BEFORE THEY SET SAIL THE IMOCA SKIPPERS MUST COPE WITH THE CRAZINESS OF ST MALO
Could it be that the hardest part of the Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe for the solo skippers on this 3,500-mile transatlantic classic is not the sailing – or the feared first week – but the challenge of the 10-day build-up in St Malo?
Veterans of this four-yearly sailing festival will tell you that the pressure on skippers is relentless as they deal with the huge numbers of general public coming to see the fleet before the start, the demands of the media, the demands of their own sponsors and guests, time spent with visiting family and friends and the requirements of the race organisers.
This week at the race village in St Malo the crowds have been massing four-deep above the IMOCA pontoon where no less than 38 60ft monohulls – a record entry for the Class – are being prepared for the dash to Guadeloupe starting on November 6th. And the skippers are super-busy.
Romain Attanasio, the 45-year-old skipper of Fortinet-Best Western, has among the biggest programme of sponsor commitments in the fleet as he prepares for his second Route du Rhum and the public love him too, so he has very little time for his own preparations for the race.
“It is very difficult because we have to share our time between watching the weather forecast before the start and working with the team, and all the things we have to do for the sponsor, for the race organisation and for the public,”he said. “Because every time you work on the pontoon somebody comes to shake your hand and asks to take a picture or something like that. The most difficult thing over the next 10 days is to concentrate and to stay focused on the race – that is the hardest thing for me to be honest.”
Some skippers, especially the French ones who are based elsewhere in Brittany, are able to go home in the middle of the build-up and re-charge their batteries, but Attanasio will not have that luxury. “I can’t do that because I have a lot of things to do every day and my sponsor has a place in the market just here and Fortinet has a lodge here with important guests. Every day I have to talk with everybody about the boat, or show them the boat – I have a lot of things to do. And I have to do some sport every day too – try to find the time to go running…”
For the Swiss sailor Ollie Heer, at the helm of 2007-vintage Farr-designed Oliver Heer Ocean Racing – Attanasio’s old boat – this will be his first big race in the IMOCA Class and his first Route du Rhum as a skipper. But he knows what to expect in St Malo from his years as boat captain for British sailor Alex Thomson and his Hugo Boss campaigns.
“I know what’s happening here, but I was never in the position as a skipper, so it’s a big contrast after doing a final training session offshore and then coming into port and having lots of people around – the crowd. We’ve already done lots of boat tours, we’ve got sponsors turning up and friends and family turning up,” he explained.
Now based at Port La Foret, the 34-year-old who was born in the UK, has no complaints about the time taken with all the commitments in St Malo. He believes it is an essential part of leading a modern professional sailing team. “This is an important time for us,” he said. “It is our time to promote our campaign and the sport in general and it is important to be welcoming. If we are not welcoming and we are an introverted bunch of sailors, then that is not healthy for the sport, so it is an important role to play.”
And the Swiss skipper is determined to enjoy himself, something he believes is the secret of success in St Malo. “If you enjoy what we are doing here you don’t really have to pace yourself,”he said. “You have to have the mindset that this is an enjoyable moment and it should be enjoyable, because there are not many races in the four-year Vendée Globe cycle that are as big as the Route du Rhum, so we should enjoy every moment here.”
Sam Davies has been racing IMOCAs for more years than she can remember but surprisingly this is only her second Route du Rhum. In her only other participation – the last race in 2018 – her boat suffered structural damage and she had to retire. Davies is the sailing figurehead of the remarkable Initiatives-Coeur charity and she probably has more visibility as an IMOCA skipper than almost anyone else in the Class.
This week in St Malo it has been taking Davies a long time just to make her way to her boat as she stops every few paces to answer requests for an autograph or a selfie, or both. “It’s pretty crazy here,”she admits, laughing. But like Heer, Davies has no problem with this part of her job and sees it as just as important as the sailing side of her career.
“That is the exchange for me – to have a really cool boat and be able to do the race – and also for me to be able to support a charity at the level I do, and all of that is part of the deal,”she said. “You just have to accept that this is going to happen and do everything you need to do beforehand or not, as the case may be.”
“I know,”she added, “that from the day you arrive here to the day your start the race, you barely get the chance to step on your boat, so everything has to be ready and you have to know all the systems before you arrive in the village.”
Like many other IMOCA skippers, Davies will have not have much time to get away before the race starts. “That’s because this is a very important week for the success of our project and for the sponsors and the charity,”she says. “So it’s not just the public, we have heaps and heaps of guests from the sponsors of Initiatives-Coeur and they all come and visit. And I am supposed to be on the boat right now, meeting the guests. My team are full-time all the time, taking people round, giving them tours of the village, tours of the boat, cocktails, lunchtime and in the evening…and I try to go to as many of those as possible.”
The goal for Davies and her 37 rivals for glory in Pointe-à-Pitre is to set sail not feeling exhausted by the demands of the race village over the next week. Attanasio admits that both the toughest and most enjoyable parts of this process come in the last 24 hours before the start gun is fired.
“The day just before the start is the worst moment because there is a lot of stress and your soul is already in the race, but you are still here doing lots of different things,” he said. “For me, the best moment is just after the start when you’ve crossed the line and you can say to yourself: ‘so OK, I am a sailor and I will do my best, just sailing and head to Guadeloupe.’”