Paul Meilhat’s IMOCA victory in the Route du Rhum over the weekend is all the sweeter as he achieved it in the same boat he’d feared lost on an earlier transatlantic crossing almost three years ago.
The French yachtsman had been airlifted off SMA on 15 December 2015 and the 60-footer SMA was abandoned in the Azores — though it drifted towards Ireland in the following weeks and was eventually recovered some 100 miles off the coast and berthed in Crookhaven.
“It’s amazing to think that our efforts three years ago to recover that boat against pretty tough odds have now resulted in the boat and Paul winning the Route du Rhum,” says Kinsale-linked offshore specialist Marcus Hutchinson, who was Paul’s project manager for the first three years of his IMOCA campaign.
“He was a successful Figaro sailor when he turned to the IMOCA scene then and is now clearly in the top flight there, too,” Marcus adds.
Despite that serious incident in 2015, which left Paul with a fractured pelvis, Marcus said the Frenchman only grew with confidence over the years he was in charge of the project.
That was most obvious when, before a keel ram failure forced retirement in January last year, Paul sailed his way into third place in the Vendée Globe without the foils and newer boat technology employed by the rest of the field since his boat, in the hands of Francois Gabard, previously won that circumnavigation challenge.
Later in the year, Paul secured second in the Transat Jacques Vabre, again putting his foiling competitors to shame. It was at this time that his boat’s sponsor SMA decided to withdraw from offshore racing, meaning the most recent 12 months would be the last under their livery.
It’s quite the capper on that relationship that Paul has sailed SMA to victory in the Route du Rhum, says Marcus.
“I’m very happy for the team. I’m no longer a part of that group, but it is a small world and we see each other almost every day. Paul’s boat captain, for example, is a lodger in my house.”
Looking closer to home, Marcus sees the achievements of people like Paul Meilhat as an inspiration for Irish sailors with offshore ambitions, particularly with a new Olympic class on the cards for Paris in 2024.
“Irish offshore sailing is pretty well placed to step up to the next level and prepare to be competitive in 2024,” he says. “The kind of boat that will be used for that regatta is not really relevant to understanding and improving at the top end of offshore racing.
“The racing circuit in France, with the super competitive Figaro circuit in particular, is the place to be if you have any ambitions. Joan Mulloy and Tom Dolan are currently fundraising in Ireland for next year’s Figaro circuit and potentially an Irish stopover for that race, too.”
Marcus adds that 50 Figaro Beneteau 3s have already been sold and will be released in January.
“I have two of them in my academy. These are the platforms to train on. Anyone who has ambitions for 2024 should start to consider getting involved in this type of racing.”