Vendée Globe leader Armel Le Cléac'h has an advantage of just 69 miles on second-placed Alex Thomson as the solo round the world race enters its final 500 miles. After an action-packed 73 days the pair were practically neck and neck today, Thomson nipping at Le Cléac'h's heels as the pair prepared for their penultimate night at sea.
Frustratingly for the battling duo, despite already reaching the latitude of the finish line in Les Sables d'Olonne, France, they are being forced to sail much further north due to an anticyclone currently blocking their path home. The routing the pair must follow could take them as far north as the Scilly Isles, an archipelago off the coast of Cornwall in the south-west of Britain, before they can tack and finally point their bows towards the finish.
In the last 24 hours, Hugo Boss skipper Thomson has scythed another 10 miles off Le Cléac'h's advantage, and at the 1400 UTC position update was doing 20.4 knots compared to his French rival's 19.7. But even at that rate he will not be able to reduce the deficit enough to overhaul Le Cléac'h before the finish line. Thomson's hopes of becoming the first Brit to win the Vendée Globe in its 27-year history lie in tactics, namely the precise moment to tack and head for Les Sables.
Although the advantage is now firmly with Banque Populaire VIII skipper Le Cléac'h the race will not be over until the finish line is crossed. Indeed, in the 2004-05 Vendée Globe fellow Brit Mike Golding lost his keel 50nm from the finish line and had to limp home in third place at two knots. The current ETA for the leaders is Thursday, with the routing suggesting Le Cléac'h will cross the line between 1200 and 1400 local time followed closely by Thomson.
The two frontrunners are under no threat from third placed Jérémie Beyou, his Maître CoQ some 850nm behind, but equally he is safe for now at least from fourth-placed Jean-Pierre Dick, who trails by the same amount. Just 200nm adrift Yann Eliès and Jean Le Cam are now his main concern. “If Jérémie has no technical problems it will be very difficult to catch him up,” Dick said. “The danger will come from Yann and Jean so I will have to be very careful to stay in fourth.”
Louis Burton in seventh was 160nm from the Equator at 1400 UTC while 1,700nm behind him Nandor Fa was relishing in champagne sailing in the south-easterly trade winds. Talking to the Vendée Live show today 63-year-old Fa said he would slow only very briefly in the St Helena High but that it could swallow up ninth and tenth-placed Conrad Colman and Eric Bellion.
“I don't think I'll have much problem with the St Helena High – maybe one day of lighter winds but no more,” Fa said. “Behind me a huge high pressure is forming and the guys behind me could be much more affected. Maybe I'll be lucky – let's see in the coming days.” Fa also heaped praise on Le Cléac'h and Thomson, but remained tight-lipped when asked to pick a winner. “I've watched these guys match race round the world and what they've done has been fantastic,” he added. “Both of them deserve to win because their performances have been incredible.”
Bringing up the rear of the fleet in 18th Sébastian Destremau was rueing lost miles to 17th placed Pieter Heerema after he was snared in light winds at the halfway point between Cape Leeuwin and Cape Horn. “I was pleased to have won back 300 miles from Pieter Heerema after Tasmania, but he has just gained back 200,” Destremau lamented. “I hoped to be within 500 miles of him by the time I got to Cape Horn, but that isn’t looking likely, as he is advancing at 14 knots. It’s not easy seeing how much route still has to be covered before I get home.”
Fabrice Amedeo (Newrest Matmut): “It’s not easy getting back into the swing of things with the coast and islands. Yesterday, Staten Island got in the way. I found myself in its wind shadow. And now it’s the Falklands. I’ll probably have to gybe to get around them. A low passed over during the night with 35/40 knot winds. It didn’t last very long and everything was fine. After that, the wind eased off, which wasn’t really forecast. For the past 46 hours or so, the forecasts have not been reliable. There is the effect of the Andes and so nothing is as expected. The sea is quite heavy and was nasty during the night. After Staten Island there was a two-knot current and the boat was slamming. I’m going to continue towards the NE with another low moving in tomorrow, which should allow us to head north sailing downwind at high speed.”
Jean-Pierre Dick, StMichel-Virbac: “Conditions are variable with light winds, occasional squalls and a fairly unpleasant swell. But I am making some headway this morning after the light airs yesterday, which is good news, as Yann and Jean are speeding towards me… Armel has managed to keep Alex in check and it’s a similar scenario for me. I haven’t been very lucky in spite of having a fairly easy time in the Doldrums. A low will be sweeping in in the next two days, so unfortunately I will have to take the long way around to get to Les Sables d’Olonne.”
Nandor Fa (Spirit of Hungary): “It's a beautiful day for me. At last I have this beautiful wind which I've been expecting for two days. Now it's blowing with 12-16 knots and I can make 11-15 knots of boat speed in a good direction. The sun is out and I'm seeing flying fish again. The warmth is very welcome. The air temperature is good and I'm enjoying this kind of sailing – it's the Premier League. I don't think I'll have much problem with the St Helena High.”