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Day 17: the Vendee Globe dilemma and Riou retires

Onboard image bank for Vincent Riou  (FRA), skipper PRB, during training for the Vendee Globe solo race, off Belle Ile on August 18th, 2016 - Photo Eloi Stichelbaut / PRB Banque image embarquée pour Vincent Riou  (FRA), skipper PRB, lors d'un entraineme

Since the fleet crossed the start line in Les Sables d'Olonne, France, on November 6 it has become splattered across the Atlantic stretching from the leaders in the east just a few days from entering the Southern Ocean to the caboose still north of the Equator. Life could not be much better for those at the head of the fleet, with winds of more than 30 knots transforming their 60ft yachts into waterborne rockets blasting south east at top speed. The frontrunners, led by Alex Thomson's Hugo Boss, are due to arrive at the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of South Africa and the gateway to the Southern Ocean, on Friday, four days ahead of schedule.

The only one in that leading group not smiling is 2004/5 Vendee Globe winner Vincent Riou, who retired from racing today with damage to the keel of PRB. Frenchman Riou had been in fifth, the highest placed non-foiling boat, when he discovered fatal damage to the part of the boat that connects the keel to the hull.

But while the rich get richer it stands that the poor get poorer. And those in the middle of the Vendee Globe fleet are among the hardest up, snared by the St Helena High with little sign of her relinquishing her grip. “It’s something of an understatement to say it’s a bit tough,” explained French sailor Kito de Pavant, languishing in 12th place almost 2,000 nautical miles off the pacesetters. “I’ve been stuck in this wind hole since yesterday evening, and I can’t do anything about it.” At the 1400 UTC rankings the Bastide Otio skipper was making just five knots, a stark comparison to the 22 knots third-placed Armel Le Cléac'h was racking up. De Pavant is not alone in his troubles - ninth-placed Jean Le Cam is 1,400nm behind the lead and only marginally quicker at seven knots, while Jean-Pierre Dick in tenth could also only muster five knots. “Of course it's not the Champs-Elysees with lots of joy on board,” StMichel Virbac skipper Dick confessed. “I'm quite nervous that I'm losing more distance to the leaders but I can't do anything now. I just have to wait, do my best, and be better than Jean Le Cam and Yann Eliès. The next couple of days I'm going to go to the south so I can get more wind. At this speed I will need a lot more time to go round the world. I'm going to go very south and try to catch the new depression in the right position.”

© C_Favreau / Spirit of HungaryHungarian sailor Nandor Fa was also resigned to spending more days than planned trying to forge a path though the South Atlantic's anticyclones. “It's getting very complicated,” he said. “There's a huge high pressure system in front of us and it's very difficult to decide which way to go. On the other hand it's quite simple because there's no way to go south. We must go south east as long as we have wind.”

Still in the northern hemisphere, Spanish skipper Didac Costa on One Planet One Ocean is now 3,260nm adrift of the leaders, meaning he is trailing by a greater distance than the 2,700nm he has sailed from the start. It might be a huge distance but Costa remains upbeat in 27th. “I have started to look at the positions reports more often and, although the distance with the boats ahead is enormous and the wind conditions are different, it is encouraging to see that you gain some miles on the others,” he said. “It motivates you to push the boat even more and trying to get her best performance.”

A second sailor retires

Riou was tonight making for Cape Town, South Africa, some 1,000nm to the east, to carry out repairs to PRB before sailing back to France. In a cruel twist of fate the damage occurred on the 14th day of racing, the exact same point he was forced to retire from the 2012/13 Vendee Globe. He is officially the second skipper to retire from the Vendee Globe following Bertrand de Broc who also suffered keel damage earlier in the race. Tanguy de Lamotte is sailing back to Les Sables with damage to his mast but has not yet retired from racing.

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