Solo sailor Joan Mulloy of Mayo has teamed up as co-skipper with France’s Alexia Barrier on the latter’s veteran IMOCA 60 4Myplanet to become the only all-female crew in the 30-strong IMOCA 60 Class in the 12,000 mile Transat Jacques Vabre, which starts next weekend from Le Havre, headed for a finish in Bahia in Brazil.
In all, there’ll be 67 boats on the line at Le Havre in three classes in an event which last month brought aboard an additional sponsorship partner in the Normandy Region. This reflects the increasingly positive corporate approach of French regional administrations to major sailing events, where the pace has been set by the Vendee Region with their pillar event, the four-yearly Vendee Globe non-stop solo round the world race, which has succeeded in raising the profile of the relatively little-known Vendee to a new international awareness.
In France, the regions are in competition with each other and internationally to attract such events. The Port of Brest, in one example, has taken over the historic OSTAR. But in smaller countries, it’s a case of the entire nation wheeling in support, as is being seen this morning in Malta where a major offshore race – once of interest to only a select few on the island – is now high on the priority list of the government’s promotion department.
Today, in the almost absurdly picturesque and distinctly crowded history-laden Grand Harbour of Valetta in Malta, it will take seven different starts to get the total fleet of 112 boats in the 40th Edition of the 606-mile Rolex Middle Sea Race cleanly away. From this inevitably tense and crowded start to a multi-island-rounding course in the Mediterranean, they’ll have the finishers back in port and the results declared by the time the Transat Jacques Vabre comes top of the agenda on Sunday October 27th.
For devoted inshore sailing enthusiasts who think that night-time is when you should be comfortably ashore in bed after a good day’s sailing in pleasant coastal surroundings, both of these major international events are simply seen as being lumped under the general heading of “Offshore & Ocean Racing”. And their overall response is “Thanks but no thanks…..”
Yet for aficionados, not only are they long hauls which will be avidly followed throughout with total dedication, but the very different types of offshore racing which they exemplify are all part of the fascination.
For the Rolex Middle Sea Race is one contemporary version of the classic Royal Ocean Racing Club “long one”. These are the well-established events such as the Fastnet Race itself, the Sydney-Hobart, the RORC Caribbean 600 and the Newport-Bermuda, all of which fall within the 600-650 mile distance range. Also generally included is the Round Ireland, even though it clocks up 704 miles. And all – when they were founded – were regarded in their day as marathons, a title which most participants continue to happily support.
But with the international ocean racing bar now being set very high by the Vendee Globe with its off-the-wall IMOCA 60s, public perception may have become more muted in response to the more traditional events. Yet the fact that the biennial Fastnet Race’s basic entry limit for 350 boats is hit within minutes of the online acceptance opening for business tells us that the mystique of these classics is strong, and for recreational sailors of competitive offshore interest, they are very much something they want to have in their CV.
Because there’s a real continuity to these events - with a shared sponsor in Rolex - part of the interest is in discerning special patterns. So although George David’s great round Ireland record-holding Rambler 88 will be seeing can she better the Middle Sea Race’s 47 hours 55 minutes and 3 seconds record he set with Rambler 90 in 2007 (a decidedly tense-making four minutes and 57 seconds inside the magic 48-hours barrier), there’ll be every bit as much interest in how things go for Wizard, the Askew brothers’ former Volvo 70 from America.
Originally Groupama 4 and designed by Juan Kouyoumdjian for the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race - which she won for France skippered by Franck Cammas - this splendid “old” warhorse has by no means gone gently into the sweet night of retirement.
On the contrary, she reappeared under New Zealand ownership for the 2016 Rolex Sydney Hobart re-named Giacomo, owned and skippered by wine magnate Jim Delegat, who had several of his family in the crew, including the youngest race participant, 18-year-old James Delegat Jnr, as Australian rules preclude anyone under 18 doing this race. Conditions suited a Volvo 70 almost to perfection and they managed second on line honours among much larger craft, and this in time converted into the overall win.
Thus Giacomo was arguably the first of the former Volvo 70s – they initially appeared in 2005 - to make a significant input outside the Volvo Ocean Race bubble. But the former Groupama 4 was only getting going. Having won outright in what was only his third Sydney-Hobart, Jim Delegat decided to get out while still on top, and soon he sold Giacomo on to Peter and Dave Askew from America, who lavished much TLC on a craft renamed again. She became Wizard, and she lived up to her new name from the get go.
