Around the world via the three capes
The course for the Vendée Globe illustrates the straightforward nature and simplicity of the idea behind this major event. You sail around the world from west to east via the three major capes of Good Hope, Leeuwin and the Horn. There is a long slide down the Atlantic, the perilous voyage across the Southern Ocean with firstly the Indian Ocean and its crossed seas, then the Pacific Ocean, the world’s biggest ocean. Finally, there is the climb back up the Atlantic to head back to Les Sables d’Olonne, which marks the start and finish of the Everest of the seas. We take a look at each section of the round the world race course...
The traps of the Bay of Biscay
Watch out for south-westerly storms between Les Sables d’Olonne and Cape Finisterre! Any ocean racer will tell you that the Bay of Biscay has the reputation of being a tough one. Between the shallows of the continental shelf and the strengthening winds off the Cantabrian Mountains, the way out into the Atlantic can be particularly cruel for sailors and their boats. On the other hand, if there is a northerly flow, it means a quick slide down towards the western tip of Spain, then off to Madeira and the Canaries. Then, you need to pick up the trades as quickly as possible, make your way through the Cape Verde Islands to get in place to make your way through the Doldrums. While speed is favoured, the sailing sometimes allows tactical options to come into play, which can mean the loss or gain of a hundred miles or so in a few hours. Download the map route
From the Doldrums to Saint Helena, strategy comes into play
At the southern limits of the northern hemisphere, the inter-tropical convergence zone, better known as the Doldrums, is the nightmare facing yachtsmen: erratic winds, violent thunderstorms, sometimes torrential rain, going through the Doldrums is a bit like getting a lottery ticket. In other words, the Vendée Globe sailors will have spent a lot of time preparing for this before getting there: studying the weather charts, analysing in detail each sector. Once they have passed the Equator, the puzzle has still not been solved, as they have to find their way around the St. Helena high, before turning east and picking up the winds allowing them to sail downwind towards the Indian Ocean. The island of St. Helena is found in the middle of the Gulf of Guinea, but the high, which bears its name can generate light winds right across to just off the Brazilian and Argentinean coast.
The Indian Ocean, the shadowy zone
That was how Titouan Lamazou, the winner of the first Vendée Globe, nicknamed this huge wilderness between the Cape of Good Hope and Tasmania to the south east of Australia. Crossing the Indian Ocean means the yachtsmen will be diving down into another world. Low light, dangerous seas, violent winds, a cold, wet environment, in just a few days the Vendée Globe sailors find themselves completely alone… Ahead of their bow, several thousand miles during which they will have to make a compromise between the shortest route, which is the furthest south, while at the same time avoiding the ice limit. The change is a shock and can weigh heavily on their feelings. Once again, it is a question of getting the right mixture: knowing how to sail quickly without pushing the boat too hard. And above all knowing how to survive…
The Pacific Ocean, heading for the way out
To reach the Horn takes around twenty days on average. The atmosphere gradually changes. The sailors say: the swell is more regular, longer, and the sea state cleaner. Once they have passed the International Date Line, the return journey begins. However, the voyage down to Cape Horn also has its share of dangers in store. The first one is the presence of icebergs reaching fairly northerly latitudes. This means a stressful watch for the yachtsmen, who although able to detect the larger icebergs on the radar, cannot spot growlers, small blocks of drifting ice, which are sometimes less than a metre above the surface of the water, but which can weigh thirty or forty tonnes. There is a permanent risk of collision and the hours spent on deck trying to detect the danger add to the tiredness, which has built up. Rounding the Horn marks the way out...
South Atlantic, a daunting climb
Let us not forget that a large number of boats have been forced to retire from the Vendée Globe in the South Atlantic. The boats have been through a lot, the vigilance that has been kept up for several weeks begins to fade. Moreover, the South Atlantic can offer its share of nasty shocks to those, who think they have got away with it. The pamperos, the gales, which blow off the Argentinean coast, can be exceptionally violent. The stretch is often a difficult one to sail and upwind sailing common, which contributes to the fragility of the boats and the men. Then, there are the Doldrums to get through, even if further west they are statistically narrower!
North Atlantic, the fast track
Gradually, the single-handed yachtsmen in the Vendée Globe make their way back into the cold. Time to put the fleeces back on and they start to count the miles to the finish. They have to decide how to deal with how to finish back in Les Sables d’Olonne. Very often they need to pick up the westerlies to sail directly towards the port on France’s West Coast. Little by little, the first signs of civilisation start to appear: they come across a cargo ship, a few trawlers on the edge of the continental shelf. Then, they catch a glimpse of a few lights on the coast, which guide them in to the finish, before entering the harbour entrance in Les Sables d’Olonne...