One week after last Sunday's start of the eighth Vendee Globe solo race around the world, the British skipper Alex Thomson leads the 29-boat fleet towards a complicated, sticky Doldrums passage. Thomson wriggled Hugo Boss through between the Cape Verde Islands of Santo Antao and Sao Vicente during Saturday evening in order to maintain his fast, making gybe southwards. "It's a good win for me," said Thomson this afternoon, "I am surprised no one else came with me." At the same time, long-time leader Armel Le Cleac'h had to gybe West, to avoid the worst of the wind shadow generated by the high ground of Santo Antao, giving away time and distance to the British skipper. With two deft, well-timed gybes, Thomson emerged into an accelerated breeze with a lead of 17 miles.
By the middle of this Sunday afternoon Hugo Boss was 35 miles ahead of second placed Vincent Riou (PRB). The radical Hugo Boss has proven quickest over recent days but the southwards descent towards the Doldrums is expected to see some compression as the leaders arrive first into lighter winds. Weather files suggested more even NE'ly winds of 10-12kts for the leaders, the chasing pack still holding onto winds of 15-18kts. But there was no sign of a Sunday afternoon slowdown on the 'Rosbif Rocket'. Thomson was still polled at 22.5kts. He did report a mechanical problem, water ingress to his engine, which would ultimately have compromised his ability to make power. But after an afternoon spent up to his bits in engine oil, Thomson had the engine running and was relishing a refreshing shower.
Behind him Vincent Riou, in second, and Le Cleac'h, in third, are racing alongside each other, as if speed-testing during a training mission at the French centre of offshore excellence, the Pole Finistere Course au Large, where eight of the top ten skippers train. Riou's choice of classical daggerboards rather than lifting hydrofoils, is expected to prove better in the lighter airs. His PRB is certainly proving to be an extremely potent all-round performer, as is the hard-driving skipper who won the 2004-5 Vendee Globe. Morgan Lagraviere, the Vendee Globe first-timer, racing in fifth place on the VPLP-Verdier foiler Safran, observed today:
"Out on the racetrack Alex’s progress is interesting. He’s either very quick or a bit slow. There’s no compromise. At one point I was close behind him yesterday and then he powered off with the breeze. We’re sailing angles which are too open to really extend our foils and fly. Alex is in prime conditions for his lower foils and for now it’s paying off. We’ll see how things pan out. PRB is much more versatile whereas Alex seems to have a very narrow band of performance.”
The leaders are forecast to be dealing with the vagaries of the Doldrums on Monday afternoon. The Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone has expanded north-south in the last 48 hours, from about 60 miles to 250 miles. There is a passage at about 28˚W, which seems to be a preferred target, but there is a small, active depression embedded at around 30˚W, which is also creating some disturbed air.
Routing based on current weather models suggests the equator should be passed during the night of Tuesday into Wednesday, an elapsed time since the start of around 9.5 days. That would better Jean Le Cam's 2004 record by approximately one day.
One week into the race, mechanical failures are starting to feature. Worst at the moment is the masthead crane and halyard box on Tanguy de Lamotte's Initiatives Coeur. He reported the unexplained damage to the masthead to his shore team during Saturday afternoon. Images showed the carbon top detached and swinging free at deck level. He also has a sail tangled round the keel. He was making steady progress at 7kts towards Mindelo or Tarrafal, which are just about 100 miles away. Tarrafal, on the West of Santo Antao, is an option with a good anchorage in the lee of high ground. De Lamotte reported to Race HQ in Paris:
"It’s the actual carbon tube, which forms the masthead itself that’s snapped off. All the mechanical pieces around it are intact. It’s not a big piece that’s broken off the masthead, 30cm maybe. I have all the pieces so I’ll try to effect repairs. The aim is to be able to set a halyard for the mainsail so I'll be more manoeuvrable. I won’t be able to set it to the top of the mast, but I have two halyards left, which will allow me to set three headsails. I’ll do everything I can to make it work. I have all the resin aboard that I need. I can’t reattach the carbon tube but I have a spare wand I can attach to the transom so I can get wind mode for my autopilot. I have the means and the motivation to pull this off."
Jean Pierre Dick, 11th, spent time battling with his big spinnaker on St Michel-Virbac after the bottom furler unit failed. So too was 17th placed Conrad Colman's Saturday marked by a four-hour fight with an unfurled gennaker. If these two respective sail wars went in the favour of the solo skippers, sadly 22nd placed Koji Shiraishi's Code 7 kite is no more. During a broach on Spirit of Yukoh, the sail dragged in the ocean and was shredded. The sail is reported to have already made two successful circumnavigation racesh - third in the last Vendee Globe with Alex Thomson and second in the Barcelona World Race with Guillermo Altadill and Jose Munoz.
Hungarian skipper Nandor Fa is as tough as any of the 29 skippers racing. He was brought up by his mother and his father who escaped from a Russian Gulag and walked all the way home through a bitter winter of 1945-46.
Fa admitted his first thoughts this morning on Spirit of Hungary were not of race startegy, trade winds and the route to Cape Verde, but with the people of Paris, one year on from the terrorist attacks: "This is a special day. Before I talk about sailing I want to talk of my absolute solidarity for the victims of what happened in Paris one year ago. I thought about them this morning in spite of being out here sailing on the ocean. All these kinds of actions follow us and it is a shadow on my day and our day.