grounded in other disciplines of offshore racing.
After a significant weight loss program over the winter, VMI, the Open 60 in the hands of Sébastien JOSSE and Isabelle AUTISSIER, will be for one a hard act to follow in any reaching conditions like the Trade winds. Another light and quick boat is Garnier, ex-Aquitaine Innovations, skippered by Belgian Patrick De RADIGUES with Elie CANIVENC. One dangerous skipper to watch is Spaniard Javier SANSO, who played cat and mouse with the top three 60's in 2001, and he is back on Objectif 3 (ex-Gartmore), this time with adventurer Charles HEDRICH.
With 7 boats represented in this fleet, Group Finot is still the dominant design: VMI, PRB, Arcelor-Dunkerque, Garnier, Carrefour Prévention, Objectif 3 and Loire-Atlantique (Antoine KOCH and François ROBERT) - all these boats were constructed between 1997 and 2000 with proven downwind performance and speed.
The race will be more of a challenge for the older boats in the fleet which came out between '89 and '92. However these four boats will have their own fierce competition: Gonnagitcha is being helmed by legendary skipper Mike BIRCH and his son ROBERT; Adecco is in the hands of another family team, Bob ESCOFFIER and his daughter Servane, 60e Sud is skippered by Vendée veteran Didier MUNDUTEGUY and there is a Canadian pairing on board Ciment St Laurent Océan of Georges LEBLANC and Marc NADEAU.
Open 50 class
Winner of the Transat Jacques Vabre 2001 in the Open 50 monohull class, Aussie Paul LARSEN could well put in a repeat performance. With British skipper Conrad HUMPHREYS, they are racing on board a winning boat. Designed in 1996 by Group Finot, Hellomoto (ex-Ashfield Healthcare/Cray Valley) won the Route du Rhum 2002 with Nick MOLONEY at the helm, and Around Alone 98-99 with Jean-Pierre MOULIGNÉ. Their main competition comes from 'le Défi Vendéen' skippered by Jean-François DURAND and Stéphane CHEMIN. This boat won the Saguenay/Saint-Pierre/Vendée transatlantic race this summer, and the Berret/Racoupeau 2002 design is a good all-round performer.
Heavier and older yachts, Branec III (Langevin/Lemay) and Labesfal (Diniz (POR)/Taylor (GBR) are pinning their hopes on a long upwind slog in heavy conditions for the first few days of the race in order to play their advantage. Labesfal weighs 13.4 tons, Branec III weighs 8 tons - a real drag compared to Hellomoto's 5.5 tons! The wild card is Storagetek, the smallest boat in the fleet. Winner of the 2000 Europe1NewMan Star with Jean-Marie ARTHAUD (Biotonic), Storagetek won Class III of the Route Rhum 2002 with helmsman Régis GUILLEMOT, who then elongated the hull by 5 foot in order to comply with the Class II monohull category for this event.
The Race Director will take a decision on the multihull start on Friday morning as the forecast is still for a strong low pressure system to arrive on Sunday morning. The monohull start is not affected as there will be a small anticyclone to calm the conditions enough for their Saturday afternoon start.