prestigious solo Atlantic yacht race turns 40

This past November 2018,, the Route du Rhum celebrated its 40th anniversary from November 4 – 11. Here, from the vantage point of Fort La Latte 35km outside of Saint-Malo, a number of racing enthusiasts brave the chilly windy weather to get closer to the action in their own seafaring vessels.- photo by Nathalie Schneider

If you are booking a visit to Brittany, France in early November, one thing to keep in mind is a spectacular event that takes place every four years in the fortified seaside resort of Saint-Malo. Considered one of the biggest parties in Brittany, hundreds of thousands of yachting enthusiasts descend upon the historic 17th century French port on France’s northwest coast, to witness the launch of the Route du Rhum. This solo yacht race traces the rum route from Saint- Malo, France to Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe (an overseas region of France) located in part of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean. Guadeloupe is still to this day a major rum producer.

photo by Nathalie Schneider

This past November, the Route du Rhum celebrated its 40th anniversary from November 4 – 11 but most of the festivities take place over the launch weekend. This includes touring the docks of the multi-hulled race yachts and enjoying local cuisine and music. 

Along with numerous other Canadian lifestyle magazine editors, I was able to watch the early stage of the race from an incredible vantage point atop a turret at Fort La Latte, an impressive 13th century castle located about 35km west of Saint-Malo. We experienced spectacular views of the Baie de la Fresnaye along with about a hundred other excited local sailing enthusiasts with binoculars slung around their necks. 

The first competition was won in 1978 by Canadian yachting legend, Michael Birch on his boat, Olympus. Not a professional sailor when he entered, Birch completed the race after 28 days at sea and remarkably only won by 98 seconds. He is a legend in St. Malo now and attended the 40th anniversary of the launch. These days the vessels are much faster, with this year’s winner and new world record holder, 62-year old Francis Joyon, completing the race in just 7 days, 14 hours, 21 minutes and 47 seconds! The famous Breton yachtsman also held the world record from 2008 to 2016, for fastest single-handed sailing circumnavigation (Vendée Globe). Sleeping is one of the challenges in these solo races as the racers are only able to sleep for 20 minutes at a time.

More than 50% of the racers are from France and 70% of those are from the Brittany region.

These boats are built for speed. In 2006, the Route du Rhum had 60 boats competing in 4 categories. That number has more than doubled, with this year’s race featuring 124 boats in six distinct classes. Some of these multi-hulled (trimaran) yachts are as long as 31 metres, reaching velocities up to 90 kilometres per hour.

This event held every four years on the first Sunday in November, is an important contributor to St. Malo and Breton tourism. The area sells over 300,000 accommodation ‘nights’ with over 1.3 million visitors from Oct. 24 to race day – which in this case was on November 4. This provides an influx of over $50 million Euros to the local economy. Meanwhile there is big sponsorship and charity dollars involved with each racer.

The really unique thing about this race is essentially you start in the winter from the fortified city of St. Malo and complete it in hot summer-like weather in the Caribbean. So, although the winds can be cold and harsh at the start, things begin to warm up as the race progresses. 

Of note in this year’s race, British yachtsman, Alex Thomson was actually on course to complete it the fastest, but he had fallen asleep and ran ashore on Guadeloupe. After making some repairs he finished in first but it was ruled that because he had to power the boat to get back on course, he was disqualified.

Getting to Saint-Malo from Mississauga/Toronto

Fly to Paris www.airfrance.ca

From Paris take the TGV from Montparnasse station to Saint-Malo approx. 3 hours https://www.raileurope.ca

For more information about the Route Du Rhum visit: https://www.routedurhum.com/en

To learn more about the historic seaside resort town of Saint-Malo, visit: https://www.saint-malo-tourisme.com To discover more ideas for travelling throughout France visit: https://ca.france.fr/en