Skippered for the brothers by Charlie Enright, Wizard has continued as a real life-enhancer on the international offshore scene, and with the Volvo Ocean Race and the Rolex Sydney-Hobart trophies already in the collection, she hit the 2019 programme in style, taking line honours in February’s big-fleet RORC Caribbean 600, and then correcting into the overall win.
Next outing was the RORC/NYYC Transatlantic Race with the weather in the North Atlantic in an increasingly obtuse mood, with calms later plaguing the smaller boats. But it was by no means a cakewalk for the biggies either, yet Wizard called it just right, and took the overall win.
Then up came the Rolex RORC Fastnet Race on 3rd August 2019, and in the livestream at the start, as the camera panned past Wizard somebody in the commentary box let slip a remark to the effect that this was “an old Volvo 70, not really suited to this race”, or words to that effect.
Ian Moore must be the navigator on board (he wasn’t), but then when Wizard’s group arrived at the Fastnet itself, a complex frontal system was going through to baffle many. Yet Charlie Enright called the sail changes to precise perfection, they piled on the miles to a challenging position, and swept into Plymouth to correct into such a strong time that soon Wizard was declared the overall winner.Now that was some hostage to fortune….not only did Wizard make such a perfect job of getting through the sticky calm-plagued patch between Start Point and the Lizard that we assumed the great
By this time Wizard was so cheerfully the ambassador for American offshore racing that it was natural to overlook the fact that her take-everything victory was in fact yet another corner-stone in the French domination of the Rolex Fastnet Race 2019. But while she may have been French in her origins, it’s only right and proper to credit that David & Peter Askew and Charlie Enright, plus Jim Delegat before them, have put their stamp firmly on a record of unrivalled and varied success which extends directly back to Franck Cammas in 2012.
So with the Volvo Ocean, Sydney-Hobart, RORC Caribbean 600, Transatlantic 2019 and Fastnet Race securely under her belt, Magic is surely the boat to watch as the fleet set about exiting Grand Harbour Valetta this morning for a challenge whose name suggests balmy Mediterranean sailing, yet experience has shown that the Middle Sea Race in October plumb in the midst of Mare Nostrum can be tough and then some.
Ireland’s most experienced participants in it is Barry Hurley, with something like 14 tilts already logged for this circuit of islands which include - for something a little different - the active volcano of Stromboli. Former OSTAR Class winner Hurley has been well in the frame in mono-hulls in the Middle Sea Race several times, but this year he’s trying a new approach in a multi-hull, in this case the DazCat 1495 Apollo.
It requires very special skills and nerves of steel to race a catamaran flat out along a course which takes in coasting along steep mountains and through areas notorious for sudden squalls, but if the chips fall the right way the rewards are immense.
A more orthodox entry with Irish interest is ISORA Pwllheli-based skipper Andrew Hall with his J/121 JackHammer, a much roomier proposition than the vintage ultra-slim J/125 JackKnife which he raced – usually in the frame - in the Irish Sea during the 2019 season.
His crew includes NYC sailor Willie Despard, so we have direct interest in at least two boats, and doubtless, other Irish participants will emerge as this intriguing race progresses. But anyone with an interest in the general wellbeing of world offshore racing cannot help but feel involved in the continuing extraordinary progress of Wizard. This is one well-sailed and classy boat which has given many people an immense amount of sporting satisfaction, and though it's grossly unfair to be heaping so much expectation on her prospects in the Middle Sea Race, but that’s the way it is. And we can be consoled by her string of established successes if things don’t work out to perfection this time round in a complex race in which the defending champion is France’s very special Gery Trentesaux in his JPK 11.80 Courier Recommande.
As to how things will be shaping up in a week’s time in the final countdown to the Jacques Vabre start off Le Havre, Alexia Barrier and Joan Mulloy don’t pretend that their 1998-built oldie 4myplanet – a pioneering Marc Lombard design in her day - is anything other than a sporting entry when set against the likes of Alex Thomson and Neal McDonald in the former’s latest addition to the Huge Boss line, and much is also expected of other fresh-out of-the-wrappings IMOCA 60s like Clarice Cremer and Armel le Cleach in Banque Populaire.
After all, with the basic budget of €5 million which created the new Hugo Boss, you could buy a dozen vintage IMOCA 60s…….