Growing up in Brittany with posters on his wall of winners of the mythical solo Transatlantic race, the dream which French skipper Charles Caudrelier has held since he was a youngster came true today, at the first time of asking, when the 48-year-old crossed the finish line of the 12th edition of the Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe first in the early hours of this morning.
Caudrelier brought an immaculately prepared and executed race to a triumphant end when he sailed the De Rothschilds’ Gitana racing team’s Ultim 32/23 Maxi Edmond de Rothschild through the finish line off Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe at 05:02:05hrs local time (09:02:05 UTC).
After starting off Saint-Malo at the head of a record sized fleet of 138 boats in six classes last Wednesday, Caudrelier and the Maxi Edmond de Rothschild completed the 3,542 nautical mile course in a new record time of 6 days 19 hours 47 minutes and 25 seconds, bettering the 7 days 14 hours 21 mark set in 2018 by Frances Joyon by 18 hours 34 minutes and 22 seconds.
Armed with what is universally considered to be the benchmark in the rarefied world of no-holds barred giant 32m long Ultim 32/23 class multihulls, Caudrelier added to the boat’s remarkable winning record, one which includes last year’s two-handed Transat Jacques Vabre race to Martinique which he won this time last year with long time close friend, mentor and co-skipper Franck Cammas.
Supported by a dream team of weather routers working round the clock ashore - comprising Cammas and American ace Stan Honey as well as the giant Gitana multi’s usual navigator Erwan Israel and former Figaro and IMOCA racer Morgan Lagraviere - Caudrelier described himself as “just the driver, like in a motor racing team”. He was only momentarily passed, at the Azores, by his nearest rival François Gabart on SVR Lazartigue but responded by passing fast to the north through the island group, opening his lead out to over 110 miles and was never passed again.
In the early morning Caribbean sunshine at the victory dock Caudrelier smiled, “This is a race that means a lot to me. Three years ago, when I was told I would take part as skipper I was thrilled. Winning the Rhum aboard a multihull is a great moment for a sailor. Pictures of Laurent Bourgnon and this Route du Rhum race always inspired me, much more even than the Vendée Globe.”
He expanded, “It was such a battle with the boat to begin with because of the weather and the size of these boats. Then, the battle with François Gabart, as he sailed so well. I managed to eat well and found the right rhythm, but at the start I had cramps in my arms and a real stomach upset or allergy.”
“With these boats, it’s a sprint, rather than a long race. I haven’t had to get the toolbox out. The boat was so well prepared. I’m just the Sunday driver. And I associate this victory with Franck. Without him, we wouldn’t have this win. We share this win together.”
He lived through some nervous moments, as Route du Rhum-Destination Guadleoupe leaders usually do when finishing through the capricious light breezes in the hours of darkness on the lee of the volcanic mountains of Basse Terre. After coming off second in a nail biting final slow motion match race with Joyon in 2018, Gabart could not catch Caudrelier this morning.
Even though he cut a 90-mile lead to less than 30, he still finished 3 hours 15 minutes and 50 seconds behind Caudrelier.
Caudrelier won the La Solitaire du Figaro in 2004 a victory he still today described as his most valued pure solo success, saying at the time... “maybe I have finally become a great sailor,” after holding off a sustained attack from Yann Eliès. With his close friend Gildas Morvan, he won the BPE Trophy race between Saint-Nazaire and Dakar in Africa on the Figaro and the Round Brittany Race in 2001.
He also sailed a lot on the 52-foot one-design Veolia Océans boat Bostik which he skippered and tested all the way to New Zealand. And multihull racing from 2004 to 2006, he was part of the crew of Pascal Bidégorry’s ORMA trimaran, Banque Populaire IV and was crew on the giant Banque Populaire V – the world’s largest racing multihull. He registered a first of three Transat Jacques Vabre wins in 2009 in the IMOCA class with Marc Guillemot and won again, in Gitana team colours on the MOD70 with Seb Josse in 2017.
As part of a migration of French elite sailors taken by the challenge of the Volvo Ocean Race, Caudrelier competed on the crewed round the world race three times. He won with Cammas skippering Groupama in 2011 and then finished third on his first time as skipper in 2015 before memorably leading Dongfeng to win the closest ever race in 2017-18.
He paid a tribute to rival Gabart who kept the pace up on a boat he was racing for the first time.
“I hadn’t realised how hard we would push. I’ve never seen anything like it sailing solo.”
Recognising the winning contribution of his weather team he said, “I didn’t really do much with the weather. I left that to the routers. I could see François was fast, so I just kept on it and it was very tiring. I didn’t think he would push his new boat so hard. At the start my arms were sore with the effort and I had cramps, but I never felt completely exhausted though I just couldn’t get to sleep.”
And of the effort required to run these giant Ultims solo he said, “The boat is so much bigger than an IMOCA or Class 40 and the physical dimension that much more important. But, winning the Solitaire was my biggest achievement. You are alone doing everything. This was a team effort but being out on the boat alone. Here I’m proud to have got 100% out of the boat.”