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      Yesterday, in light winds, French skipper Marc Thiercelin motored his IMOCA Open 60 Pro Form for the final six miles to Plymouth and arrived at the race marina at 21:30 UTC.

This brings the total number of IMOCA yachts assembled to fifteen - only two monohulls, the Marc Lombard designed Bonduelle of Jean Le Cam and Roland Jourdain's Sill, have yet to arrive and complete The Transat fleet.

This morning Thiercelin and his two shore crew are fully occupied with final preparation details on the six year old boat (ex-Whirlpool/ex-Tiscali) in the continuing fine weather that is providing all teams with near perfect working conditions. The French skipper's priorities with the yacht are strength and simplicity: "I have always chosen a minimalist approach with my boats - simple systems that function well and will withstand hard racing." Pro Form's interior and cabin space are extremely austere and Thiercelin has allowed no margin for comfort and prefers the increased mobility afforded by the extra space down below. He does, though, plan to sleep in a hammock (a long standing, personal preference) slung beside the yacht's bleak and functional nav station. However, weather and sea conditions that he may well encounter during the transatlantic crossing will mean the 44 year old skipper will be forced to wedge himself into one of the yacht's two small pipe cots.

Pro Form has recently been re-fitted with new winches while the skipper is rightly proud of his state of the art communications system provided by the European Space Agency (ESA). Thiercelin has also focused on stripping the boat of unnecessary weight in the hope of remaining competitive with the more recent generation of super-fast monohulls. He is also aware that during his three-year break from Open 60 racing (since an impressive fourth place in the 2000-2001 Vendée Globe) many of the skippers entered in this race have continued to increase their single-handed experience and further develop their individual boats. On this basis, the Frenchman considers Mike Golding and his Owen Clarke Design Open 60 Ecover (launched last year) as the monohull to watch.

Thiercelin has no difficulty confronting the reality that his boat has suffered five dismastings: twice with Catherine Chabaud as Whirlpool and three times as Tiscali under the ownership of Italian solo sailor, the late Simone Bianchetti. Touching on this subject the highly contented skipper declared confidently: "The mast is simple and strong...perfect."

A major player in the history of single-handed transatlantic racing sailed into Plymouth last weekend in the form of Canadian Mike Birch. While the majority of the competitors in The Transat this year have never sailed in the race before Birch first sailed the single-handed race the 'wrong way' across the North Atlantic in 1976. Sailing his tiny Val 31 trimaran The Third Turtle in that race, Birch finished an impressive second over the line, a day after Eric Tabarly's 72ft maxi winner Pen Duick VI and almost two days ahead of Alain Colas' giant four-master Club Méditerranée.
Twenty-eight years later Birch has returned to Plymouth. Since 1976 the start of the race has moved from Millbay Docks (now the Brittany Ferries terminal) gradually eastwards across Plymouth to Queen Anne's Battery marina and this year the fleet in its entirety is moored in Plymouth Yacht Haven. The line-up has also changed dramatically. The 1976 race saw 126 starters - its biggest ever entry - ranging from the 236ft long Club Méditerranée to tiny 20 footers. Immediately following that race the maximum length of entries was limited and has since stablised at 60ft. While boats as small as 30ft were allowed in the previous race, The Transat is now limited to 60 and 50 footers only. Then the race finished in Newport, Rhode Island, today the course remains much the same, but finishes in Boston.

What remains consistent is the challenge of racing across the inhospitable North Atlantic single-handed and the lure of this is as great as it always has been for Birch. "I love to prepare a boat and sail it and seeing if it works," he says. "But a lot of it is also seeing people I haven't seen for a long time." Despite his 72 years, Birch still looks exceptionally fit.

His entry in The Transat followed a conversation back in December with the owner of his boat, Claude Develay, head of Fuji France who originally sponsored Birch's Fujicolor 60ft trimaran campaign in the late 1980s and early 90s (the Fuji sponsorship was subsequently taken over by Loick Peyron, who went on to win the 1992 and 1996 races. "Then the idea was that I was going to find a sponsor and I have someone who has been looking for sponsorship for me, but he wasn't able to find a sponsor, so I am sort of sponsoring it myself at the moment," Birch says.

At the start of the year the boat was 53ft long and had to be shortened to get into the 50ft size limit of The Transat's Class 2. "I came over in February and cut off the stern," Birch says. He also moved the staysail stay forward and added one of Fujicolor's old spinnaker poles. Unfortunately, unsponsored, funds are short and Birch says he could do with some new sails.
Aside from racing The Transat, Birch is also looking forward to sailing in the Quebec-St Malo race. Currently his home is in Quebec.

His Nigel Irens-designed trimaran Nootka, has two sisterships one of which, Rich Wilson's Great American II, is also entered in The Transat. While this will be good for competition Birch says Great American II has an advantage. She was the third of the series to be built and compared to Nootka has around 2m more beam, larger volume floats and is generally a more powerful boat.

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Centre d'Accueil de la Presse Etrangère (CAPE)

The Centre d'Accueil de la Presse Etrangère (CAPE) will host The Transat's official Info Point in Paris during the race. The Info Point will give journalists and sponsor representatives the opportunity to listen together to the daily conference calls with the competing skippers, and see images from on board some of the boats. CAPE was created in 2000 by the French government during the period of France's presidency of the European Union. Its main aim is to welcome correspondents from around the world sent to cover a particular event or aspect of French culture. The centre is also open to French journalists with an interest in European and international issues.

For further information, please contact Lou Newlands or Isabel Genis
isabel@offshorechallenges.com (French/Italian/Spanish speaking)
T: +44 (0)870 063 0218
F: +44 (0)20 7681 2912

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