it’s going down

This report is brought to you by Bruce Schwab Energy Systems.

Less than four days old, this seventh edition of the Vendée Globe has lived up to all of the hype and anticipation delivering close racing, a split fleet, multiple collisions and already two boats retired. After a dramatic send-off, the fleet started off Les Sables d’Olonne in cloudy, rainy and variable conditions. Eager to begin this epic round-the-world race, fully one-quarter of the fleet was over early and had to re-start. Sailing into a building breeze, the fleet of 19 IMOCA 60’s (Bertrand de Broc turned back to port before the race started) endured their first speed test across the Bay of Biscay to Cape Finistierre before turning left and running down the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula before the Portoguese Trades. MACIF, skippered by young French prodigy Francois Gabart has led since the first day, but now finds his lead in jeopardy as sistership Banque Populaire, skippered by the equally talented Armel Le Cleac’h and the Juan K dark horse Cheminees Poujoulat sailed by Swiss skipper Bernard Stamm are now applying pressure from behind, sailing just 40 miles astern.

Here’s how it’s gone down so far:

On Saturday morning, Clean and I walked from our rented “Chateaux de Anarchy” to the Vendée Race Village to attend the start. Despite the fact that it was cold, pissing rain, and not yet 6 AM, the streets of Les Sables d’Olonne were jam packed with rabid sailing fans, eager to send off twenty courageous skippers for their non-stop race around the globe. As the sun rose, the breeze built to a stiff 20 knots out of the West, looking as if the predicted near-gale may materialize just in time for the start. It didn’t. With intermittent and sometimes intense rain showers, the breeze remained variable throughout the morning, as boats began leaving the dock, one by one, for the traditional Skipper’s Parade down the canal and into the Atlantic Ocean.

I rode in the Acciona team RIB, in which not a single eye was dry (as much from emotion as the pelting rain….), to join Spanish skipper Javier “Bubi” Sanso on his way to the start. Leaving the pontoon, shouts of “Bubi” permeated the cold, damp air of the race village, with the distinctive sound of bag pipes being played in the background. Thousands of fans surrounded the village from all directions; along the channel, at the edge of the dock and from nearly every boat in the harbor, to watch each of the twenty boats leave. Once past the harbor and into the main channel, the scene and the sounds were indescribable; just the memory gives me goose bumps and makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

With the fleet out of the channel and approaching the starting area, shore crews and loved ones disembarked the massive Open 60’s, one by one. Still approaching the starting area, Bertrand de Broc’s Finot/ Conq-designed yacht “Votre nom Autour du Monde” (ex-Brit Air and 2nd place finisher in the last Vendee) was about to become the first boat to be damaged in this edition of the race. With a team RIB helping the wide, flat-bottomed IMOCA 60 to turn, still under engine power as the race was still an hour away, the bow of Bertrand’s yacht crested a wave and slammed down onto the RIB, punching a hole in the port side of the bow. It was back to shore for Bertrand and the crew to repair the damage and get Bertrand back on the course at approximately 3 AM Sunday morning, just 14 hours after the official start. (Race rules allow yachts to return to port for repairs and re-start within 10 days of the start…)

Calling the start live on the English language feed, an international crew of SA’s own Alan Block (aka Mr. Clean), race veteran Dee Caffari and two others commented on a thrilling start as Polish skipper Zbigniew “Gutek” Gutkowski badly misjudged the line and crossed way early, with four hard-charging VPLP/ Verdier designed boats surprisingly sticking to his transom: Kito de Pavant’s Groupe Bel, Francois Gabart’s MACIF, Vincent Riou’s PRB and Armel le Cleac’h’s Banque Populaire. This only goes to reiterate how hard these guys sail: a quarter of the fleet over early in a round-the-world race!

With many of the top competitors over early, Marc Guillermot’s VPLP/ Verdier designed Safran maneuvered to a perfect start, claiming the early lead, with 27 year old Louis Burton on Bureau Vallee, Tanguy de Lamotte on Initiatives-Couer and Acciona’s Javier Sanso all giving close pursuit. Showing massive speed upwind in 12-14 knots of Westerly breeze, the new Juan K designed Cheminees Poujoulat of Bernard Stamm trucked through the fleet to pull alongside Safran just an hour into the race.

With the fleet settling into position for their 300 mile long drag race to Cape Finisterre, early leader Marc Guillermot on Safran heard “two loud bangs within the space of a second. The first noise was quite violent.” Just after the series of loud bangs, “the boat began to heel sharply… She went from 100% to 22%.”, said Guillermot. Safran’s unique and exotic titanium keel fin had failed, after some 25,000 miles of testing and training.

