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Single Handed Across The Atlantic The Hard Way: A Rich History Of The Transat


  • Single Handed Across The Atlantic The Hard Way: A Rich History Of The Transat

    On April 28th, 33 IMOCA skippers, 13 Class40 skippers, including some of the brightest and most talented, and 2 in the Vintage category, will set sail from Lorient. Their destination: New York City, navigating through a particularly demanding course in the North Atlantic.

    History of The Transat CIC

    The Transat CIC - solo ocean racing at its purest. It's a challenge punctuated by a succession of lows that sweep across the North Atlantic and generate headwinds, the great feature of this race. In the beginning, the record for the crossing was around 40 days. Today, the greatest solo specialists at the helm of the fastest boats can cover the same distance in just 8 days.


    The Transat was born out of a bet between a handful of British sailors to find out if they could cross the Atlantic single-handed and in what time. Among them were Sir Francis Chichester and Blondie Hasler. The concept, conceived in 1960, was initially criticised, derided and dismissed as insane. The very idea of a single-handed sailing race was revolutionary and virtually unheard of at the time, but these men had a goal and they were determined.

    Blondie Hasler was looking for sponsors for the race, but in 1959 no one was prepared to back him and his crazy idea. Finally, The Observer newspaper took the plunge, and in 1960, under the direction of the Royal Western Yacht Club of England, the Observer Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race, otherwise known as the OSTAR, was organised.

    Surprisingly, 115 people declared their intention to take part in the race, and 50 submitted an entry form, but only eight boats were officially entered and five set off from Plymouth.

    At the time, there was no satellite navigation system, just compasses and sextants. Deprived of today's technology, the sailors had few opportunities to send news to land, and as the days went by, anxiety grew. But after 40 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes at sea, Francis Chichester was the first to arrive in New York. "Every time I tried to make a direct course for New York, the wind started blowing right into Gipsy Moth's nose," explained Chichester on his arrival. "It was like trying to get to a door with a man standing in your way, a hose pointing at you".

    1964: The second OSTAR in 1964 was a springboard for one of the most eminent figures in solo sailing: Eric Tabarly. In 1960, Francis Chichester had completed the race in 40 days. Four years later, naval lieutenant Tabarly won the race in just 27 days, 3 hours and 56 minutes aboard his 44-foot ketch, Pen Duick II.

    The race took on an international flavour, with a total of 35 competitors from Sweden, Germany, the United States and South Africa in addition to the usual British and French skippers. That year, the North Atlantic was swept by a huge low-pressure system generating winds of over 60 knots.

    Many competitors broke down, sailing alone to face the terrible conditions. Only one competitor managed to pull ahead, taking advantage of the race rules, which did not prohibit weather routing. Geoffrey Williams, on Sir Thomas Lipton, was the first to use weather routing in a race. Thanks to a large high-frequency radio, he was able to communicate with meteorologists based in Bracknell.

    Warned of the storm, Williams chose a northerly route. This enabled him to avoid the worst of the depression and gain around 300 miles on his rivals. Williams eventually won the race, but weather routing was no longer authorised for subsequent editions. In 1968, no fewer than 13 multihulls lined up at the start. Among them was a 20-metre 'giant' (Pen Duick IV) skippered by ?ric Tabarly. But the trimaran suffered from a lack of preparation following the strikes of May 68 and the Frenchman was forced to retire.

    Before the storm, the British sailor Eric Willis, on board Coila, contracted a bacterial infection which caused him to lose consciousness. He later managed to piece together what he had been told and remembered that he had called Radio Halifax with an estimate of his position. Halifax asked him to stay on the line, but he went back to his bench and cut off the call. A search was launched and two rescue helicopters from the Apollo Space programme were sent to the area through thick fog. They managed to make out the fluorescent orange paint on the deck of the 60-foot Coila. Men dived in to board the boat and administer emergency medical treatment to the skipper. A rescue vessel towed the trimaran to Portland in Maine with a crewman on board who, according to Willis, "stowed my boat and didn't even drink any of my whisky".


    Eric Tabarly's trimaran, Pen Duick IV, is back in the race with Alain Colas, another leading figure in French solo sailing, at the helm. Of the 55 participants, 12 are French, including the first three finishers.

    Sailors are looking to go faster and faster, and the average size of the boats is increasing rapidly. Sign of a new era, the rules now impose a minimum size, to dissuade unsure entries, but no maximum size. The star of the monohulls is Vendredi Treize (skippered by Jean-Yves Terlain), a 39-metre three-masted schooner, immense for a solo skipper.

