A record 123 skippers set sail on November 4th. hoping to win the 11th Route du Rhum, the world's premium transatlantic yacht race. Among the competitors is a man who did not seem destined for the high seas, but Romain Attanasio has a made a career on the water.
He was born in the heart of the Alps 41 years ago, in a family of skiers. Now living in Britanny, he felt the call of the sea at an early age.
"I come form a family of mountaineers, but I spent all my childhood abroad, since my father worked on construction sites. So we lived in San Salvador, Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia. Back in France, I was seven or eight years old, and we went to settle in the Oise, close to Paris. For sure, to go sailing, it is not the ideal spot," he laughs.
"1990 was the year when Florence Arthaud won the Route du Rhum, the very same Route du Rhum. I do not know if you remember her golden trimaran, and besides, she was beautiful, I found it incredible and I followed the race passionately and then a few weeks later, my great-uncle took me to a boat show and my passion for boats was born like that."
Although Romain would never have Florence Arthaud as a teacher, he did train under Michel Desjoyeaux and Franck Cammas. But his first race ended in disaster and shipwreck, and he had to be rescued by a cargo vessel.
Since then he has done a lot better, earning top 10 finishes in the Transat AG2R and the Transat Jacques-Vabre. Last year he completed his first Vendée Globe, the top solo non-stop unassisted round the world race, the "Everest of the Seas". Now he takes on the biggest transatlantic race.
The fleet will set off from Saint-Malo, and race hard for 3,510 nautical miles, or 6,500 kilomètres. Once out of the English channel it will be at the mercy of the treacherous Bay of Biscay, and then head for the Azores and its dangerous anticyclones, hopefully avoiding being becalmed in the doldrums. The trade winds should then take the racers to Pointe-à-Pitre, in Guadeloupe.
The fastest multihulled boats could do this in five to six days, while the best single-hulled yachts need around 10. The race record is expected to be beaten as technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since the last race four years ago, particularly with the appearance of hydrofoils that allow yachts to "fly" above the waves.
"We used to have centre-boards to do anti-drifting. You know, on these boats, the keels tilt, so we tilt them at 40 degrees to the wind, so inevitably, as there are no more anti-drifts, we add centre-boards. Since the last Vendée Globe, we use foils, curved centreboards, which produce a foil effect. You know, it's like driving when you put your hand out of the window, it takes off. That's the idea: with speed, it makes the boat take off, and the less friction there is, the faster it goes," explains Attanasio.
Romain Attanasio doesn't have foils on his yacht, "Pure - Famille Mary", which isn't the newest vessel either, as it's been in the water for 10 years. He's racing in the Imoca single-hull class, for 60-foot boats, so he won't be aiming for an overall victory, unlike Jérémie Beyou, Yann Eliès or Vincent Riou. Even his wife, Britain's Samantha Davies, has a better chance.
"I'm competing with Romain, it's a little different, there are not a lot of couples like that. But in fact, we have boats from different generations, so we rarely compete next to each other. It takes away a little bit of the competition between us and we're pretty happy to be here with both our boats and our projects, and we hope to arrive together," she says.
A couple on land but rivals on the water, Samantha Davies and Romain Attanasio are already looking beyond this Route du Rhum. Both are expecting to race in the next Vendée Globe, at the end of 2020.