While all eyes are on the Vendée Globe's leading pair Armel Le Cléac'h and Alex Thomson as their epic tussle heads into its 64th day, third-placed Jérémie Beyou has been quietly sneaking up on them. In three days French skipper Beyou has reduced the gap between his raceboat Maître CoQ and the two favourites from 1,000 nautical miles to less than 700nm.
Beyou has been able to shave more than 300nm off after le Cléac'h and Thomson were snared by the Doldrums, an ever-changing band of low pressure close to the Equator that is notorious for its unpredictability. With Le Cléac'h's Banque Populaire and Thomson's Hugo Boss sufficiently trapped inside the system the Doldrums ballooned to around 350nm wide from north to south, spelling several days of misery for the leaders with boat speeds down to as low as two knots.
The growth of the Doldrums is thanks to a big low pressure system forming some 1,500nm to the north of Le Cléac'h and Thomson, west of the Canary Islands. And while they have been powerless to escape the clutches of the Doldrums, Beyou had been more than happy to capitalise on the misfortunes of his rivals by charging north through the South Atlantic trade winds at a constant 15 knots.
According to four-time Vendée Globe competitor Mike Golding, there's a chance for Beyou to reduce the deficit even further in the coming days. Golding, the first sailor ever to finish three editions of the race, said an uncertain forecast for the North Atlantic could also benefit Jean-Pierre Dick, Jean Le Cam and Yann Eliès in fourth, fifth and sixth, around 500 miles behind Beyou.
“Normally as you get out of the Doldrums you get into a steady and building north-easterly flow but that's been disrupted by a depression to the north,” the British sailor told the Vendée Live show today. “The band of light winds that the Doldrums generally represents is much wider and less distinct than normal and that's bad news for Armel. Potentially Jérémie could close the gap up. Even the guys behind – Jean Pierre, Jean and Yann - have an opportunity, because the weather forecast for the North Atlantic is so disturbed and unpredictable.”
Although currently trailing Le Cléac'h by 143nm, the advantage is with Thomson as the pair prepare to pick their way through the complicated weather thrown at them by the North Atlantic. “It's certainly a stressful time for Armel and Alex, but probably more so for Armel,” he added. “He's been in the lead so long but he's watched that very substantial lead evaporate to almost nothing. Now with a weather forecast like this ahead of them he's going to be in a very difficult situation. The course ahead looks blotchy – there are pockets of wind and pockets of no wind. What's more it's going to be all on starboard, the tack where Alex can use his foil, and we know that his boat is quick in the nominal, low speed foiling conditions. The ball is very much in Alex's court – he's behind and can watch what happens to Armel. Armel has his work cut out but he's done a fantastic job hanging on to the lead this far and I don't expect him to give it up easily. It makes for a very interesting last 10 days for the frontrunners.”
Eighth-placed Spirit of Hungary skipper Nandor Fa was today within 200 miles of Cape Horn. It will be the fifth time the sailor, now 63, will have passed the famous landmark having first rounded it on a small cruising boat in 1987, then again in the 1990 BOC Challenge, the 1992 Vendée Globe, and the 2014 Barcelona World Race. Speaking to Vendée Globe HQ in Paris from his position 200 miles west of Cape Horn, Fa said his fifth rounding would be a 'special moment', spoiled only by the fact that he would not get to see the milestone in daylight. “I will see the lights from the lighthouse at the Horn but I won't see the island itself and that makes me a little bit upset,” he said. “I was dreaming about a daylight rounding in nice sunshine, and having a feast, but I'm afraid that won't happen now. This is the fifth time I've been here and maybe the last time. I will say hello and goodbye to the Horn, and drink some champagne. It will be a special feeling – it is already.”
Nandor Fa (Spirit of Hungary): “A couple of minutes ago I was just under 200 miles from Cape Horn. It's raining and it's cloudy, the same as yesterday. The squalls are running – it's special weather because we're close to the new centre of the low pressure system. The wind is stronger than forecast, I have about 27 knots of wind from the north north-west. Sometimes I run out of energy because there are too many jobs and I'm not a youngster any more, but at the moment I feel good. I've been jogging and doing gymnastics inside the boat to keep myself fit. It's difficult because I have to wear five layers of clothes and every moment is difficult. Despite all the clothes I'm quite cold. But I feel really good, I'm still motivated. During the trip in the south I felt like it would never end, that I would never reach the Horn. I was really tired, mentally. But now I'm here and I'm ok.”
Fabrice Amedeo, Newrest-Matmut: “We have a high blocking our route. The Antarctic exclusion zone is preventing us from going further south, so we have to go through the high. This morning, I was down to 1.5 knots for several hours. There’s not much else to do but to wait for the wind. I have some films and books, but I’m not doing anything, so I’m waiting for the slightest puff of air. You just have to be patient. When the wind gets up again, we’ll be off.”
Jean le Cam, Finistère Mer Vent : "Yesterday, Yann and I could see each other. Now he is twelve miles ahead. We should be making good headway north and the Doldrums will be more like we have come to expect than for the frontrunners. It wasn’t easy crossing the ridge of high pressure. It took a lot of manoeuvres and I had to do a lot of stacking. In terms of food, you should take stuff you enjoy. Freeze dried food is for lazy gits. It’s better to have 50kg of food and 90% of the time, you use it for stacking. You can save 30kg, but you eat junk all the time. On the pontoon at the start, Anne (his wife and assistant) suddenly realised we’d forgotten the butter!"