Out with the New, in with the Old

With the first competitive event for the new IMOCAs in the books, it looks like the early advantage lies with the older boats.... until they start reaching.

There was plenty of sunshine and lots of wind offering perfect conditions for sailing from Lorient around Groix this weekend. The 24 sailors lining up in the IMOCA category took full advantage to show what they could do. It all began with the double-handed big race on Friday and Saturday, before continuing with speed runs and finished with a crewed race around the island of Groix.

Everyone was looking forward to this first real battle between boats from the previous generation without foils and the new foiling boats that Michel Desjoyeaux has nicknamed the boats with moustaches. This fifth edition of the Azimut Challenge, which was also a warm up for the Transat Jacques Vabre, which starts on 25th October, fulfilled all its promises for the IMOCAs. It was clear that PRB, skippered by Vincent Riou and Sébastien Col, is in top form. The duo not only won the big race and the race around Groix, but also did well in the speed runs with Paul Meilhat and Michel Desjoyeaux on SMA getting the win.

In the big race with a 200-mile course drawn up by Jacques Caraës, involving a figure eight between Lorient, the Loire Estuary, a waypoint out at sea, and a loop around the Glénans and Groix, the battle was on in every point of sail. Jérémie Beyou and Philippe Legros on Maître Coq and Yann Eliès and Daniel Souben on Quéguiner-Leucémie Espoir started off well, while unfortunately due to a hydraulic problem, MACSF (Bertrand de Broc and Marc Guillemot) was forced to retire. SMA was not far behind. The reaching leg confirmed that the new foiling boats will be at ease in this point of sail with an excellent climb back up by Banque Populaire VIII sailed by Armel Le Cléac'h and Erwan Tabarly, who were only a few seconds off the podium (4th and first of the new boats).

In the end, PRB came in first on Saturday lunchtime, just ahead of Maître Coq and SMA. So, the podium was made up exclusively of Vendée Globe boats from the previous generation, while the three new boats came in 4th (Banque Populaire), 6th (Groupe Edmond de Rothschild, sailed by Sébastien Josse and Charles Caudrelier) and 8th (St Michel Virbac, sailed by Jean-Pierre Dick and Fabien Delahaye). They were all pleased with this race, which lasted just under 24 hours, as it allowed them to see what they could do and get used to racing with just a month to go to the double-handed transatlantic race. We saw too that the gaps were very small with only seven minutes separating the boats on the podium and less than an hour between the winner and the ninth placed boat.

In the speed runs, SMA came out on top completing the run in 4 minutes and 59 seconds, ahead of the most recent boat, Saint Michel-Virbac, which has already shown what she can do (5 minutes and 28 seconds) and never one to miss out, PRB (5 minutes, 30 seconds). Finally, with a bigger crew in a north-easterly wind that had strengthened to around 17 knots on Sunday, the IMOCA fleet really took off. The result was that PRB improved on her own race record set back in 2011. She completed the race in just one hour and eight minutes. "That goes to show that we are still up there and gives a real boost to the team," declared Vincent Riou.

It was Paul Meilhat (SMA), a future rookie in the Vendée Globe aboard SMA, the boat that won the last solo round the world race when sailed by François Gabart in the colours of Macif, who summed up perfectly the lessons learnt this weekend. "This event enabled us to see how we measured up against the new generation boats that have just been launched. We could see that clearly with StMichel-Virbac, which obviously has a huge potential. Now we really have two groups of boat – one that is quick upwind, and another when sailing with the wind on the beam. It's going to be very interesting in the next few races to see how these new boats develop."

The top three in the 2015 Azimut Challenge

Big race: 1/ Vincent Riou and Sébastien Col (PRB), 2/ Jérémie Beyou and Philippe Legros (Maître Coq), 3/ Paul Meilhat and Michel Desjoyeaux (SMA)

Speed runs: 1/ Paul Meilhat and Michel Desjoyeaux (SMA), 2/ Jean-Pierre Dick and Fabien Delahaye (St Michel-Virbac), 3/ Vincent Riou and Sébastien Col (PRB)

Round Groix Race: 1/ Vincent Riou and Sébastien Col (PRB) with a time of 1hr08’10’’, 2/ Jérémie Beyou and Philippe Legros (Maître Coq) in 1hr08’56’’, 3/ Paul Meilhat and Michel Desjoyeaux (SMA) in 1hr15’25’’