As his company VPLP Design celebrates 35 years of designing the world’s most high performance racing yachts, and with a week to go to the start of the 2018 edition of the iconic Route du Rhum solo transatlantic race on November 4 Vincent Lauriot-Prévost takes time to reflect on the shared history between the firm and the legendary transatlantic race whose seven previous winners have all been designed by VPLP.
“It was the year before I met Marc [Van Peteghem] in Southampton, where we were both studying architecture. I wasn’t taking a close interest in the Route du Rhum at the time, but Marc got to sail to Guadeloupe on Olympus, the trimaran Mike Birch steered to victory in the first edition. He came back with stars in his eyes!”
“I watched the start on TV and remember seeing all kinds of boats, an eclectic fleet featuring Walter Greene trimarans, Guy Delage’s proa Rosières and everything in between. The following year we founded VPLP with our first design, Gérard Lambert, a 50’ foiler for Vincent Lévy.”
“Marc and I were in Saint Malo for the start of this one because it was the first time we fielded boats for the Rhum: Poulain, a 23 m trimaran skippered by Olivier de Kersauson (which, after much modification, would go on to win the Jules Verne Trophy ten years later under the name Sport Elec) and Calcialiment-Laiterie du Mont-Saint-Michel (formerly Gérard Lambert) helmed by Olivier Moussy. By the time they reach the Azores Olivier was in second place behind the 23 m Fleury Michon skippered by Philippe Poupon – a huge star at that time. It was incredible! But then he crashed into a Chinese freighter (which picked him up). The boat was abandoned…”
“It was the year of the ‘love boat’! Well, that was the name Florence Arthaud gave to Groupe Pierre 1er, which we had designed. A great atmosphere reigned throughout the project. Once the race had started it was all rather harmonious, and I recall being invited to the finishing line by Florence’s mum. This victory changed everything for us as a firm. We finished ahead of Poupon, imagine that! Especially since Laurent Bourgnon finished 3rd with RMO, also designed by VPLP.”
“It’s hard to believe but back then there were no more than fifteen boats lining up for the start! For us, it was the start of the Bourgnon years, a Swiss skipper who would dominate single-handed multihull racing for a long time. He won the 1994 edition (ahead of Paul Vatine) on Primagaz, formerly RMO. Laurent had a brilliant team, and it was interesting to see how he kept improving his catamaran.
“It was our first hat trick! Bourgnon made it two in a row and was joined on the podium by Alain Gautier and Franck Cammas on our latest designs, Brocéliande and Groupama respectively. Franck was new to ocean racing on multihulls, he was only 25, and had the jitters in the early stages of the race. I remember, too, that we had one hell of a party when the boats arrived in Gosier! In general, there are always some great evenings to be had, not only in Guadeloupe, but also at the Univers Hotel in Saint Malo…”
“However 2002 was different and there weren’t any parties… Of the eighteen ORMA trimarans in the race, only three crossed the finishing line. Following the race was a pretty stressful occupation, there were two withdrawals and two technical problems every day! Thankfully Michel Desjoyeaux claimed victory after calling into two ports. This edition of the Rhum raised a lot of issues and at the subsequent Paris Boat Show, in December, all the naval architects pooled their data. We decided to strengthen the zones which had Nomex in them. Everybody thought this material was the business, but we didn’t have enough information to properly assess its resistance to impact.”
“Lionel Lemonchois gave us a one-man show! Gitana 11 (formerly Belgacom, which we designed in 2001) was a typical offshore boat whose very flat foils made her pretty reliable under autopilot. She beat Bourgon’s 1998 record by almost five days! Groupama 2, our most recent creation at that time, finished fifth. She was designed expressly for the big races.”
“This was a special one because, with Franck Cammas’s victory on Groupama 3, we realized that it was possible for those kinds of boats – they weren’t yet being called Ultimates – to be sailed single-handed in safety by choosing routes which required the minimum of sail manoeuvres. We also realized we could shave 3 tons off Groupama 3’s deadweight! So we said to ourselves that a trimaran with a righting moment per metre of 160 tonnes (instead of 120 which was our reference back then) was feasible for a solo skipper.”
“By winning the Rhum aged 54 on Banque Populaire (the boat Franck sailed in the previous edition under the name Groupama 3), Loick Peyron demonstrated that it was possible to enter a single-handed race with a multihull measuring over 30 m long. However it could have all turned out very differently. On the second day out he called us to say that one of the beams was cracked… But he completed the race without stopping! It was also the year of our first VPLP-Verdier IMOCA win with Macif, François Gabart’s final race on the boat that had won the Vendée Globe eighteen months earlier.”
“As with all the previous Routes du Rhum, speculation is rife in the days leading up to the start. What’s new is that our boats are now favourites in all three categories! Macif, hitherto uncontested, is facing a serious challenge from Gitana in the Ultimate class.
Among the IMOCAs, this Route du Rhum is a big test for Charal, her first race after a brief preparation. Thanks to her, we’ll learn more on the direction we need to take for the next generation of foils. Solidaires en Peloton and Ciela Village, two new Multi50s, will be making their debut in the race.
Our goal as a design firm is to have the first boat across the finishing line off Point à Pitre. Since 1990, except for the 2012 edition when Ellen MacArthur arrived first in real time, that has always been the case.”