    Marie-Claude Fauroux (Aloa VII) was the first woman to complete the course. She finished in 14th place after 33 days at sea. Sir Francis Chichester, then aged 70, took the start aboard Gipsy Moth V, but was unable to complete the course of what would be his last race. He died a few months later. Peter Crowther made the longest crossing in history (88 days) in his old boat Golden Vanity, a 66 year-old auric cutter.


    Eric Tabarly's trimaran, Pen Duick IV, is back in the race with Alain Colas, another leading figure in French solo sailing, at the helm. Of the 55 participants, 12 are French, including the first three finishers.

    Sailors are looking to go faster and faster, and the average size of the boats is increasing rapidly. Sign of a new era, the rules now impose a minimum size, to dissuade unsure entries, but no maximum size. The star of the monohulls is Vendredi Treize (skippered by Jean-Yves Terlain), a 39-metre three-masted schooner, immense for a solo skipper.

    Marie-Claude Fauroux (Aloa VII) was the first woman to complete the course. She finished in 14th place after 33 days at sea. Sir Francis Chichester, then aged 70, took the start aboard Gipsy Moth V, but was unable to complete the course of what would be his last race. He died a few months later. Peter Crowther made the longest crossing in history (88 days) in his old boat Golden Vanity, a 66 year-old auric cutter.


    The race is once again dominated by multihulls. The top five places went to trimarans, and the event marked the end of equity between monohulls and multihulls. Following the 1976 edition, the organizers imposed a restriction on the length of the boats, now a maximum of 56 feet (17m), and on the number of participants, limited to 110 boats. Ninety competitors took the start of this 6th edition, which was marked by a marked drop in French participation, unhappy with the new rules.

    The race continues to innovate, with the first use of the Argos satellite positioning system. This technology makes it possible to track the progress of boats at a distance, and can also be used for distress calls, a method still widely used in ocean racing today.

    American Phil Weld won this edition, which was only his second participation. His trimaran Moxie was built especially for the race, to the limit of 56 feet (17 meters). He set a new record in 18 days (five less than the previous record), and his victory was all the more remarkable given that he was the oldest competitor in the event (65 years old). A total of sixty-seven boats crossed the finish line.


    The start of the 1984 edition was very lively. On the very first day, the fleet suffered a series of capsizes in very strong winds and several skippers were given time penalties for coming to the aid of other competitors. This year, however, only the capsize of Philippe Jeantot (Credit Agricole) in the middle of the Atlantic is being talked about, as the accident was a problem on arrival.

    Philippe Poupon (Fleury Michon) was the first to cross the finish line in Newport after 16 days, 11 hours and 55 minutes, but Yvon Fauconnier (Umupro Jardin) was declared the winner because he had spent 16 hours rescuing Jeantot. His finishing time fell to 16 days, 6 hours and 25 minutes, five hours faster than Poupon. Philippe Poupon, who learnt the news in the middle of the press conference about his victory, could not hide his great disappointment and burst into tears.

    On arrival, eight of the first ten competitors were French, and only the tenth boat was not a multihull. These first ten skippers completed the route in less than 17 days. The race becomes a transatlantic sprint.


    There were 95 participants in 1988. The trend then was towards electronics, weather files and automatic pilots. The solo sailor no longer had to be just an excellent sailor and a brave competitor; he or she also had to master computer tools.

    Thanks to the exceptional conditions on the Atlantic, Philippe Poupon followed a direct route throughout the course, smashing his own record, which fell to 10 days, 9 hours and 15 minutes, the equivalent of the great circle route, at an average speed of 11 knots.

    One of the most incredible stories of this edition of the race was the many whales encountered by the fleet. Mike Birch saw his trimaran FujiColor severely damaged following a collision with one of them. And a few days later, the British sailor David Sellings found himself surrounded by a school of 50 to 60 whales for three days, before finally being attacked. Sellings had just enough time to grab a few things and inflate his life raft before his boat sank. "It was terrifying", he later admitted aboard the German cargo ship that came to his rescue.


    Sixty-seven boats are lining up at the start of the Europe 1 STAR. Loick Peyron (FujiColor) is the favourite among the French racers, who now dominate this sport.

    During the first week, no clear leader emerged. It was difficult to make predictions, particularly given the unfavourable weather conditions at the start and the fact that the fleet was scattered across the Atlantic. Joyon headed north, Vatine south and Bourgnon and Peyron in the middle. It took almost a week for a leader to emerge. Finally, Bourgnon, then leader, broke his mainsail track, Arthaud capsized off Newfoundland and Poupon lost ground following a daggerboard problem. There was only one man left, Lo?ck Peyron, who put his foot on the accelerator and finished in the lead, more than 24 hours ahead of the second boat.

