On board the top eight IMOCA Open 60’s on the Vendée Globe solo ocean race around the world there is added pressure to absolutely maximise speeds over what might prove a key section of the three month race.
For both the leading group of five, and the so called ‘chasing trio’ behind them, high pressure systems are encroaching from the west and also possibly from the north east and threatening to stall their otherwise rapid passage east.
Race leader Armel Le Cléac’h on Banque Populaire leads the charge towards the Crozet ice gate, making nearly 20kts of boat speed in improving conditions.
'The seas are a little calmer, but the anticyclone is pushing from behind and so we cannot afford to hang around at all. We have to pass the gate before it (the high)gets to us.' Stated Le Cléac’h on the Vendée Globe Live programme at lunchtime today.
Le Cléach has nicely managed to contain the four skippers which represent the biggest threat to his lead. François Gabart aboard the near identical twin Macif got to within 12 miles of Banque Populaire when their wakes crossed on opposite gybes at times today. Not surprisingly, for VPLP/Verdier designs built out of the same mould, speeds are very closely matched.
When he also spoke to Vendée Globe Live the obvious edge to the voice of Jean-Pierre Dick revealed as much about the stresses and strains of pushing so hard these past 36 hours in difficult sea conditions, as what he actually had to say. But Virbac-Paprec 3 is very much in touch, 33 miles – or about 90 minutes are present speeds - directly astern of Banque Populaire this afternoon.
'It is windy with big seas. The swell is not just big but the wave directions are quite crossed and so when the waves pass the bow and pushes it, the boat just stops. There is a lot of noise and it is very uncomfortable,' Dick explained, struggling above the cacophony of wind and waves.
Around 158 miles behind the leader, stress was also evident when Hugo Boss’ Alex Thomson called in today. Through the main part of the day he has pretty much held his station relative to the leader – only losing two or three small miles to Banque Populaire – sailing his lone southerly route, one which the British skipper considers his only option. To him, he said, there are no alternatives if he wishes to circumvent the worst of the high pressure and light winds: 'It has been fast the last 32 hours or so and a bit scary at times, particularly yesterday when we had a top speed of over 30kts and I was just trying to keep the boat under control and being very conscious that you don’t want to break it.'
Thomson summarised, ' But I am pretty happy with where I am managing to be up with the top boats, but I am having to take a dive to the south and I will see how things go now. To me there is not really an option to do anything else, it is the only thing I can do, I can’t really call it an option per se, the high is spreading across the course so I have to get to the south and then skirt around the high pressure and make my way up to the eastern end of the ice gate. So I will be passing gate towards the other end.'
The British skipper, in fifth, who had actually made up 50 miles on the leader since yesterday, has other pressing matters at the front of his mind, but certainly at his team base in Gosport, England today there is a very small measure of satisfaction that he has now passed the respective points at which the soloist retired from his first Vendée Globe with a hole in his deck eight years ago, and the longitude at which he had to abandon his boat during the Velux Five Oceans Race two years later.
'It is not something he will have given thought to, but it’s a mark passed for us with some relief here at home.' Confirmed ATR director Stewart Hosford.
The high pressure system has already hobbled the pace of Mike Golding, Jean Le Cam and Dominique Wavre. And while there is an underlying frustration shared between the sixth to eighth placed skippers that they have already lost 100 miles to the leaders since the same time yesterday afternoon, there has been some let up in the heinous, boat breaking sea conditions which had made life insufferable on board. By yesterday evening even the usually indomitable Golding sounded ragged and run down.
Sleep and a hot meal had improved his outlook: 'It's been not so much frustrating, but worrying at times,' Golding recalled, 'Last night was a lot better, a big improvement. It's just a lot of stress on the boat, a lot of stress on me and a lot for the guys around me. There were some quite exceptional waves in amongst that lot. You have to remember that this is the area of the world where the largest waves ever have been recorded, it is not surprising you see the odd ‘biggie.’
'The breeze calmed down and then it was a question of just knowing when to break out the reefs and change sail, but to be honest, I did that fairly quickly and I think I was just ready to keep the boat going. We have got the pressure on at times to do something to mitigate the worst effects of the high pressure, to see if we can't do something to stop the rot which there seems to be.'
Mike Golding (GBR, Gamesa): It was pretty hard to rest last night because conditions were changing, I was trying to push more south and I would like to push further south, but because we are in the influence of this high the wind is unstable, as we steer generally by the wind, it is very difficult when the pilot is following the wind and the wind is shifting 40 degrees. You can't really follow a strategy if you are zigzagging your way through the ocean, so it does mean you have to monitor it, trim the sails, rather than following the wind wherever it goes.
Dominique Wavre (SUI, Mirabaud): I feel like I’m in a shaker. The sea is a mess. The atmosphere is heavy. The Indian Ocean is more complicated than the other oceans because you have to deal with the anticyclones, the islands and everything. The Pacific is quite easy after this. I wont even tell you my plans because I have two friends around me who would like to know what I’m going to do.
Tanguy de Lamotte (FRA, Initiatives-Coeur): Last night I was under gennaker with one reef. Then I set the small gennaker. During the night the wind then reached 25 knots so I took a second reef in the mainsail. The boat is going quite well. I have some albatrosses following me. For the next 24 hours it is going to be very intense, with a 30 knots of wind. I’ll gybe twice.