The Route du Rhum, famous transatlantic race starting from Saint-Malo

The Route du Rhum is a solo sailing race created in 1978 by Michel Etevenon, based on an idea by Bernard Hass and Florent de Kersauson. Departing from Saint-Malo and heading for Pointe-à-Pitre in Guadeloupe, the Route du Rhum is organized every 4 years, at the end of October, beginning of November. The crossing record is currently held by skipper Francis Joyon, winner in 2018 of the 11th edition in 7 days, 14 hours and 21 minutes. In this article, we will look at the history of the Route du Rhum, its emblematic skippers, and the different classes of boats that participate in this nautical event that is broadcast around the world.

The history of the Route du Rhum

In 1975, Bernard Hass, at the time secretary general of the West Indies Rum Sugar Producers’ Union, was looking for an idea to promote the rum industry, which was in difficulty. During a lunch with his friend Florent de Kersauson (brother of the famous sailor Olivier de Kersauson), the latter suggested that he organize a transatlantic sailing race to the West Indies. Convinced by the idea, the two men approached Eric Tabarly, the famous sailor of Pen Duick, as well as Michel Etevenon, who at the time was in charge of the Olympia and also of the Kriter budget, then sponsor of Olivier de Kersauson. At the same time, the sugar producers of Guadeloupe are enthusiastic about the project, but the choice of the starting point is debated. The rum producers prefer Bordeaux for its emblematic port linked to sugar and rum imports, unlike Florent de Kersauson who prefers the city of Saint-Malo and who strives to gather, during 3 years, the necessary authorizations to launch a first edition of 1978. As far as the size of the boats is concerned, there are also two opposing currents: the English want to limit the size of the boats to 17.6 meters, whereas Michel Etevenon wants to create a great French race, without any size limit for the boats. In May 1978, Michel Etevenon officially presented the route of the Route du Rhum, the first single-handed French transatlantic race between Saint-Malo and Pointe-à-Pitre. Finally, the event is open to all monohulls and multihulls, without size limit. In March 1978, the company Promovoile, in charge of the organization of the first edition of the Route du Rhum, was created by Michel Etevenon and some associates. Finally, Florent de Kersauson was promoted to the position of general secretary of the race in 1978. Thus, 38 professional and amateur sailors will participate in this first edition.

Each edition of the Route du Rhum brings together nearly 2 million spectators in Saint-Malo!

The Route du Rhum: presentation of the race

The Route du Rhum is a transatlantic race that links the port of Saint-Malo, located in the department of Ille-et-Vilaine, in Brittany, to the port of Pointe-à-Pitre, in Guadeloupe. For 44 years, the Route du Rhum has linked the largest oceanic sailing group on the same starting line. Indeed, at each edition, the departure is made in Cancale, in front of the Pointe du Grouin, which allows the spectators to enjoy the departure of this mythical race of 3542 miles where a mark of course in front of the Fréhel Cape is to be left to starboard by the sailboats. Similarly, the runners must, upon arrival in Guadeloupe, go around the island to leave it to port, before crossing the finish line. Thus, every 4 years, professionals and amateurs of sailing meet to participate in this legendary race and in solitary destination of Guadeloupe. Over the years, the Route du Rhum has become a real popular festival that brings together thousands of spectators at the start and finish villages (Saint-Malo village and Pointe-à-Pitre village). A few days before the departure, enthusiasts, sailing lovers, or simply curious come to admire the sailors and their unusual boats that anchor in the basin of the port of Saint-Malo.

The greatest skippers of the Route du Rhum

Since 1978, many skippers have participated in the Route du Rhum. Mike Birch, who passed away a few days ago, was the first sailor to win this transatlantic race by completing the crossing in 23 days, 6 hours and 59 minutes aboard Olympus photo. This first edition was also marked by the death of the navigator Alain Colas aboard his trimaran “Manureva”. In the same way, Eric Tabarly, who had initially participated in the Route du Rhum project, will be the great absentee of this first edition, due to a lack of funding. The 11 winners of the Route du Rhum are :

