It is Go Time!. The 3,500 miles Retour à La Base race from Martinique to Lorient starts midday local time. The skippers were generally relaxed as they arrived at the race dock in Fort-de-France early and made their final preparations. With only a few friends and families around, and core technical team around it made for a much more serene send off than at home in France, not least knowing that the first few days will be a relatively straightforward climb northwards in the tradewinds.
For very many of the skippers who are going solo on their boats for the first time – like Sam Goodchild, Yoann Richomme, Nico Lunven, even Transat Jacques Vabre winner Thomas Ruyant – this is a perfect warm up before they hook into the eastbound low pressure train. Then the question is very much where to set the limits.
The only stress on the dock has been for Pip Hare’s team on Medallia who are dealing with a last minute GPS problem….

Here is a selection of pre-dockout quotes

Conrad Colman, NZL, Mail Boxes ETC:

“I feel fantastic, this is a good chance to finally get on the glide path for the Vendée Globe. That is cool. After putting the boat together and all the work we did, I kind of feel little by little, incrementally we are getting closer to the Vendée Globe. We did a massive refit. And the double handed race was a great success, and now here we are turning the page and it is time to focus on solo. From here on out it is all solo, it is all preparation for the Vendée Globe. It is a big change of amplitude.
We could not have asked for a better weather window in terms of easing into the race, in contrast to the Jacques Vabre I don’t expect the fleet will blow up and go 1000 different ways on the Atlantic. It will be really interesting to be in a pack and do a speed test against everyone else. That is exciting.
We have done very little testing boat on boat since we changed the boat. And so those miles and that opportunity to compare ourselves will be enormously valuable in terms of building sails for the Vendée Globe. We have to get that right, we need to know our weak points and what we are working to to improve. But there is also some gamesmanship going on, everyone says ‘oh I’m just focused on getting there, but as soon as the red mist is down, when there is a start line and a finish line everyone is pushing hard. It is really cool. I think it will be decided by who manages the depression best. The first few days are a speed test, that will be interesting but when the chips are down and depression number 4 is going past at the Azores, it is about positioning north south then, trying not to be too greedy. I set limits and respect them. More wind is not necessarily more speed, it is an opportunity too for more things to break.”

Sam Davies GBR Initiatives Coeur:

“I’m super excited!” I'm really looking forward to leaving, to go solo aboard my boat Initiatives Cœur which has evolved a lot this year. But I'm a little stressed too: I feel like it's been a really long time since I've done a real solo race. The boats are powerful, you have to master everything on your own... I learned a lot and gained confidence during the Transat Jacques Vabre. There's nothing better than having a great run before heading out solo. It shows that the boat is capable of doing it. I think I'll just listen to it during the race! I'm going there with a real learning objective, rediscovering the sensations that we had together on the Transat Jacques Vabre without taking any risks in terms of maneuvers and choice of sail. The Return to Base marks the end of a busy season for me in terms of crewed and then double-handed sailing. This race is one more step towards the Vendée Globe. It will be similar to what we will have in the South Seas and it will be interesting to test the sails and configurations in these conditions!”

Sam Goodchild GBR For The Planet:

“So far I feel quite relaxed, I didn't expect that. We are ready to leave, we are starting to plan for the next hours, the next days of racing. Apart from the few squalls that there may be, the first three days should be quite simple in terms of strategy. That gives us a little time before we worry about what's next! This is the first time that I will be solo on my boat. We didn't even have a day solo! There are lots of things to discover, to learn and I can't wait to see what happens! There can't be a better setup for starting out solo. There are a lot of parameters that change from double handed. I don't have any worries yet, but I really want to see what it's like! It’s the last race of the year, it’s the return home. We are all tired but excited nonetheless. It feels good to leave relaxed!”

Szabolcs Weöres HUN,  NEW EUROPE:

“As at every start of a race, I feel a little apprehension deep down, but I believe it is a necessary feeling before setting off. After a great Transat Jacques Vabre, I am keen to do the same solo. It will be great training and a great opportunity to test myself with the boat.”
Yoann Richomme, FRA, Paprec Arkéa: “I feel good, I had a good night, that’s unusual in a prestart phase like that. It should be a calm start with a few squalls that will upset the wind. We have had ten great days here to re-prepare the boat which was a real technical challenge in itself. I really like this boat. It is made for this type of transatlantic with strong downwind sea conditions which we will find when we get to the Azores and even more so in the Bay of Biscay as we approach Lorient. I am looking forwards to seeing its potential in these seas and getting my bearings on board when we are making fairly high average speeds I will have to manage the beast alone. I have never done this before and so looking towards the Vendée Globe, this is interesting . I need a lot of information to learn how to perform well on this boat in harsh conditions.  The beginning will be fairly neutral but when we go west, there we will be able to put the cursor a little more where we want and start to attack more or less. I'm going to watch the boat, we have to get to the other side but we also have to learn, we have to come back with answers and not generate more questions than those we already have at the start. I’m glad to be going home. It's been almost a month and a half since we left but mentally we've been at it for several months. Also happy that it was a relatively quick transatlantic. It's true that as soon as we finish we're going to get our heads back into the next two Transats for next year, you wonder a little when will it stop but we're going to have to break a little all the same !"

Alan Roura SUI, Hublot:

“I feel good, without pressure. I have a hard time realizing that I'm already heading back to the other side. But it will hit home when I find myself alone at the helm on the starting line. I'm happy to go solo again before we work on the boat for next season. Weather-wise, we have until December 4 to build strength before three to four depressions land on us with active storm fronts, in which we will especially have to pay attention to the state of the sea. We will have to play in a narrow North South corridor to stay under the depressions: to the north 40 knots and big waves, to the south 5 knots. It's going to be sporty! A solo return in December is always sporty. On this first major leg going up to the north, with the anticyclone descending, the (fast) foiling boats will have to travel further to go further north than the daggerboard boats which should be able to cut the pear in two. It’s not easy to tell yourself that you shouldn’t go all out at the beginning! Reaching start 15 knots, flat seas, nice 3 mile tack before the lee of Arlet Coves then perhaps tack upwind to reach the South of Martinique.”

Nicolas Lunven, FRA, Holcim PRB:

“We came across here on a relatively serene delivery, so we got here with a boat that was as ready as possible to take part in this return race. We are ready. And now there are a lot of new things, I have not very much experience in solo IMOCA racing. Even though I just crossed the Atlantic with it, that's not a lot of experience on this boat and it wasn't in a race. I am hungry for it though,  I'm going to be happy to be at sea and racing! I see this event as a great learning curve to learn how to use Holcim PRB properly, particularly in terms of performance since we will be in full race mode. If I can go faster than my rivals then I will, with the fundamental aim also of qualifying for the Vendée Globe so getting to Lorient without any problem. Where do we put the cursor between learning, racing, the desire and the need to reach the end of this race? The positioning of the cursor will certainly evolve during the race depending on the weather conditions which will very much determine how hard you can push.”