Brisk conditions still expected
The start to the Transat Jacques Vabre may have been delayed – now due to begin off Le Havre on Wednesday at 1500 CET– but it will still be very challenging exit from the Channel, fast reaching in big, confused seas into a building breeze towards the remainder of the storm which has held the fleet in port since Sunday.
In fact it is likely to be especially demanding for the faster boats - the leaders in the Multi50 and IMOCA Open 60 classes are still expecting winds close to 50 knots after a fast start, accompanied by big, confused seas.
Immediately the doublehanded crews will set off at high speeds, setting a fierce pace which will require them to find their ultimate race level early on, flying headlong first towards the stormy conditions and then a strategic puzzle which could influence the outcome of the race for all three classes.
But the consensus among the fleets is that the delay of the held start could be made good further down the course to Puerto Limon, Costa Rica.
The exit from the English Channel looks to be at express speed, but relatively straightforward in terms of strategic options. The residual northwesterly swell from the depression will be hit at speed thanks to a strong southerly breeze and so potentially the biggest question will be how to regulate the pace.
Out to Ushant will be quick, bouncy and at times unpleasant. The consensus though is that is then best to get west as quick as possible to be first to the northwest-westerly winds which will in turn present the opportunity to get south, if desired.
At the weekend it will be time to deal with a ridge of high pressure extending north from the Azores. Usually this type of ridge, in the wake of a depression, can be difficult and unpredictable, but the key is to get through before the high pressure extends to the north. So they can try to drag south in a corridor of northerly winds or to keep west and try to cross the high quicker.
After the weekend and into the middle of next week there is the arrival of another low pressure system. Those who can get across the high earliest then have, in turn, the best opportunity to use the low to best effect. The questions are over the evolution of the Azores high pressure for those who go south, or those in the north who may get hurt by the Bermuda high.
Regardless of the initial routing and the options and taking into account the usual uncertainties of the Caribbean weather, a passage of 13-14 days is expected for the IMOCA Open 60s and the Multi 50s.
As Eric Mas of Météo Consult explained: “It can be quite an interesting course. Everyone to start with will try and negotiate the first low in the same way but then the courses can diverge. The first choice to be made is whether to head off west and face some nasty seas or to ease the sheets. After that, most of the fleet is likely to remain to the north of the Azores high, which is currently building and to the south of another low-pressure system. The key will be finding the right balance between these two systems. In addition to that there is the question that will not be raised until after a week of racing, when they will have to decide when to start to turn left and head south. The Multi50s may find it easier to slip down the coast of Portugal to pick up the trade winds, even if they are still light…
Some of the skippers shared their thoughts. "The low pressure that prompted us to hold back the start diminishes as it arrives in Europe," said MACIF skipper, Francois Gabart. "We're going out to meet it and I think the seas will be more complicated to manage than the winds, there will be no strategic choices to make. The first night will be sporty but reasonable to manage.”
Yann Elies, co-skipper on Safran added: “We may have postponed the start, but we have not changed the weather situation. Even if the famous low-pressure area which made us wait seems to have lost some of its intensity, we shall still be facing heavy seas with 7-8m high waves. The wind should mean slightly easier conditions at the start – a 20-25 knot southerly, then 30-35 knots as we get closer to the low. The conditions are just that little bit more acceptable for us, but are still going to be tough particularly for the Multi 50s.”
Gamesa skipper Mike Golding said: “Both models, the European and the GFS weather models are still a little different in terms of the intensity of it. The European model shows it to be breezy tomorrow (Wednesday) but it to be fine down the course, but the GFS American model is still intense and showing 50kts plus for tomorrow start time but at the outer end of the Channel. The thing is we will get there fast, and so it is a question of timing. It will dissipate quite quickly but the front runners will get it first. And we will get there quick. The question is timing and how the timing on the files matches are correct, so we will all take a bit of a beating, but it is not the wind but the sea state. The good thing is that the wind is from the south and so it should be too severe, but we all know that in the Channel it can be just as bad as anywhere else in the world.”
Tanguy de Lamotte skipper of the Class 40 favourite, Initiatives Alex Olivier, added: ""The road of the first day will be a little the same for everyone. Once past the first front, it will change. It should be very fast. There will be a second depression to negotiate but I think we will have a route close to the great circle. For now the trade wind is not there : so to play the southern route seems risky to me. I think for Class40, the solution lies in the great circle route. Whatever the first week should be very fast. "
Ned Collier-Wakefield skipper of Concise 2 said: “It is looking much better and I think everyone is happy we stayed. We are still going to be still getting a big breeze, but it will be reaching and the sea will be a little calmer, rather than on the nose. And it is looking like we will do some 300 miles days initially, which is nice and so our overall ETA is much the same as it would have been Sunday. We had some big winds when we did Round Britain last year and we had some big winds in the Transat we did earlier in the year back from Newport, so we are happy. And of course Pete Goss did the Route du Rhum-La Banque Postale last year and so hopefully we have broken everything we are going to break. The strategy is to get west quick as possible. Then there will be a few holes to work through, we can’t go too far high because you will get stuck in the high and too far north and there is another low. I reckon options-wise that the fleet will stay together initially. There is no option to go south early. So I think we will all go due west out of the Channel. It will be the second or third generation boats which will go well reaching to start with and then as it goes light maybe the older boats will catch up a bit.”