    The 1992 edition was full of pitfalls: storms, icebergs, cargo ships, fog and whales.

    Here is what Jack G. Ganssle, skipper of Amber, had to say on 12 June 1993:

    "The wind continued to pick up throughout the night, without stopping until mid-morning. I was surprised to learn that Philippe Poupon (nicknamed 'Gray Poupon' by some Americans) had retired after breaking his centreboard in the gale. Philippe was considered to be one of the big favourites in the race. Franck Ravez (Salsa), a young 22-year-old Frenchman, also retired just after the storm as he was too tired to continue. The person who mentioned these retirements announced others but didn't give any names. I wanted to know more. What had become of my other friends? Was Corkscrew progressing as Trevor had hoped? Was Diminutive Nord holding out? Was Little Fritzz still throwing his useless gear overboard?

    I knew there were competitors all around me. Fraser was somewhere ahead, and David probably to the south-east. On Amber's radar, there was nothing within 16 miles, but I didn't feel alone. I had the feeling that even though we were all alone in our boats, perhaps hundreds of miles apart, we were all together in spirit."

    Multihulls have become commonplace, and we are now witnessing a mainly Franco-French match, at least for victory. The amateurs are back in force in the smaller classes, while the spectators are waiting on the podium for Peyron, Bourgnon, Vatine or Joyon. The latter created a surprise by opting for a route not taken since Blondie Hasler's passage in 1960, the northerly option. Joyon is sailing very far north, avoiding the centres of the lows that are slowing down his rivals on the direct route. He had a lead of over 300 miles when he reached Newfoundland and nothing seemed to be able to stop him in his race for the record. But unstable winds slowed him down just 400 miles from the finish. The same misfortune befell Laurent Bourgnon.


    Loick Peyron can now savour a second victory. And despite having encountered less favourable weather conditions, he set a time very close to Philippe Poupon's record in 1988. Paul Vatine crossed the line four hours later.
    Here is an extract from Peter Crowther's logbook after his boat Galway Blazer sank on 24 June 1996.

    "I was standing by the chart table when we hit a wave on the front of the mast on the right-hand side with a horrible noise. It was as if an invisible man had kicked down a door. A torrent of green water gushed inside the boat. It was so powerful that I immediately knew there was no way of stopping it.

    I then rushed to send out a distress call on the radio, shouting my name, my position and I'M GIVING UP THE SHIP! In that very short time, I was already knee-deep in water. I grabbed the distress beacon and climbed into the life raft. When I cut the mooring ropes and the headsail sheet that was in the way, the bow was already submerged.

    I sat down on the deflated roof, absolutely soaked. I whispered to myself: 'Thank you for all those years of sailing. The inside of the raft was very confined and you couldn't see the horizon. I wanted to launch a rocket but they were too old and didn't work any more. It was great.

    Suddenly I saw a Nimrod plane and called it on the VHF. They told me that a boat had gone out to meet me, and they kindly kept in touch with me and the boat's captain.

    Shortly afterwards, I saw the 'Atlantic Compass' appear on the horizon. They came up to me and threw me a piece. The door was three metres above me and you had to climb a ladder. I knew I wasn't safe yet. In my panic, I realised that I had one leg behind the rope ladder against the hull and one leg in front. I still managed to climb up and thanked everyone I could see. Then I called my wife and daughters and told myself I was happy to be alive. We shared our sorrow at having lost such a beautiful boat".


    This edition is considered to be 'Ellen's year'. At just 23 years of age, she is the youngest competitor in the fleet and nobody expects her to be at this level. On the water, everyone is impressed.

    Seven 60-foot trimarans are taking part in the Europe 1 New Man STAR 2000, but the largest fleet is the Open 60s, with no fewer than 24 entries. Many of them are taking part in the transatlantic race as training and qualification for the Vend?e Globe, which starts a few months later, in November.

    The level of competition among the Open 60s is very high, with Thomas Coville, Michel Desjoyeaux, Yves Parlier, Mike Golding, Roland Jourdain and Dominique Wavre the favourites. But in the end, the winner won't be any of them. It's a brand new boat, taking part in its first race, with a 23-year-old Englishwoman at the helm. Who would have bet on her?

    On the ninth day of the race, Ellen MacArthur made a superb weather move. She spotted a soft patch on her course, decided to tack unfavourably to the north and eventually took a lead of 75 miles over the rest of the fleet, which she would hold until the finish. It was a decisive moment in her career, as the sailing world realised that the young Englishwoman was not there to make up the numbers and that she was capable of winning.

