Until November Comes…
The public stage in the heart of the Europa Warm’Up Race Village in La Rochelle was abuzz for the final prize giving which concluded three weeks of intense and insightful racing. Many observers consider that the winner of the next Vendée Globe will be one of the skippers who have just competed in this invaluable final racing test before the big one starts in early November. The real question though is which one? The race has proven the very high level of the IMOCA Open 60 fleet and how close it is at the top, with boats racing within a matter of miles of each other constantly and often finishing within minutes of each other. Certainly there were key tactical choices on both legs, the crewed first stage from Barcelona to Cascais, and the demanding second leg, solo from Cascais to La Rochelle via the Azores and the Fastnet Rock light, but there have certainly been no one skipper or boat to have revealed a signigicant speed edge or advantage.
The overall winner of the Europa Warm’Up was indeed not decided until the last night of the race when Vincent Riou pushed himself and his PRB harder to drive a tiny wedge to MACIF that he was able to apply leverage on during the final miles. That was all that was in it.
The first leg was a useful learning spell, most taking full advantage of having technical shore crew and/or established aces from the IMOCA Open 60 firmament on board the fully crewed stage, such as double Vendée Globe winner Michel Desjoyeaux on Francois Gabart’s MACIF and Roland Jourdain, back to back winner of the solo Route du Rhum on Virbac-Paprec 3. The racing was close, with no quarter given and boats pushed to the limit, but most reflect afterwards that validation of their winter’s work – optimisation and updates – was more important that actual finishing positions.
And the solo stage was a proper full-on technicolour dress rehearsal, tough upwind and fast pedal to the metal downwind. Bernard Stamm proved his new Juan Yacht Design Cheminées Poujoulat to be veritable weapon, coming close to breaking the 24 hours solo monohull record.
But of course most will head back to their home bases in France and Spain with a full jobs list. Some have bigger issues – like Jean-Pierre Dick’s keel hydraulics and Kito de Pavant’s need to set a replacement rig on Groupe Bel. And Spain’s Javier ‘Bubi’ Sanso on ACCIONA 100% EcoPowered has food for thought after his first race. But of course foremost in each of their minds is the key Vendée Globe fundamental – to finish first, first you have to finish. Reliability is top of the agenda and this three week contest has gone some way to exposing weaknesses – large and small.
The ferocity of competition was set aside as the skippers acknowledged that one of their own had recently passed on. In homage to Jean Maurel, the popular ocean racer turned race director of many of France's leading ocean races, the skippers stopped racing during Friday's timed chrono races, halted all activity, sails flapping and observed a minute's silence, sprinkling flowers on the ocean.
Undoubtedly the course itself has pushed new boundaries for the IMOCA Open 60 class, wider and more prolonged use of social networks media by skippers, short bursts of easily shot and sent video have opened the skipper’s character to the worlds. Consistently there have been the messages from Kito de Pavant, entertaining, amusing, ironic, but always prepared to communicate his highs, lows and all points in between. From a technical standpoint Sanso proves the worth of his 100% Eco powered craft on the short course can surely be as reliable around the world. Francois Gabart is the exciting new, young blood in the class with the potential to win the Vendée Globe at his first attempt. But for the meantime it is the winner of the 2004-5 Vendée Globe Vincent Riou on PRB who proves his is, for the meantime, the man to beat. A sponsor who has been with him for eight years and in the class for longer, clearly is a most valued asset.
Jacques Caraes race director: “Above all this has been good having a crewed leg followed by a longer solo stage. This has enabled skippers to prepare these very sophisticated boats fully before an eight day long solo stage. It is an original idea but it has worked well for the skippers.”
Yannick Perrigot, Director of Windreport 'and member of the organizing committee of the Europa Warm'up: "I think we accomplished a lot in a short time. To organize such an event with just two months notice, with limited means was almost mission impossible. But the delivery of it all, from IMOCA, competitors, their sponsors, communication teams and Windreport team made it all possible. We've learned a lot and we aim to hold on to this spirit of cooperation go forwards to find ways and give the event the stature it deserves. "