British skipper Alex Thomson is up to second place in the Vendée Globe, the speed advantage of his Hugo Boss telling in the NE’ly trade winds. But the coming hours will be fascinating, as the leaders of the 29-boat fleet play out their respective strategies for the passage of the Cape Verde Islands, and may determine the order and time differentials for the 450 miles that remain before the hurdle which the Doldrums – the ITCZ – represent.
Thomson’s electrifying speeds have returned him to second, 24 miles behind Armel Le Cléac’h who has lead for four days, since overhauling Hugo Boss on the 1700hrs ranking last Tuesday. The British skipper had made 479 nautical miles in 24 hours today, not far shy of the solo monohull record set in the last Vendée Globe by winner François Gabart at 534 nautical miles. The record for Les Sables to the Equator, Jean Le Cam’s 10 days 11 hours 28 mins set in 2004-5, may well be under threat.
Sébastien Josse (Edmond de Rothschild) in fifth and third placed Vincent Riou (PRB), now 12 miles behind Thomson, have taken a course slightly more to the west, trying to avoid the worst of the wind shadows created by the high volcanic mountains of the island archipelago. The island furthest to the north-west, Santo Antao, has two mountains nearly 2,000 metres high and this high ground disturbs the flow of the NE’ly trades for nearly 100 miles downwind. The course taken by Le Cléac’h appeared to be taking him within 10 miles of the island. But this first island is only 12 miles long so it looks to be a calculated risk. Alex Thomson confirmed this morning that he will pass through the islands, taking advantage of any acceleration of the breeze caused by the high ground, but will also have to recognise the zones of unsettled air. Rookie, Morgan Lagraviere (Safran) looked to be lining up to follow in the wake of Thomson’s Hugo Boss, but gybed hard west at 1330hrs this afternoon, losing miles to Riou and to his rivals to the west.
“There is quite a big wind shadow behind these islands so there is some jiggery pokery to be done,” said Thomson this morning.
“I am on the edge of the sail plan that I have so the boat requires constant attention to make sure I don’t broach or gybe or go down a wave too hard. You have to always look after the boat to make sure nothing happens.”
The magnificent seven, Le Cléac’h, Thomson, Riou, Lagraviere, Josse, Jéremie Beyou (Maitre CoQ), and rookie Paul Meilhat (SMA) are moving further clear of Yann Elies (Quéguiner-Leucemie Espoir) in eighth but Elies had found an extra gear on the former Safran and was making 21kts this afternoon.
The Doldrums, which the leaders are expected to reach tomorrow night, do not look too active, nor too wide. A narrow band around 30W exists, which is reckoned to be only about 60 miles wide and may prove the optimum zone to transition through to the southern hemisphere.
But the pace and intensity of the foiling boats especially, is a tough environment for the skippers. Jéremie Beyou – no stranger to hardship – commented today:
“Like a Solitaire du Figaro for the past week which is great. It’ll be intense until we pass Cape Verde then cooler. It’s been quick since the start and we’re bunched up. You really have to be on top of the trimming. 20-30 knots this morning – really powered up at times – between 19 and 30 knots, so trimming is pretty hard. It’s an unbearable racket – you can’t live with it. If you don’t put your headphones on, 20 minutes later you can’t stand any more. I slammed off a wave and lost one set the other day. It vibrates through the whole boat. Goes right through your body.”
The race between a posse of very experienced international skippers, the hard-core Super 60s, remains close and exciting, albeit a few miles behind the leaders. Nandor Fa (Spirit of Hungary) and Rich Wilson (Great American IV) are lined up on the same latitude, albeit 75 miles apart. Both have already completed one Vendee Globe apiece. But in that same match is Koji Shiraishi (Spirit of Kukoh) and Stephane Le Diraison (Compagnie de Lit-Boulogne Bilancourt) on the Groupe Finot-designed former Hugo Boss.
Le Diraison and Wilson had a pleasant email exchange two nights ago when they passed close to one another, sailing with each other’s nav lights clearly visible for a period.
Kito de Pavant (FRA) Bastide Otio: “I am taking my time as the weather isn’t great. Sometimes no wind then 25 knots so difficult to manage. I have taken the wrong wash bag with me so I don’t have ear plugs and I have only one razor for a round the world.”
Paul Meilhat (FRA) SMA: “We’re sailing on the points of tack where foilers aren’t necessarily very quick. There are moments where the wind heads and then it picks up but we’ve managed to keep on the pace. We had a 20-knot average virtually all of last night and the boats are more stable when sailing fast. The trades are very stable too - 22-25 kts last night – and I slept well. Strategy will be very important with some wind shadows to deal with off Cape Verde this evening. For now, I’m concentrating on my route with an eye on what the others are doing. ETA of 2 days for the Doldrums, so Monday, and things are looking quite nice for now. Thomas Coville slipped through them nicely but he was on a faster boat of course. Doesn’t look like we’ll have to pass too far west to get through it. It’s very motivating to be in contact and see how I measure up against the others. We have really nice conditions and there’s nothing better than being on the pace.”
Didac Costa (ESP) One Planet One Ocean: “I passed the TSS (Traffic Separation System) exclusion zone off Galicia this morning and I have already hoisted my flying sails to get South. I am sailing with the medium spinnaker aloft; I am happy that things are going well. It is a little less cold now, although I am still very wrapped up. I have downloaded some position reports of the other boats and they are quite far ahead (laughs), but there is not too much I can do about it…The weather is not clear after the Canary Islands; the wind looks a bit fluky. We will wait and see what happens although there are still four or five days before we get there. But until the Canary Islands, more or less, everything is quite clear. So far so good. I am paying attention so nothing serious happens and that I don’t break anything, especially in the first few days. This race is very long. For now, I’m going at my own pace and we will see. I am very motivated. I am thinking more about this boat than sailing the race and I will gradually gain more and more in confidence and then I will think more about the competition itself."