1978, the first!
A single rather fuzzy photo of a small yellow trimaran, measuring 12 metres in length and made from moulded wood, overtaking a 20-metre long blue monohull in a cloud of spray, surely symbolises the first Route du Rhum. This indelible ‘picture postcard’, together with the figures detailing the slender lead between first and second place of just 98 seconds after 23 days at sea, ensured that the race went down in legend on 28 November 1978. For 40 years, the ‘Rhum’ hasn’t just been a story of men and women, a singlehanded race setting sail from autumnal climes bound for the sunshine of the West Indies, it is also a fantastic technological laboratory. And though the tragic disappearance of Alain Colas cast a pall over proceedings, in winning this first edition Mike Birch quite simply unleashed the supremacy of the multihull.
The French school
The Canadian, a former cowboy and yacht delivery skipper, whom Kersauson described as a “flying fish whisperer”, paved the way forward. He was subsequently emulated by France’s young architects and sailors, who were immediately won over by the multihull concept, racking their brains and innovating for several decades to come and systematically asserting themselves in the ensuing nine editions. This cogitation sometimes gave rise to slightly off the wall machines of course, like Guy Delage’s revolutionary proa, which disintegrated on the start line. Marc Pajot took victory in the second edition on a large aluminium catamaran equipped with the first carbon wing mast. As a matter of interest, the pivoting spar, built in two sections and cooked on a small-scale, required 5,000 rivets. According to their calculations, the engineers at Dassault valued this as a 20% gain in performance. In 1986, Loïc Caradec, a trained engineer, drove the point home with a monstrous catamaran equipped with a gigantic mast designed by the aircraft manufacturer Hurel-Dubois. He met up with engineers from Citroën to come up with a system to adjust the foils using oleo-pneumatic (hydropneumatic) rams from the DS suspension. Meantime, Philippe Poupon opted for the voice of reason. His ‘human scale’ trimaran was specially designed for singlehanded sailing. However, the Breton who learnt the ropes with Tabarly, had a head start in that he already knew that the Rhum would also now be won at the chart table. An expert in the weather and an aircraft pilot when the fancy took him, he carried with him a computer and the first routing software. Whilst his adversaries chose to dive due South in search of the trade winds recommended by the ‘pilot charts’, he attacked the low pressure systems via the “North Face”, on a shorter course close to the great circle route. This victory for ‘science’ was unfortunately tarnished by the disappearance of Caradec, his boat found upside down in the terrible storm that held sway offshore of Spain. In 1990, in a bid to internationalise transatlantic races, it was decided that there should be a 60-foot (18.28 metres) limit on the size of the multihulls. Besides all the competitors being equipped with GPS, the argument is settled definitively, and the trimaran replaces the catamaran. There are a good dozen or so favourites, all on multihulls that are as honed as they are light. Among them, one woman: Florence Arthaud. For her fourth consecutive Route du Rhum, deprived of any form of communication, she sails a phenomenal race, posts a sensational performance and shatters the record for the transatlantic passage in an historic time of 14 days and 10 hours.
The Bourgnon effect
Securing a brilliant third place four years earlier, a young Franco-Swiss sailor by the name of Laurent Bourgnon takes the start again in 1994. Behind this relaxed athlete with the blond angel hair hides one heck of a sailor, a born perfectionist, an outstanding technician, who obsessively strips back his trimaran in the drastic hunt to shed surplus grams. On his victorious arrival and “fresh as a daisy”, he puts on a ‘show’, walking on his hands on his float and doing press-ups at the front of the trimaran. Struck by this precocious talent and this apparent ease, young sailors like Sébastien Josse, Franck Cammas and Thomas Coville find it very inspiring. In fact, four years later, Bourgnon repeats his performance to become the first sailor to pull off the double. To do this he further optimises his ten-year-old boat, spends time in the US selecting his 3DL sails whose origins lie in the America’s Cup and puts in place a weather routing cell worthy of a commando. “L’Ovni” (the UFO) retires, but it still coloured the Rhum and elicited multiple applications. In 2002, an apocalyptic storm causes real carnage. Only three trimarans out of eighteen reach Pointe-à-Pitre. Michel Desjoyeaux, nicknamed “the professor” was the smartest of the bunch, continuing to flesh out his extraordinary track record on the singlehanded circuit.
