Under pressure from the ‘experts of the day’, and concerns of possible intervention by the Board of Trade, the organisers had imposed a restriction on length (56ft) and on the number of entries (110 boats) following the 1976 edition. The race committee chairman, Jack Odling-Smee announced that the decision had been reached for three reasons, the final one being “We have set the class limits to try to adhere to the original concept of the race, which is to defeat the ocean rather than the other competitors.”
However the use of the expensive ARGOS tracking system, primarily for safety reasons, resulted in the sponsors (the Observer and radio station Europe 1) using the regular position reports to reinforce the competitive nature of the race. A number of the new transmitters failed during the race causing some concern over the ‘missing’ yachts – a problem that continues to the present.
Many potential competitors had to be turned away and, in the event, ninety competitors started. Incidents came immediately. Most unfortunate was Florence Arthaud who lost her mast before even reaching the start. Tom Grossman (Kriter VII) collided with Garuda but after hurried repairs to a float managed to restart the following afternoon.
There was a noticeable drop (26 to 16) in French participation who, upset by the restrictions in force, favoured the new solo transatlantic race, the Route du Rhum, created by Frenchman Michael Etevenon. Only one French skipper, Daniel Gilard, appeared in the top 10 finishers; although in 14th was a new rising star Olivier de Kersauson on Kriter VI. What did dominate the top 10 finishers, were the multihulls including the unofficial entry of Marc Pajot racing Tabarly’s “futuristic” foiler Paul Ricard. Tabarly had to withdraw from the race due to a skiing injury and Pajot, unable to complete the qualification in time, raced as an unofficial entry crossing the line in fifth. In fact, the top five slots were filled with multihulls but it was, above all, the “American Multihull School” that emerged victorious with the veteran of the race, the 100% ‘Corinthian entry’ Phil Weld (Moxie) who finished in 17 days, 23 hours and 12 minutes, plus Phil Steggall (Jeans Foster) and Walter Greene (Cassettes Olympia).
Phil Weld had carried a detailed study of North Atlantic weather and, balancing this with the known abilities of Moxie, he came up with his own route: south of 45°N 35°W and through 43°N 50°W – the Weld Waypoints.
The weather conditions were ideal at the start with a northerly flow for almost ten days enabling the leaders to sail more than half the course with the wind abeam, an extremely favourable situation for the trimarans. Seventy-two boats finished and the course record dropped by six days in one go – it was fast approaching the two-week barrier.