In the last edition of the Vendée Globe, through the European winter of 2012-13, the head to head match race around the world was between François Gabart and Armel Le Cléac’h. Four years ago the South Indian Ocean saw the top duo stretch away from their pursuers. In 2012 Gabart took the lead on December 6th, a resurgent Bernard Stamm led the next day, Le Cléac’h led on the 10th before Gabart was back in front. For a short time Le Cléac’h on the 10th and on 11th, but it was race winner Gabart who was first to Leeuwin.
For Le Cléac’h there are certain shades of déjà vu, today engaged in close hand-to-hand combat just over two days from solo round the world race’s second of three Great Capes, Cape Leeuwin in the south west of Australia. When he was at sea for his son’s second birthday in 2012 Le Cléac’h was fighting Gabart, and then only just winning. Today on the 0800hrs TU ranking the French skipper regained the race lead from Alex Thomson delivering a sixth birthday present which, he told the Vendée Live programme this morning, he had promised his young son. By 1400hrs UTC Le Cléac’h had extended his margin to nearly nine miles.
The lead has changed three times since the pair led across the longitude of the Cape of Good Hope. Thomson, the solo British skipper in this eighth edition of the race, gains consistently when his speed edge is evident on starboard gybe when his fully functioning port foil is working. But it seems Thomson continues to suffer a speed deficit on the opposite gybe, when compromised by his broken foil.
Four years ago the duel was between sailors schooled on the same pathway to solo ocean racing’s pinnacle event. Gabart and Le Cléac’h had honed their skills racing hard miles in la Solitaire du Figaro one design offshore class before moving to the IMOCA. And Le Cléac’h and Gabart knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses through training together at the Port-la-Forêt Pôle Finistère training school. In contrast, Anglo Saxon Thomson has dedicated himself solely to the IMOCA since he started out seventeen years ago as a fresh faced youngster racing the 1999 Transat Jacques Vabre with Josh Hall.
This time he has pushed the design envelope as hard as he and his team dared and continues to press relentlessly to compensate for his damaged foil. “Armel is very clever. He is very good at assessing the strengths and weaknesses of his rival and waiting,” Charles Caudrelier, the Volvo Ocean Race skipper and past Solitaire du Figaro and Transat Jacques Vabre winner commented today at Race HQ in Paris.
In 2012 French skipper Thomas Coville maintained: "Le Cléac'h’s approach is different. He is calculating and analyses what his opponent is up to. There’s a reason why he is known as The Jackal. Armel knows his strengths and weaknesses very well. He waits for his rival until he is in a good position himself to pounce.” Thomson is hardly behaving like wounded prey. “When you consider that when Alex lost his foil fifteen days ago we were ‘what do we do now?’ back then. If I had said to Alex ‘You’ll be leading the race again in a few days’ then we’d have thought each other mad. But here we are. Alex accepts that in certain conditions he has a two knots speed deficit but on the other gybe he still has an edge. I’d say he is good spirits,” Ross Daniel, the technical director of Alex Thomson racing commented this afternoon. Daniel says he cannot foresee any imminent opportunity – or pressing need – to stop the boat and cut away the jagged stump of the foil.
At nearly one month into the Vendée Globe, Hugo Boss and Banque Populaire were half a mile apart at one point when they traded gybes yesterday. Thomson made nine between 0500hrs and 1700hrs yesterday to Le Cléac’h’s seven as they made a dual slalom along the ice wall, the Antarctic exclusion zone which protects the Vendée Globe skippers from floating ice to the south. Thomson had prepared himself well for the zig-zagging course along the wall, banking as much sleep as he could so he would not have to nap between each manoeuvre. Le Cléac’h came away with a slightly better angle from the last gybe and made a small gain against his British rival. But with 24-36 hours on starboard gybe from tomorrow it seems likely that the leadership yo-yo will continue to play out. The duo were 800 miles from Cape Leeuwin this morning and are approximately six days ahead of Gabart’s record pace already.
In seventh place Jean Pierre Dick was back on track today atoned and apologetic after straying yesterday afternoon into the Antarctic Exclusion zone. The StMichel-Virbac skipper admitted that he had not updated new coordinates for the forbidden area which were sent several days ago because of ice reported near the Kerguelen Islands. Dick lost about 140 miles to his rivals when he took the option to about turn, sail a reciprocal course and resume his course where he had inadvertently strayed south of the border.
Yann Elies of Quéguiner – Leucémie Espoir, lying sixth 318 miles ahead of Dick, was also back on a making course this afternoon after slowing to avoid a nasty low pressure system generated in the notorious zone between Madagascar and Mozambique. Eliès was making 12.5kts this afternoon but still expecting winds to 35kts.
And in 24th place, the light winds of the South Atlantic high remain something of a blessing for Techno-First Face Ocean’s Sébastien Destremau who has disassembled most of his engine over the last 24-36 hours looking for a solution to his burned out starter motor. He has been attempting to use the technique which worked in 2000-1 for Michel Desjoyeaux using the power of the mainsheet to manually crank the engine to life. Destremau has said he will not proceed into the Indian Ocean without being able to work his engine.
“As you know, the starting motor burnt out, and the attempt with the wiring failed, so we don’t have a starter. We’re in the situation Mich’ Desj’ was in in 2001 when he had no starter. So we called Mich who gave us a lot of advice. We did some tests and trial runs to try to find a solution. We tied a line around the engine pulley and attached it to the end of the boom and by releasing the mainsail, that was supposed to start the engine, except it wasn’t as easy as that. It worked once yesterday, but today there wasn’t enough wind. We are staying in the Atlantic. We’re not going into the Indian Ocean until we have a reliable solution. It would be leaving things to chance.”
Delight was evident for Nandor Fa on Spirit of Hungary after the veteran skipper broke the 24 hours record run for his IMOCA, making 406.3 nautical miles. Fa, who raced the last Barcelona World Race with Conrad Colman reported: “I received a mail from Conrad: “Looks like someone’s having fun with their A7! Great speeds Nandi! I hope you are enjoying it. THIS is what we came for!” I answered: “Yes, I love my A7, works well. The race starts now. I think about you quite a lot, your protection helps you to wash your teeth, no need to brush. Take care my friend, and push!”
Jean-Pierre Dick (StMichel Virbac): “I’d like to offer my excuses to my team and sponsors. Such a mistake is unacceptable at this level. I made a huge mistake. I was thinking about the line, but I didn’t have the right data entered. I forgot to take into account the amended version of the exclusion zone. I got mixed up with the four updates. The race continues. I’m looking ahead. I have 16,250 miles left to sail. I shall be sailing in an area of strong winds close to the exclusion zone then to the north of the Kerguelens. We’re going to have to remain cautious.”
Sébastien Destremau, TechnoFirst-faceOcean: “There is no time limit for completing the Vendée Globe, so I’ll take whatever time it takes. We’re going to go as far as we can. But it’s not right to think about the Vendée Globe without any energy. We’ll get there somehow. We don’t really have the choice.”
Romain Attanasio, Famille Mary-Etamine du Lys: “It’s starting to get cold and I saw my first albatross. We had some incredible weather in the South Atlantic with no wind, but no we’re into the series of lows. This is the second with the front passing me this morning. I can’t wait to get by the Cape of Good Hope. I’m trying to hold onto the pack, but my boat is the oldest in the fleet – 18 years old. My goal is to finish, so I don’t want to do anything silly. That’s why I headed slightly further north.”