Tragedy Avoided?

A delayed start for the Transat Jacques Vabre allowed much of the fleet to reach the finish in Brazil in good shape, save for favorites Michel Desjoyeaux and Francois Gabart, who suffered a dismasting.

November 27, 2013
Macif Sailboat


Desjoyeaux and Gabart before Macif’s mast snapped Christophe Launay

Michel Desjoyeaux and Francois Gabart were enjoying a comfortable lead in the Transat Jacques Vabre, after their relatively easy and smooth passage across the Atlantic from Le Havre, France. Desjoyeaux was down below getting some much-needed rest while Gabart busied himself on the deck as the IMOCA Class Macif sailed along in a breeze of 15 to 20 knots. They had less than 2,000 miles to go before the finish at Itajai, Brazil, and were virtually assured of what would have been their first victory as a duo.

Then, for reasons that still remain unexplained pending structural tests, the mast suddenly snapped about 30 feet up above the deck. It crashed down on the aft side of Macif, the boat Gabart had successfully singlehandedly piloted not less than a year ago to win the Vendée Globe.

Fortunately, Desjoyeaux and Gabart were uninjured, but the sting of defeat because of a breakage was particularly painful to the pair, who also dismasted when they took part in the Barcelona World Race in 2011. Then, Desjoyeaux expressed disappointment over dismasting for the first time during an offshore race on Foncia, a boat in which he had invested much time and effort to prepare for the race. Now, almost two years later, dismasting a second time was especially ironic considering the two sailors have amassed three Vendée Globe victories between them on IMOCA Class boats.


“The situation is painful and sad, but these types of breakages show how basic structural mechanics are a big part of racing,” says Gabart, who is often able to break down much of long distance offshore sailing in a way engineers tend to do.

Desjoyeaux and Gabart’s heartbreaking end to their race could have been one of many dismastings or other such incidents in the fleet—but it was not. On the day of the scheduled start, the fleet was set to head straight into 60 knot winds and cresting waves of 20 feet or more in the Bay of Biscay. A large percentage of the 44 boats taking part would have invariably abandoned the race. But as it turned out, the race organizers decided to postpone the start by four days.

SNCF-Geodis on an Atlantic that was not always calm, despite the absence of major depressions during the race.


Without major depressions to take into account, more than 90 percent of the entire fleet followed the same course, which only varied by 100 to 150 miles from one another past the Azores Islands. The number of tacks and jibes were few, with little variations in the weather patterns to worry about along the way. Except for Macif‘s dismasting and a few other more minor incidents, the transat was largely predictable and uneventful.

However, Manfred Rampsacher, the race director, said postponing the race was absolutely necessary. Allowing the fleet to head into likely disaster for many of the boats was not even under discussion.

“If they had left on the scheduled date, it would have been a survival course and not a race,” Rampsacher says. “A large number of the fleet would not have even left the port.”


Only six boats out of the fleet abandoned the race. Photo: Jean-Marie Liot/DPPI

But regardless of Rampsacher’s decision to postpone the start, the professional world-class sailors in the circuit would have still probably prevailed. PRB, skippered by Vincent Riou and Jean Le Cam, finished first in the IMOCA Class after completing the 5,450-mile** **course in 17 days. Like Desjoyeaux and Gabart, they were among the favorites to win the race, regardless of sea and wind conditions. Sebastien Josse and Charles Caudrelie on Edmond de Rothschild, one of the two MOD70 boats, predictably finished first in the fleet in 11 days, taking advantage of the fast speed the 70-foot monster-size multihull design offers. Sebastien Rogues and Fabien Delahaye on GDF Suez, and Erwan Le Roux and Yann Elies on FenetreA Cardinal won the Class40 and Multi 50 categories, respectively.

Desjoyeaux and Gabart, of course, would have been more than comfortable with the prospect of taking Macif through raging seas and 60-plus knot winds in the Bay of Biscay. But now that the race is over, the thought of a mast breakage in such conditions is not something either of them, or any sailor for that matter, would probably like to dwell on.


Already, Gabart is thinking ahead and planning on taking part in next year’s Route du Rhum transat. “Macif is a fantastic boat and remains one of the leading builds in the IMOCA Class,” Gabart says. “I am totally confident in it and am preparing to add a new mast in time for the next Route du Rhum.”


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