  • 1978: Mike Birch, on Olympus photo, in 23 days, 6 hours and 59 minutes.
  • 1982 : Marc Pajot, on ELF Aquitaine, in 18 days, 1 hour and 38 minutes.
  • 1986: Philippe Poupon, on Fleury Michon, in 14 days, 15 hours and 57 minutes.
  • 1990 : Florence Arthaud, first woman to win the Route du Rhum aboard Pierre 1er, in 14 days, 10 hours and 8 minutes.
  • 1994 : Laurent Bourgnon, on Primagaz, in 14 days, 6 hours and 28 minutes.
  • 1998 : Laurent Bourgnon, on Primagaz, in 12 days, 8 hours and 41 minutes.
  • 2002 : Michel Desjoyaux, on Géant, in 13 days, 7 hours and 53 minutes.
  • 2006 : Lionel Lemonchois, on Gitana 11, in 7 days, 17 hours and 19 minutes.
  • 2010: Franck Cammas, on Groupama 3, in 9 days, 3 hours and 14 minutes.
  • 2014 : Loïck Peyron, on Banque Populaire 7, in 7 days, 15 hours and 8 minutes.
  • 2018: Francis Joyon, on IDEC Sport, in 7 days, 14 hours and 21 minutes.

To date, Francis Joyon holds the record for this transatlantic crossing in terms of timing. Laurent Bourgnon, who died in 2015, is the only skipper to have won the Route du Rhum twice. Florence Arthaud is also the only woman to have won the Route du Rhum, ahead of Hélène Mac Arthur who finished second in the 2002 edition.

In 2018, the last edition of the Route du Rhum was won by skipper Françis Joyon

The different classes of boats on the Route du Rhum

The Route du Rhum welcomes 6 classes of boats, divided into 4 professional classes and 2 amateur classes. All boats from 39 feet (11.88 meters) can participate in this transatlantic race. The professional classes are divided as follows:

  • The Imoca Class: The Imoca Class includes boats over 60 feet (18.28 meters) in length. In this twelfth edition of the 2022 race, 37 Imoca boats will line up on the start line on November 6th, 15 more than in 2018. Imoca boats are generally considered as experimental machines.
  • Ocean fifty: the Ocean fifty class gathers 50 feet (15 meters) multihulls since 2021, formerly known as “multi 50 class”. The Ocean fifty class is generally composed of prototypes that allow architects and engineers to express themselves. In 2022, 8 skippers are engaged in this class.
  • Class 40: with 55 skippers registered for the 2022 edition, the Class 40 is the most represented class on the Route du Rhum. It brings together 40-foot monohulls (12.18 meters) and allows experienced amateurs to compete against professional skippers. The Class 40 also allows many skippers to participate in major sailing events such as the Route du Rhum or the Vendée Globe, but with reasonable budgets.
  • Ultim 32/23: this category of boats includes trimarans measuring 32 meters long by 23 meters wide, which allow for record breaking and extreme challenges. In 2022, 8 Ultim 32/23 will take the start of the Route du Rhum. The most famous Ultim 32/23 being Banque Populaire and Sodebo.

The 2 amateur classes are as follows:

  • Rhum mono: the Rhum mono class includes monohulls of a length greater than or equal to 39 feet (11.88 meters) and cannot enter any other class. This class includes both historical boats and prototypes. In 2022, 16 skippers will compete in the single-handed Rhum class.
  • Rhum multi: This category includes all two or three-hulled boats, with a length of less than or equal to 64 feet (19.50 meters) and which cannot be included in any other class. In 2022, 14 skippers will take the start aboard boats classified in this category. Note that Philippe Poupon, winner of the Route du Rhum in 1986, will participate in this 12th edition aboard Flo (formerly Pierre 1er), Florence Arthaud’s former boat with which she won the Route du Rhum in 1990. Similarly, the boats “A’ Cappela” and “Happy”, both “sisterships” (copies) of Mike Birch’s boat, winner of the first edition in 1978, will participate in the twelfth edition of the Route du Rhum.

For this 2022 edition, the Route du Rhum village in Saint-Malo will cover 70,000 m² and will welcome nearly 2 million visitors over 13 days! From Saturday, November 5, the day before the start, the 138 boats will leave the basin of the port of Saint-Malo one by one. The start will be given on Sunday, November 6, at 1:02 pm, in front of the Pointe du Grouin.

List of the 138 skippers, photos of the boats, map of the village… all the information is available on the website dedicated to the Route du Rhum www.routedurhum.com.

Class 40 is the most represented category of boats on the Route du Rhum

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