From Guillermot at his press conference: “I still don’t know at this time if I hit something or not. If it was not a collision it might be a case of metal fatigue, a design thing or calculation thing it is hard to know. But it is certain that being 50 miles from Les Sables d’Olonne it was relatively safe as the fleet was still quite tightly bunched. It is better than being in 35kts of wind in the south at the Kerguelens for example…. But I am disappointed for our sponsor and for the team also. At the moment I am in the phase of trying to find out and understand what happened. Nothing will be hidden. Even if it hurts us. And we will communicate what has happened.”

Safran, one of the pre-race favorites, (and podium finisher in the last Vendee…) was to become the first boat to officially retire just hours into this Vendée Globe. As Safran was returning to port, 29 year old prodigy Francois Gabart aboard MACIF was charging to the front of the fleet to inherit the lead going into the first night, followed closely by PRB with sistership Banque Populaire sailing in third position. With variable winds that remained mostly Northwesterly, the fleet was forced to “constantly trim the sails and adjust the boat. It is very cold, but the maneuvers keep us warm a bit”, said Kito de Pavant on Groupe Bel. In addition, the fleet had to deal with intense and frequent squalls, some up to 45 knots as reported by Sam Davies on Savéol.

After a safe (except for Safran…) and rapid passage across the Bay of Biscay, the fleet’s leaders rounded Finisterre on day 2 and began running downwind before the Portoguese Tradewinds making 16-20 knots of boat speed in up to 35 knots of Northwesterly breeze. The lead trio of boats began extending their lead over fourth placed Bernard Stamm and the rest of the fleet, while high pressure and light winds moved in from the north, enveloping the back of the fleet and relegating them to speeds of just 2-3 knots, including Gutek on Energa, Alessandro on Team Plastique and Tanguy de Lamotte on Initiatives-Couer.

Just two days into the race, disaster struck again when Kito de Pavant onboard Groupe Bel collided with a fishing boat off the coast of Portugal; a notoriously high-traffic area full of fisherman and cargo ships. With the fishing trawler reportedly not being equipped with AIS and traveling at 2-3 knots of speed, the sleeping French skipper collided with the fishing vessel at about 15 knots of speed in 17-18 knots of breeze. Fortunate to not lose the rig, Groupe Bel was left with a massive, gaping hole on the port side of the boat, just aft of the rig. The veteran skipper, who retires from the Vendee Globe after 2 days for the second consecutive race, has safely made port in Cascais, Portugal. A visually distraught Kito de Pavant muttered the words “This is….. not even possible…..” after his retirement. I think I speak for the entire ocean racing community when describing how absolutely gutted and shocked I am at Kito’s misfortune. What terrible luck for the veteran skipper who has completed more than 100,000 miles onboard Groupe Bel in the four years in between his 2 early Vendee retirements.

With a small depression forming west of the fleet, the bulk of the fleet was stuck in light air for the better part of day 3, with just 3-7 knots of breeze. With varying tactics, gybe points and boat speeds, the tactical dilemma was to either invest miles and time to the West, or to be patient and continue sliding South. With the fleet heading West of Madeira, Francois Gabart on MACIF maintained his lead, while sistership Banque Populaire re-gained second place from Bernard Stamm, some 41 miles back of the young prodigy Gabart who is setting a nearly impossible pace at the front of the pack.

As this small depression moved on top of the fleet, Vincent Riou on PRB was first to reach the stronger winds and has moved from 10th place back into 6th place and is battling with Jean-Pierre Dick on Virbac-Paprec 3 at the front of what is now a 5-boat pack some 100 miles behind the leading trio of MACIF, Banque Populaire and Cheminees Poujoulat. Francois Gabart’s performance thus far onboard MACIF has been nothing short of absolutely extraordinary, with the young skipper continuing to post up consistently high boat speeds and making himself seemingly impossible to pass.

At 3:10 AM, on Wednesday, day 4 of the Vendee Globe, the race director received a call from 27-year old Louis Burton on Bureau Vallee reporting that he had hit a fishing trawler. Escaping major damage like Groupe Bel, the Farr designed IMOCA (former Delta Dore) is said to have damaged a cap shroud, some 5 feet (1.8 meters) off of the deck. Burton reports that he was sailing at 18 knots of speed in 32 knots of breeze when the incident occurred, and it was at night, which made visibility a challenge. The extent of the damage is still unknown and Burton does not know at this point if he’ll be able to continue in the race. This is again hugely upsetting as the young, energetic skipper had worked so hard to make it to the start of this, his first Vendee Globe.

Stay tuned, this is turning into a hell of a race!

-Ronnie Simpson