    "One thing I've learnt this year is that if you have a dream deep in your heart, then you can and should make it come true"
    - Ellen MacArthur


    In 2004, the event was split into two, with a race for professional skippers only, organised by OC Sport and simply called THE TRANSAT, and the traditional OSTAR open to amateurs and organised by the Royal Western Yacht Club the following year. The Transat brings together a total of 40 boats, IMOCA 60 monohulls, 50-foot monohulls and multihulls, with an unprecedented level of competition.

    But a week after the start, a storm swept across the North Atlantic and turned the race into a spectacular affair, with an unprecedented series of rescues in the space of a few hours. Jean-Pierre Dick's boat did a 360 in a wave and dismasted in 50 knots of wind. Vincent Riou on PRB also dismasted. Bernard Stamm was forced to abandon his IMOCA 60 Cheminees Poujoulat-Armor Lux after losing his keel and capsizing. On arrival in Boston, Michel Desjoyeaux won aboard his ORMA trimaran by just three hours over Thomas Coville, after 8 days at sea. At the head of the IMOCA 60 fleet, Mike Golding won in Boston after 12 days, and also three hours ahead of second-placed Dominique Wavre.

    Bernard Stamm was the unluckiest of the fleet. He was forced to activate his distress beacon and abandon his boat after losing his keel and capsizing. He was rescued by the crew of a small tanker and later returned to recover his IMOCA 60 with a tug based in Newfoundland, 360 miles from his position.


    The 2008 edition of the oldest single-handed ocean race, this year named the Artemis Transat, brought together 13 IMOCA and 10 Class 40 skippers. Three of them did not finish the race, and Vincent Riou was forced to abandon his IMOCA 60 in mid-Atlantic.

    After a collision with a basking shark, PRB's keel is severely damaged, and its skipper feels unsafe as a violent storm approaches. He prefers to abandon the boat. Race director Sylvie Viant asked Loick Peyron, the closest competitor at the time, to divert to rescue Vincent Riou. To simplify the transfer, Vincent Riou launched his life raft. The operation, facilitated by the mild conditions at the time of the rescue, was a success.

    Despite the obstacles, this was the fastest edition of the event since its inception forty-eight years ago. From the very first day, the monohull record held by Mike Golding on Ecover since 2004 was threatened. At the head of the fleet, Loick Peyron was ahead of the Briton. He finally won in 12 days, 11 hours and 45 minutes, four weeks less than Sir Francis Chichester's first crossing in 1960.


    The return of the Transat after an 8-year absence was a great success, with 25 boats on the start line and the Ultime class - dominated by Francois Gabart - making a spectacular entry into the race.

    Apart from the Ultime class, the second major innovation was the introduction of a pre-start from Saint Malo to Plymouth. This 'Warm Up' was a great success, whether for the sailors, the sponsors or the French public.

    In this edition, it was Francois Gabart who made history after a long downwind leg across the Atlantic and just 8 days and 54 minutes of racing. His average speed - 23.11 knots - was three times faster than that of the last competitor to cross the line, Japan's Hiroshi Kitada, who completed his crossing in 22 days, 18 hours and three minutes. Aboard his Class 40, Kiho, he became the first Japanese sailor to complete this race.

    Between these two boats, the event lived up to its reputation. The majority of the skippers were French, but there were five sailors of other nationalities, including two Germans and two British. Six competitors, i.e. a quarter of the fleet, were unable to complete the race, including the British skipper Richard Tolkien. Injured, Tolkien had to abandon his boat in the middle of the Atlantic and board a cargo ship. Apart from the Ultimes, who sailed a southerly course, most of the competitors had to contend with a major storm in the North Atlantic and also had to negotiate several lighter depressions.

    The Transat bakerly highlighted several confrontations between the best sailors in the world. In the Ultime class, the duel was between Thomas Coville (Sodebo) and Francois Gabart (Macif). In the IMOCA class, it was Vincent Riou and Armel Le Cleac'h who battled it out throughout the Atlantic crossing. In Class 40, the battle was more open between four great sailors. Thibaut Vauchel-Camus (Solidaires en Peloton - ARSEP), Louis Duc (Carac), Phil Sharp (Iremys) and Isabelle Joschke (Generali Horizon Mixite), who was forced to retire. In the Multi 50s, Gilles Lamire (Rennes French Tech) won ahead of Lalou Roucayrol (Arkema).

    Beyond that, the Banque Populaire / PRB match in the IMOCA class was that of two generations of boats and it was the former, equipped with foils, which came out on top against a PRB in a more conventional configuration. Le Cleac'h didn't have much of a lead, but he controlled Vincent Riou for the majority of the race, demonstrating that even on a course dominated by upwind sailing, foilers can still have the advantage.

    Last edited by Photoboy; 03-19-2024, 12:34 PM.
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