Lemonchois and Gitana shatter the record
Four years later, the Orma trimaran class is called into question. The ACS (anti-capsize system) has become compulsory. For once, the weather is forecast to be relatively mild, enough to win the trust of the skippers setting sail from Saint Malo. Among them, Lionel Lemonchois on Gitana 11, one of the boats fitted out by Ariane and Benjamin de Rothschild’s stable. The sailor doesn’t have the pressure of the favourites on his shoulders. Indeed, in early 2006, he’s not the appointed skipper of this trimaran, whose helm is only entrusted to him a few months before the start of the Rhum. However, thanks to the conviction of the passionate owners of the boat and the efforts of the Gitana Team, who prepared his steed meticulously, the Norman hits the start line with an intense desire to snap up the opportunity presented to him and quite simply go for the win! He knows his adversaries like the back of his hand. Indeed, a play on words with his surname earns him the nickname “Le bon choix” (The right choice), the skipper having raced with all the favourites. Setting an alarming pace, albeit with complete confidence, he very quickly moves up into the lead, leaving his toughest rivals floundering in his wake. “It’s quite disconcerting” says a perplexed Bidégorry. “He’s going for it” adds Gautier. “I can’t keep up with him, it wouldn’t be reasonable”, concludes Desjoyeaux. Over the 3,798-mile course, Lionel Lemonchois only puts in one tack and three gybes, an unprecedented feat in the seven previous editions! Thanks to a trajectory that was as pure as it was tight, with piloting skills that were widely talked about, he pulverised Bourgnon’s record in 7 days and 17 hours, writing one of the finest pages in the Gitana saga along the way.
Cammas the trail-blazer
Paradoxically, 2010 sound the death knell for the 60-foot Ormas. The rules once again allow complete freedom of choice regarding size. Franck Cammas, the new crewed Jules Verne Trophy holder in a time of 48 days, took the race start on the exact same trimaran initially designed for ten guys and adapted to solo sailing. Thanks to his intelligence, his capacity for innovation and his innate lust for performance, Cammas proved that a single man can secure victory on a trimaran measuring 31.50 metres long, weighing 15 tonnes and requiring over 670 square metres of downwind sail area.His achievement would go on to be the origin of the Ultime class some years later.
In the meantime, for his seventh participation, Loïck Peyron, the last-minute guest skipper following Armel Le Cléac’h’s withdrawal, adds a few more lines to the legend of offshore racing. He wins the 10th edition at the helm of this same trimaran.
This memorable victory somewhat eclipsed the performance posted by Sébastien Josse, who on the Multi70 Edmond de Rothschild – a 24-metre one-design trimaran that was as quick as it was perilous – treated himself to a remarkable third place, less than a day behind Peyron. In so doing, the Gitana Team skipper completed his very first singlehanded transatlantic race on a multihull... something to make you wonder what the future holds!
40 years old, 10 edition, 9 winners
1978, 1st edition Olympus outranks Kriter, the advent of the multihull
1982, 2nd edition, Pajot treats himself to some offshore sailing before the switch to the America’s Cup
1986, 3rd edition, the Poupon method
1990, 4th edition Pierre 1er and the fiancée of the Atlantic
1994, 5th edition the blond angel reigns over the Rhum
1998, 6th edition Untouchable Bourgnon for a double
2002, 7th edition annus horribilis 18 trimarans at the start, 3 at the finish
2006, 8th edition Lemonchois, “It’s not the Route du Rhum but the Rhum highway”
2010, 9th edition the ‘no limit’ concept is back
2014, 10th edition Peyron puts up a fight
ROUTE DU RHUM DESTINATION GUADELOUPE
Saint Malo / Pointe-à-Pitre
3,542 miles along the great circle route (direct route)
40 years old, 11th edition
Every 4 years since 1978
123 entries, 6 classes of boat, an outright record!
Time to beat: 7 days 15 hours 8 minutes 32 seconds
6 trimarans in the Ultime class, 5 of which are moored outside the basins of Saint Malo