More boats, more sailors and more races – the 2023 IMOCA season was a blockbuster that was followed by fans all over the world, gripped by stories of sporting glory and occasional heartbreak from the men and women who sail the fastest offshore monohulls on the planet – writes Ed Gorman.
In a year that saw the Class’s inaugural participation in The Ocean Race, perhaps the signature image came from the start of the Transat Jacques Vabre Normandie Le Havre. We had had to wait nine long days for Storm Ciarán to pass over northern Europe before the IMOCA fleet finally got its chance.
And it did not disappoint, as a record entry of 40 boats, led by the latest foilers, powered away from the Normandy coast on a bright November morning, sailing towards the sun at the start of another classic transatlantic contest. It was vintage IMOCA at the very top of the Class’s evolution.
But let’s go back to the start of a year, which kicked off for the first time in the Class’s history with five boats taking part in the 50th anniversary edition of The Ocean Race. The critics wondered whether IMOCAs could be raced fully-crewed in stages around the world, and whether the boats would be able to withstand the rigours of being pushed harder than on a solo course.
There were setbacks and disappointments but, by the end, as the boats crossed the finish line off Genoa, few could doubt that the case had been proven – even with a small fleet, IMOCAs in The Ocean Race produced superb racing that engaged fans all over the world. It was a race that included one of the greatest tests in Ocean Race history – the epic Southern Ocean Leg 3 from Cape Town to Itajaí. And then we saw a new fully-crewed monohull 24-hour distance record on the transatlantic leg five Leg 5, when Holcim-PRB travelled the equivalent distance at sea from Paris to Alicante (640.48 nautical miles).
The Ocean Race was won in some style by Charlie Enright’s 11th Hour Racing Team – the only IMOCA outfit based in the USA – at the end of a marathon competition that featured a large cohort of sailors, both French and international, taking part plus appearances “off the bench” by stars like Franck Cammas, Yoann Richomme, Charlie Dalin, Damien Seguin and Sam Davies. We also enjoyed for the first time the contribution of On-Board Reporters or OBRs, who brought IMOCA sailing into our lives and onto our screens like never before. And the future? Just listen to the buzz on the dock as new skippers plan entries for the next Ocean Race in late 2026.
With The Ocean Race completed, the 2023 IMOCA season continued double-handed, with the Guyader Bermudes 1000 Race and then the Rolex Fastnet race classic. It was a season that saw the debut of new foilers, capable of flying for longer than previous iterations, and one when new boats won races “out of the box” for the first time. In this category were For People (Finot Conq/Koch) skippered by Thomas Ruyant and Morgan Lagravière, which won the Guyader Bermudes 1000 Race, and MACIF Santé Prévoyance (Verdier), which won the Rolex Fastnet race in the hands of Charlie Dalin and Pascal Bidégorry.
While 2022 saw a big focus on foils – upgrading early designs and replacing broken ones – the focus shifted this year to ameliorating the tough conditions on board flying IMOCAs, with sailors learning to cope with heavy slamming and crash downs, while avoiding injury and being able to eat and sleep. It remains a work in progress as we continue on our way towards the 2024 Vendée Globe.
After a challenging 600-mile Défi Azimut 48 Hours, which included OBRs and produced a victory for Jérémie Beyou and Franck Cammas on Charal, the Transat Jacques Vabre turned into an epic that proved a fascinating watch. Which of the two strategic options would pay out? The northern route led by Justine Mettraux and Julien Villion on Teamwork, or the traditional tradewind course from where the winners emerged in the form of Ruyant and Lagravière? This was Ruyant’s third consecutive transatlantic victory in the IMOCA Class – his second Transat Jacques Vabre victory to follow last year’s win in the Route du Rhum – an unprecedented achievement for any skipper.
The Transat Jacques Vabre also witnessed a thrilling daggerboard battle featuring the likes of Benjamin Ferré and Pierre le Roy on Monnoyeur-Duo for a Job, Louis Duc and Rémi Aubrun on Fives Group-Lantana Environnement and Guirec Soudée and Roland Jourdain on Freelance.Com. It underlined that if the IMOCA fleet had no foilers, we would still be treated to top quality sport from skippers sailing older boats faster than ever before. Overall, Ferré finished the season as the top skipper in this part of the fleet, after a consistent campaign in which he won every race but one.
The return trip from Martinique saw the first ever solo Retour à La Base and it featured a crushing performance from Yoann Richomme at the helm of a seemingly bullet-proof Paprec Arkéa. The race saw big downwind conditions in the final stages, with Beyou finishing runner-up and Britain’s Sam Goodchild third on For The Planet, a result which confirmed him as IMOCA Globe Series Champion for 2023. Thomas Ruyant had a difficult second half of the race with damage on board his boat, but not before he had set a new solo 24-hour distance record of 539.94 miles.
The self-effacing Goodchild, meanwhile, becomes only the third non-French skipper, after Mike Golding and Boris Herrmann, to achieve this distinction, something that confirms his credentials as a potential podium finisher in the Vendée Globe, despite sailing a 2019 generation boat.
Special mention in the Retour à La Base goes to Antoine Cornic, skipper of Human Immobilier who completed the race in 26th place despite suffering with Dengue Fever which sapped his energy but did not defeat him. And in this category we must also mention Tanguy Le Turquais, skipper of Lazare, who was the last finisher of the Transat Jacques Vabre after he and co-skipper Félix de Navacelle stopped for repairs in Lorient following a collision which damaged Lazare’s bow. Le Turquais then completed the Retour à la Base in an impressive 20th position, despite starting 28 hours later than everyone else after a “pit-stop” in Martinique that lasted less than 10 hours.
2023 has been a great season for female skippers in IMOCA, not least for Britain’s Sam Davies who, at 49, has enjoyed a vintage year on board her new Initiatives Coeur 4, finishing fourth in the Globe Series championship. It’s also been a good year for Mettraux, a tough and committed sailor, who continues to be a podium threat on board Teamwork. Not forgetting Clarisse Crémer who has come back after taking time away to have a baby, with some excellent performances on L’Occitane En Provence, the former Apivia.
And on this subject, the final word goes to newcomer Violette Dorange, who enjoyed a superb double-handed season on Devenir (Jean Le Cam’s 2020/21 Vendée Globe boat) alongside Damien Guillou, and then lit up the Retour à la Base with onboard videos reminding us all of the joy of solo ocean racing. At 22, Dorange is the youngest sailor to have crossed the Atlantic on board an IMOCA and, at 23, she will be the youngest ever to attempt the Vendée Globe.
The Class reached an important milestone this year in terms of transition to sustainable principles. In 2023, IMOCA became the first ocean racing class to vote for the implementation of a carbon cap in its construction activities, a major step forward. While behind-the-scenes work on measuring the environmental impact of the construction of new boats, and the collective effort to produce “Green Sails” in partnership with industry professionals, are bearing fruit.
At sea, the science program, in partnership with IOC-Unesco, provided an opportunity to collect valuable data during races. And the Hazard Button, enabling sailors to report encounters with mammals, was launched for use in the two end-of-year transatlantic races.