Armel Le Cléac'h's momentous victory in the Vendée Globe brings to an end an epic struggle with Alex Thomson that began the moment the 29-strong fleet left Les Sables d'Olonne on November 6.
Both sailors had built new-generation IMOCA 60 boats for the race that featured the addition of foils – L-shaped daggerboards that sit in the water providing lift and therefore extra speed in certain conditions. With two runners-up places from the past two editions of the race under his belt, Le Cléac'h began as one of the favourites to take the top spot this time round. Similarly Thomson was also tipped for the top as he began his fourth Vendée Globe looking to improve on his third-place finish of 2012-13.
Since the start on 6th November 2016 from Les Sables-d’Olonne, the Breton skipper from St. Pol de Léon in Morlaix Bay has had to use all his skill and experience as two times winner of the French summer classic, the Solitaire du Figaro, to ward off attacks from Britain’s Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss. Before the start, the skipper of Banque Populaire VIII spoke about his position as favourite in the 2016-2017 Vendée Globe. “It is the sailor, who makes all the difference. The one who comes out on top will be the one, who makes the fewest mistakes. We are setting off as pioneers, as no 60-foot monohull has ever sailed around the world with foils. I am one of the favourites, but I’m not the only one. There have been four transatlantic races since I started sailing on board Banque Populaire VIII and I won one of them.” Living up his reputation, the Jackal never gave an inch away, but the pressure was on him throughout the race from his British rival, Alex Thomson. Since 7th November, the day after the start, Le Cléac’h and Thomson have been taking it in turns as leader. “When I’m on a boat, I shift to warrior and adventurer mode,” explained the Breton skipper, who has looked solid physically and mentally during the whole race.
Le Cléac'h shot out of the blocks, taking an early lead alongside fellow Frenchman Vincent Riou, but by the Equator Thomson had a three-hour jump on the fleet after taking a shortcut through the Cape Verde Islands. Thomson's reference time to the Equator of nine days, seven hours and two minutes beat the existing record set by Jean Le Cam of 10 days and 11 hours. Disaster struck for Thomson on November 19 when a collision with an object floating in the waters of the South Atlantic destroyed his starboard foil, leaving just a stump sticking out. In spite of the setback Thomson rounded the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of South Africa in the lead four hours and 22 minutes ahead of Le Cléac’h, his time of seventeen days, 22 hours and 58 minutes obliterating the previous race record for the passage of 22 days and 23 hours set by Le Cléac'h in 2012.
The record pace carried on through the Indian Ocean with Thomson clinging to the top spot despite much of the action taking place on port, the tack on which Hugo Boss had a slight speed deficit due to the missing foil. As they reached the remote Kerguelen Islands Le Cléac'h was within touching distance of Thomson, finally overhauling him on December 3. The occasion was marked by a visit from a French navy helicopter, which was able to film incredible images of the two boats blasting along at almost 30 knots. It was the first time racing yachts have ever been filmed so far south. Le Cléac'h started to pull away but Thomson refused to let to go his French rival, staying within 100 miles at Australia's Cape Leeuwin. Again the race records fell, Le Cléac'h shaving off five days and 14 hours from François Gabart's 2012-13 record, and Banque Populaire accelerated away.
By Cape Horn Le Cléac'h had amassed a whopping 819nm lead on Thomson, the equivalent of two days on the water. Again Thomson replied with a blazing run up the South Atlantic that reduced the gap to just 50 miles by the Equator. Thomson's passage from Cape Horn has taken 13 days, five hours and 30 minutes, smashing 2012-13 Vendée Globe winner François Gabart's existing record for the passage by 14 hours.
With Le Cléac'h snared by the Doldrums the sprint through the North Atlantic began at slow pace, tricky weather systems confusing the leaders' route back to the finish line. Both skippers admitted to being mentally and physically exhausted as they pushed man and boat to the limit in pursuit of the ultimate prize. Extra pressure was heaped on Le Cléac'h when on January 16 Thomson set a new 24-hour distance record of sailed 536.81nm averaging 22.4 knots, breaking François Gabart's existing record by two miles.
In a nail-biting finale that had race fans on the edges of their seats, Le Cléac'h entered the final 24 with the narrowest of advantages, just 33 miles splitting his boat Banque Populaire VIII from Thomson's Hugo Boss. But by the time Le Cléac'h, nicknamed 'The Jackal' for his predatory nature on the water, got to within 200nm of the finish he had pulled away to create an unassailable buffer of 100nm. Thomson's final assault compounded by autopilot problems that left him dangerously tired and with Le Cléac'h out of reach he was forced to concede. Le Cléac'h sailed Banque Populaire VIII over the finish line at 1537 UTC in a time of 74 days, three hours, 35 minutes and 46 seconds to win the Vendée Globe and set a new race record in the process.
Despite the incredible length of the Vendée Globe the race is not unfamiliar with close finishes. In the very first edition winner Titouan Lamazou beat Loick Peyron by just 17 hours after 109 days at sea. In 2005 Vincent Riou came in just seven hours of Jean Le Cam to win the race, setting a new record time of 87 days, 10 hours and 47 minutes in the process. The closest finish the race has ever seen was in the previous edition when François Gabart beat Le Cléac'h by just three hours.