Weather conditions may not have been as powerful and the imagery perhaps not as dramatic as in previous years, but the annual Défi Azimut regatta provided the perfect hors d’oeuvre to this year’s Vendee Globe solo round-the-world race.
With the drama once again staged at La Base in Lorient – the headquarters of short-handed ocean racing in Brittany – the IMOCA fleet put on a spectacular show through the three constituent parts of an event that has become a big favourite among thousands of French sailing fans.
Over the past five days they have watched their heroes – among them some of the favourites for Vendée Globe glory, including Jérémie Beyou, Charlie Dalin, Thomas Ruyant and Sébastien Simon – put their flying foilers through their paces in glorious sunshine.
The event, sponsored for the 10th year by the Brittany-based digital solutions company Azimut, got underway on Wednesday with the now traditional speed runs off Lorient.
Each team had up to four attempts to set the fastest average speed over a straight 1.2 nautical mile course, with every scrap of sail cloth flying on a broad reach. This showed off the latest foilers to great effect with the boats lifted well off the water as they powered along.
The top team was Armel Tripon and his crew on a mean looking L’Occitane en Provence with its scow bow, the only IMOCA in the fleet designed by Sam Manuard which showed its potential on all points of sail throughout the Azimut challenges.
The skipper from Nantes managed an average speed of 23.5 knots and a time of 3.05 minutes for the run. Second fastest was Thomas Ruyant on LinkedOut, with Sébastien Simon’s Arkéa Paprec in third place among the 18 crews that participated.
The next event – the 48-hour solo race – was the last chance for the skippers taking part in the Vendée Globe to match up against each other before the start off Les Sables d’Olonne on November 8th.
Good conditions early in the triangular course, out and back into the Bay of Biscay, saw the foilers putting on a show in a fresh northerly breeze blowing across their starboard bows. First at the Azimut 1 mark was Charlie Dalin on Apivia with defending champion Jérémie Beyou on Charal in hot pursuit.
The order was unchanged for the leaders at the bottom mark, but Tripon had sneaked ahead of Ruyant at that point. The final leg back to Lorient featured a beat in a dying breeze that had all but fizzled out by the end when Beyou used all his experience to clinch victory in this event for the second year in a row.
“I’ve missed other opportunities like these before and paid the price often enough in my life to know that all this is fragile territory, but it’s still nice to take the win,” said Beyou modestly at the finish.
Behind him Britain’s Samantha Davies crept up on Initiatives-Coeur to take second place from two other female skippers in her wake – the Franco-German sailor Isabelle Joschke finishing third on MACSF and the French star Clarisse Crémer fourth on Banque Populaire X.
Davies described the Défi Azimut as a “great way to set-up for the Vendée Globe and a confidence booster.”
“I wasn’t expecting to take second and shouldn’t have really finished second,” she said. “But I was still happy with how fast my boat is going compared to the others and the guys that I want to be sailing with.”
“It was a great race and a great opportunity to get the whole fleet – the IMOCA fleet – together and have a bit of a fun race and not too much pressure and enjoy it as well. That was one of my main objectives to go out there an enjoy the race and enjoy my boat and we had some great conditions with really flat water and enough wind to really get going – it was brilliant,” she added.
Joschke described the 48-hour race as her last training event before the Vendée Globe. “It was training with very nice conditions,” she said. “I think the Vendée Globe will be a bit more difficult than that,” she added laughing.
Crémer was delighted with her boat’s performance in light winds. “It was a great race. I am very happy with the result. I was not going to race to be fourth, but I was quite happy to be fourth in the end,” she said.
The final part of the Défi trilogy played itself out today with another test in light conditions as the fleet made its way around the Ile de Groix course. No records were falling but there was a popular winner in Kevin Escoffier who was first across the line on PRB after 2 hours, 29 minutes and 47 seconds. He was followed by Dalin on Apivia, Maxime Sorel on V and B Mayenne and then Davies again in the top group, finishing fifth on Initiatives-Coeur.
The German skipper Boris Herrmann, who was just over four minutes behind Escoffier in fifth place on SeaExplorer-Yacht Club de Monaco, enjoyed the challenge of racing in the light winds. “We learnt a lot and, even today around Groix island it looked like a sailing holiday, but it was really interesting to sail against good competitors. I‘ll be more confident during Vendée Globe with my performance in light winds,” he said.
The Défi Azimut showcased the fastest boats with the latest foils and thousands of spectators enjoyed a foretaste of what is to come on the round-the-world course in just under two months time when 33 IMOCAS take the start of the Vendée Globe.
The Azimut regatta once again also highlighted the thriving sailing base at Lorient and along the Brittany coast where around 210 companies are working in competitive sailing, according to the latest survey by Eurolarge Innovation.
Twenty-eight different trades are represented in this sector working in naval architecture, boat building, IT, fittings, appendages and sail making. In 2019 these companies generated a turnover of €348 million of which €83.5 million was generated exclusively by competitive sailing.
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to lead to a 20% decline in revenues for the sector and a fall of 3% in employment, though most of this will impact through a decline in temporary jobs.