The Vendee Globe is in full swing as the emotional roller coast ride continues. Rather than the strong gales which often prevail on the Bay of Biscay it was irregular, unsettled winds and big squalls which set a high work rate for the solo skippers through their first night of the solo race around the world.
Sailing a direct SWly course from Les Sables d’Olonne to pass Cape Finisterre, the first 24 hours of racing have been a straight boatspeed test, dealing with big, at times confused seas and using the variations in both wind strength and direction to best effect. But the rewards for those at the front of the fleet will be greatest as they will reach the fast downwind conditions of the Portuguese trade winds soonest.
As the leaders passed the infamous Cape Finisterre late this afternoon it remains Francois Gabart on Macif who has already built a useful margin, sailing consistently quicker than his nearest rivals. During the late evening hours of Saturday, Gabart and Armel le Cléac’h, sailing sister-ship Banque Populaire, were consistently 1 to 1.5 knots faster.
Briton Sam Davies is just one of the skippers who found the variable breezes tough, with big squalls bringing very heavy rain. She reported that she had seen everything from seven to more than 40 knots of wind during the night.
Steadily the gaps have opened in the 19 boat fleet as reality bites. As it stands now it is a clutch of the newest boats, driven by a posse of skippers who have trained hardest as a group which are setting the pace. Gabart’s lead on the late afternoon, 1500hrs UTC rankings, was at 11 miles ahead of Vincent Riou on PRB who had 1.1 miles in hand over third placed Le Cléac’h.
The leading trio have established a cushion of 12 miles to Switzerland’s Bernard Stamm on Cheminées Poujoulat. Briton Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss is starting to show his customary pace, polled fastest of the fleet this afternoon along with Jean-Pierre Dick on Virbac-Paprec 3. Thomson had risen to fifth place this afternoon and had less than one mile to catch Stamm. He will be quietly pleased to have passed the point where he had to turn back in the 2008-9 race when he suffered hull damage. This trio now compose a second group, at around 24-25 miles behind the leaders.
Another 12 miles back Jean Le Cam in seventh heads a third pack of boats with six miles separating his SynerCiel from Mike Golding in Gamesa in tenth.
The Vendée Globe habitually seems compelled to deal the toughest blows to some of the nicest, most popular and deserving skippers.
After enduring one of the most compelling races of the last edition – standing by the injured Yann Eliès, repeatedly climbing his mast to try and fix a damaged mast track which meant he sailed much of the course with two reefs in his mainsail and then sailing the last 1000 miles to finish in third place into Les Sables d’Olonne with no keel - after it snapped off - Marc Guillemot might have considered he had earned the right to better luck this time.
But the Safran skipper became the first to be forced out of this Vendée Globe when his titanium fin keel snapped off less than six hours into this race. Inspection back in the start port this morning revealed that just 30cms of the keel stub remained. Guillemot reported hearing two bangs in quick succession before his IMOCA Open 60 heeled alarmingly.
'I don’t know if we hit something or not. We are trying to know what happened. We will tell you what we discover. We won’t hide anything.' Guillemot told a press conference in Les Sables d’Olonne this morning.
'The keel had done between 23,000 and 25,000 miles. We trained with it before the last Transat Jacques Vabre in 2011, we did the B2B, went around the British Isles, and then four or five thousand miles in conditions which were not always easy. So, given that all it had been through, I left with confidence and no competitor would consider leaving without a lot of confidence in your keel.'
Since starting his race at around 0300hrs local time this morning Bertrand De Broc has been facing a more complex weather picture than had been gifted to the other 18 Vendée Globe soloists. The French skipper had to about-turn and go back to port before he had even started the race in order to make an express repair on a small puncture hole in the hull of his Votre Nom Autour du Monde avec EDM Projets.
Mike Golding, GBR, Gamesa: I'm a little disappointed not to be further up [the fleet], I didn't do anything wrong, so it is difficult to understand why there is such a split in the fleet, but clearly it is a drag race, so not encouraging when you are losing a drag race like that, but hopefully just an anomaly, but those miles come and go a bit.?We are going to get a shoot down the coast [of Portugal] and the big decision the fleet will have to make is when to strike to the west. There is a low pressure coming in that will give us quite strong head winds which we will have to go through before we get into a proper progression in the trade winds. It's a little more complicated than we would like to get straight on the road south. It is going to provide some opportunities? It is very squally right now. I am full main and Solent at the moment and playing with the ballast, really. When we are at the corner we can look at J3, it's little bit too squally to make that choice now. I am just trying to keep the boat in one piece and keep on going.
Marc Guillemot, FRA, Safran: I still don’t know at this time if I hit something or not. If it was not a collision it might be a case of metal fatigue, a design thing or calculation thing it is hard to know. But it is certain that being 50 miles from Les Sables d’Olonne it was relatively safe as the fleet was still quite tightly bunched. It is better than being in 35kts of wind in the south at the Kerguelens for example. But I am disappointed for our sponsor and for the team also. At the moment I am in the phase of trying to find out and understand what happened nothing will be hidden. Even if it hurts us. And we will communicate what has happened. The keel had done between 23,000 and 25,000 miles. We trained with it before the last Transat Jacques Vabre in 2011, we did the B2B, went around the British Isles, and then four or five thousand miles in conditions which were not always easy. So, given that all it had been through, I left with confidence and no competitor would consider leaving without a lot of confidence in your keel.
Bertrand De Broc, FRA, Votre Nom Autour Du Monde avec EDM Projets: I'm fine, in tough condition in 10-25 knots of wind. I saw Marc in the canal (as they crossed )The other guys are already far away and so I'm way behind. The conditions won't help me catch up with them. My team worked hard to fix my hull. Twelve hours behind is hard, and it could be 24 hours soon. But the repairs are perfect.
Vincent Riou, FRA, PRB: I'm doing fine, there have been a lot of waves. We are heading to Cape Finisterre, rounding it in the end of the day. It was a tough night, I had to work hard. The boat is doing ok, I could sleep in the second half of the night. The first night was not easy, no time to think because a lot of things to do.
1 - François Gabart [ Macif ] FRA, 23652 nms to finish 2 - Vincent Riou [PRB ] FRA, + 11 miles to leader 3 - Armel Le Cléac’h [Banque Populaire ] FRA, +12.6 miles to leader 4 - Berrnard Stamm [Cheminées Poujoulat ] SUI, +24 miles to leader 5 - Alex Thomson [Hugo Boss] GBR, +24.2 miles to leader