The eighth staging of the Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe, back in 2006, was the first time the “Queen” of solo transatlantic races admitted Class40s and an impressive fleet of 27 of these fast monohulls took the starter’s gun.
That race was won in 18 days and 10 hours by a relatively unknown British sailor named Phil Sharp on board PSR. Twelve years later Sharp – a little older perhaps, but wiser and definitely far better known – is back and he means business at the helm of Imerys Clean Energy, his 2013-vintage blue and white Class 40, Mach 2.
A mechanical engineer by trade, Sharp has been full time in the class for the last two years and was Class40 champion overall in 2017. The 37-year-old goes into the 2018 edition of the solo marathon to Point-à-Pitre once again leading the championship and, with the Vendée Globe in 2020 in his sights, a second consecutive win is very much on his mind.
“It would be sensational to go away and finish my final race with this boat with a win,” said Sharp, taking a break from his preparation at his adoptive home town of La Rochelle. “For me it would be particularly special because the Route du Rhum was my first race in the class in 2006 and it would be a great way to round off what has been a good few seasons in the class with the current boat.”
And the Briton who was brought up in Jersey and started in solo racing in the Mini class, feels confident after a thorough preparation phase. “I feel like we’ve done a lot of work to optimise the whole package and really work on reliability,” said the class European Trophy winner this year.
“So it would be great for everyone involved – our partners and team – to have a victory. But I also think that the objective of finishing on the podium would still be a good result for us, considering the age of the boat and the competition in the race as well,” he explained.
Sharp is not just thinking about the sheer size of the Class40 entry in the 40th anniversary Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe, which has attracted 53 entries. He is also thinking of the newer boats with more radical designs that he will have to beat if he is going to reach the top step of the podium.
These include Yoann Richomme’s Veedol-AIC and Louis Duc’s Carac – the latest in Class40 thinking which will be put to the test for first time in a transoceanic race in the Rhum. Then there are the boats that are the next iteration from Sharp’s own, two of which are helmed by the talented French skippers Aymeric Chappellier (Aina Enfance & Avenir) and Nicolas Troussel (Corum).
Sharp reckons his boat will be at its best in heavy downwind conditions so he is hoping for a fast run in the trade winds if he is to be the first Class40 skipper with a rum cocktail in his hands in Guadeloupe. “I’ve got to sail a very clean race to have a chance against these guys,”he said. “I can’t afford to make any mistakes. I have got to really maximize the potential of the boat and I think we have got a good sail package to help me do that now.”
Also in Sharp’s favour is the fact that he has beaten all these boats in shorter race formats but he knows that gear failure, which has stalked him in past solo ocean races, will have to be kept to a minimum.
“I think for everyone doing a big solo race like the Route du Rhum gear failure is the biggest fear,” he said. “When you are solo and you have to fix a problem it takes a lot more energy and, as soon as you have any distraction in a solo race, then it really saps your powers of concentration to focus on boatspeed and navigation.”
Sharp is hoping to build his own IMOCA class monohull for the 2020 Vendée Globe and is looking to start the build in the next six months. He hopes to continue his association with Imerys – the Paris-based commercial minerals company – and add new sponsors alongside them.
A good performance in the Rhum – following on from his victory in this year’s Normandy Channel Race, runner’s up spot in the Drheam Cup and victory in the Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland Race – will make turning those dreams into reality much easier.
“The most important thing is to show that you’ve got the consistency and that you can continuously get the results,” summarised Sharp, one of five British skippers in the Class40 line-up.
In addition to the pure sporting element of his campaign, Sharp will be demonstrating some novel clean energy techniques on his boat during the race that will ensure that it is carbon-neutral while also showcasing technologies that reduce air pollution on the oceans.
Imerys Clean Energy will generate auxiliary power through a sustainable mix of solar and hydro power and biodiesel. “Our racing project is about setting an example to the maritime sector with clean technologies that are currently accessible, scalable and practical,” said Sharp.
“Our aim is to encourage firstly boat owners, and then the wider industry, to move away from fossil fuels. The maritime sector is currently one of the dirtiest industries out there, as a major contributor of toxic air pollutants, particularly sulphur and nitrogen oxides. We really need to start embracing these technologies and we need to do this now,” added Sharp.