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Defying the gremlins at Défi Azimut

Oliver Heer is one step closer to his Vendée Globe dream after completing the extremely challenging Défi Azimut 48-hour offshore race with Swiss co-skipper Nils Palmieri.  

The Défi Azimut Speed Runs were cancelled on day one of the five-day showcase regatta due to strong winds and dangerous conditions. The schedule resumed at 12:30 on day two, when the Swiss duo crossed the start line of the Défi Azimut 48-Hour offshore race. Conditions were windy and squally, but the start was an impressive sight as 33 IMOCAs, all with ambitions of competing in the 2024 Vendée Globe race, crossed the line, accelerating rapidly and keen to get underway on this 600nm race.  

It was the first time Ollie and Nils have sailed together under race conditions on Oliver Heer Ocean Racing, and the duo worked. The pair had a great start and were at the front end of the fleet at Azimut 0, the cardinal passing mark off the Isle D’Groix. The fleet battled through constant squalls and a rolling swell as they sailed up the coast of Brittany. Headlands and fickle winds made navigation challenging, for most of the afternoon, but despite that Ollie was the leading daggerboard boat. 

Around 02:00 on Friday morning, Ollie and Nils passed race mark Azimut 1, turning left into the notorious Bay of Biscay. The conditions were punishing with winds of 25 knots – gusting higher – and a heavy sea state.  

The conditions forced three competitors to retire, Corum with a dismasting, Stand as One with major water ingress and Nexans - Art and Fenêtres experiencing issues with their electronics which impacted their autopilot and ability to receive weather data.  

Electronic gremlins also plagued Ollie and Nils who lost the use of their autopilot and were unable to download the latest weather data. The duo debated whether they should continue. Completing this race would grant the team valuable experience in extreme conditions as part of the preparation for Transat Jaques Vabres next month but without electronic navigation or wind data – would they be able to compete effectively? Both agreed that it was going to be challenging, and even if they didn’t get the results they wanted, but they were both experienced, weighed up the risks and felt it was the only decision to continue. 

The Swiss pairing pushed on. By 9am, Ollie and Nils passed Azimut 2 in 23rd place, having dropped back slightly. For this downwind leg the fleet were divided in which route to take. The fleet leaders took an easterly course, then gybed south to Azimut 3. Half of the following pack followed, with the other half opting to head south first, then east.   

Without weather data or information on the position of their competitors, Ollie and Nils chose to head south which initially seemed the better choice. They managed to achieve a fantastic boat speed completely unaware, and overtook several competitors including DMG Mori and Lazare. As the fleet converged at the downwind mark, the wind angle changed unfavourably and the daggerboard boats who went east first arrived several miles ahead, a gap which Ollie was never able to close. 

At this point, the wind started to fade. The fleet split into three groups with the race front runners comfortably cruising home into Lorient. The second group finished a couple of hours later on the dying breeze, whilst the back of the fleet were faced with a long and frustratingly slow leg home.  

Traditional Sailing Techniques 

For Ollie and Nils, who had been sailing without wind or weather data, and hand-steering most of the way, which meant far less opportunity to sleep, more bad news was still to come.  

In the early hours of the morning, they attempted to start the engine to charge the domestic batteries but were shocked to discover the engine battery was totally flat. This meant they were sailing in a ‘blackout’ without access to any navigation electronics and were even forced to navigate using a hand compass! 

Solar Panel Power 

Thankfully, the clouds cleared, the sun came out and by mid-afternoon Ollie was able to trickle charge the domestic batteries using the onboard solar panel – this didn’t solve the auto-pilot or the weather data problem, but did give them the ability to charge phones, use their nav-software and be able to turn on their nav lights as they approached the finish in the dark. 

Team Oliver Heer Ocean Racing crossed the finish line at 22:21 on Saturday 23rd September, completing the race in 2 days 9 hours and 51 minutes and 20 seconds.  They finished in 21st place, claiming 3rd place amongst the 14 competing daggerboard designed boats. Lazare finished just 33 minutes later. 


Ollie sums up the race saying: 

“Did I enjoy it? Well, yes and no! It was a short but tough race. There was very little opportunity for sleep and the time spent trying to solve the electrical problems was frustrating and a distraction from the sailing. But on the plus side, Nils and I developed a really strong team dynamic throughout the race. Given the challenges we faced I think we got a great result. 3rd daggerboard boat. I’m really happy with that.” 


 Nils Palmieri comments:

“I joined this race straight from La Solitaire du Figaro in which we are not allowed to download weather data after the race starts. So, I felt well prepared to sail without the data downloads! Ollie and I had a very complementary skill set which fills me with confidence for the Transat Jacques Vabres race next month, in which, without doubt we’ll face more challenges. This was the best debut experience in IMOCA sailing I could have wished for.” 


No offshore race is ever easy, but this 48-hour challenge was a real test of endurance and resilience. Choosing to continue racing without the modern electronic comforts is courageous. Ollie demonstrated an incredible determination and passion, exactly the right attitude to approach the biggest challenge of all; the Vendée Globe. 


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