The leaders in the Barcelona World Race are expected to close in on Cook Strait in New Zealand on Christmas Day. Cook Strait marks the halfway point of the race, so the top pair will be halfway home on Christmas.
Paprec-Virback 2 holds the lead at the end of the week, up by 100 miles on Hugo Boss. This pair has been playing a game of cat and mouse all week with first one and then the other making a gain.
'There are the various compression zones or areas where the lead boat gets slowed down...or in contrast the lead boat gets in a position to stretch out. So to a certain extent it is very much due to the weather and how we've positioned ourselves with regard to the weather,' said Damian Foxall on Paprec-Virbac 2 when asked to account for the sudden gains and losses. 'Otherwise, there are some sweet spots for each boat and in particular I think with the sail plans.Our objective (on Paprec-Virbac 2) is to find a nice lane, have the right set of sails up and just let the boat go fast and not be too fussed about the heading. Then, when you get maybe 15 or 20 degrees off course it's time to switch sails again. I think that accounts for some of the differences.'
While no longer in the famed 'Furious Fifties', the leaders have battled through some of the toughest conditions yet, with days where the wind is 35 to 40 knots and gusting above 45 knots (90km/h). 'Yeah, it's still pretty heinous,' was the understated way Damian Foxall described the conditions.
The week began with Veolia Environnement leaving the Kerguelen Islands following a 34 hour pit-stop to repair their engine. The stop was longer than skipper Roland Jourdain had hoped, but he and co-skipper Jean Luc Nelias enjoyed their status as exalted guests at this Southern Ocean outpost, home to an active research base.
Although their engine repair held up fine, late on Monday afternoon, the Veolia Environnement crew became the third victim of mast failure in this race, their rig tumbling down in one of the most isolated sections of water on the planet.
'It all happened really fast,' said a dejected Roland Jourdain several hours later. 'We were under full main and gennaker, under autopilot. I was just waking up after a nap, Jean-Luc was on watch, and we were both inside. There was 22 knots of wind, we were not pushing hard. There was a gust at 30 knots, the boat picked up speed and surfed down a wave, then nosedived and the mast just broke.'
The team was forced to cut away a lot of the rigging and sails to protect the hull. But once day broke, the pair was able to fashion a jury rig and with this they are heading for Australia, some 1600 nautical miles to the north east, making speeds near six knots.
The dismasting and retirement of Veolia Environnement leaves five boats racing in the Barcelona World Race, an indication of just how difficult an endeavour this new contest is. By sailing two-handed, the boats are being pushed harder than ever before. And this new generation of IMOCA Open 60's is far more powerful than its predecessors. (Click here for an interview with Patrick Shaughnessy of Farr Yacht Design, where he discusses this situation.)
The remaining fleet however, is engaged in a battle that has all the hallmarks of a classic. Paprec-Virbac 2 and Hugo Boss have been within less than 100 miles of each other for most of the week. In fact, at one stage, skipper Alex Thomson closed to within just 12 miles, before Paprec-Virbac extended away slightly.
So this is shaping up as a hard-fought duel as the boats approach the Cook Strait, although both teams are playing it down.
'We've made up loads of miles. It's a mixture of it being the right conditions for this boat and Paprec in front of us have had less wind,' said a very relaxed Alex Thomson on Tuesday. 'But we haven't really been pushing very hard. It's been pretty relaxed. Been getting lots of sleep and watched a great movie last night.'
The front pair can afford, for now, to focus on each other. Temenos II, the third place boat is a further 1500 miles back, and skippers Dominique Wavre and Michèle Paret have reported problems with their keel that will force them to stop in Wellington to make repairs.
In fourth place, Mutua Madrileña has had a very strong week, sailing fast as they surfed along in the Furious Fifties. Although skipper Javier Sansó was getting weary of the cold, he was certainly enjoying the ride.
'With such big waves we are surfing, and the boat is like a surf board riding down the waves,' says Javier. 'You have to try and find an angle in the waves so that they help you to get speed but at the same time try and not have the danger of getting caught. But it happens. You do get caught, and when the boat does that, the whole of the deck disappears, gets covered in water, you sink, get soaked and you notice that the boat shudders to a kind of stop. If you are not careful and not prepared it can also throw you around. So you have to be attentive because you can end up hurled against whatever is nearest at the time. After dropping from 20 to 11 knots, the boat starts up again, and this is something we have been dealing with for about three days.'
And Educación sin Fronteras has faced its first Southern Ocean storms this week as well, and come out on the other side smiling. Servanne Escoffier and Albert Bargués may be hundreds of miles behind the leaders, but they're squeezing every last drop out of the experience of this Barcelona World Race.
Finally, the teams enjoyed Christmas greeting from Jordi Hereu, the Mayor of Barcelona on Saturday. Day 43- December 23, 16:00 GMT - Position report with distance to leader
1. PAPREC-VIRBAC 2 - Jean Pierre DICK / Damian FOXALL - 0
2. HUGO BOSS - Alex THOMSON / Andrew CAPE - 103
3. TEMENOS 2 - Dominique Wavre / Michele PARET- 1597
4. MUTUA MADRILENA - Javier SANSO / Pachi RIVERO - 1989
5. EDUCACION SIN FRONTERAS - Servane ESCOFFIER / Albert BARGUES - 3047
Abandoned - VEOLIA ENVIRONNEMENT - Roland JOURDAIN / Jean Luc NELIAS
Abandoned - ESTRELLA DAMM - Guillermo ALTADILL / JONATHAN MCKEE
Abandoned - DELTA DORE - Jérémie BEYOU / Sidney GAVIGNET
Abandoned - PRB - Vincent Riou / Sebastien JOSSE
Boat blogs: Looking ahead to Cook for the new year says Dominique Wavre.
'It's good to be with Michele here now it is close to Christmas but we still we have family at home and it's always hard to be away from them. The keel is a little worse but we cannot see anything bit so we're not too worried. We think we'll be in Wellington around the 1st or 2nd January. Michele and I have never crossed the strait but we know there are quite strong currents which we are a little worried about and we will have to the builders there are preparing a 'commando 'operation for us. We are going straight in right direction but in very low winds...the next wind should be through in about 6 or 8 hours.' Just another day says Capey.. (Andrew Cape).
On Hugo Boss Christmas will be one more day in the race...'We are doing our own thing and they are as well. We will probably be somewhere near Wellington for Christmas day and it will be a bit strange not stopping as I know the city well. But we will get over that. We are in a race and really it is just another day. We have a few presents on board and things from our families and we should speak to more people but apart from that it is just another ordinary day in the race for us.' http://www.barcelonaworldrace.org