127 hours

This Vendee Globe report is brought to you by Bruce Schwab Energy Systems!

In just the past 100 plus hours, this seventh edition of the Vendée Globe has heated from a simmer to a full boil. At the front of the fleet, Armel Le Cléac’h and “Banque Populaire” have wrestled the lead away from young prodigy Francois Gabart onboard VPLP sistership “MACIF”. The duo is leading a six-boat pack on their approach towards the doldrums and the equator at a record-threatening pace. In the middle of the fleet, 3 veterans with multiple Vendée Globes under their belt are drag-racing south at warp speed to try to stay in touch with the lead group. Two more IMOCA 60’s have retired from the race, including crowd favorite Samantha Davies following a horrific dismasting in upwards of 35 knots of breeze, while the defending Vendée winning yacht (Matire Coq, ex-Foncia) of Jeremie Beyou has suffered hydraulic keel jack problems and has now announced his retirement from the race.

At the back of the pack, Polish skipper Zbigniew “Gutek” Gutkowski is hove-to to ascend the 90+ foot tall mast of “Energa” to cut away a gennaker sail which is badly wrapped around the forestay, and Javier “Bubi” Sanso has re-joined the race after ascending his own mast for repairs. The next several days promise to be full of action as the fleet’s leaders carefully choose the best longitudinal position to cross the dreaded doldrums, or ITCZ, offering lots of opportunity to make big gains, or unfortunate losses, on their competitors.

The dismasting of Samantha Davies onboard Savéol Undoubtedly the biggest headline of the race thus far is the dismasting of the incredibly popular and charming Briton Samantha Davies, winner of 4th place in the previous edition of the Vendée Globe. Beam-reaching in a 40-knot squall, Davies, the only female skipper in the fleet, went down below to prepare to tuck in the third-reef on her mainsail when her veteran yacht (ex-Veolia Entertainment, Neutrogena) launched off of a wave and slammed down, with the rig immediately crashing down upon impact.

“It was quite difficult conditions because I had just gone through the cold front and I had a really cross sea,” Davies said. “I was getting ready to my foul weather gear on and that’s when the squall was just finishing and the wind was dropping and the boat jumped off the top of the top of a wave and that’s when I had the impact….I could hear the mast rubbing against the hull and down the whole side of the hull and under the boat, so I knew that it could damage the hull if I was unlucky, so the main thing was to close all the watertight bulkheads in case it did get pierced.”

A few hours after the rig came down, conditions mellowed to 20 knots of breeze and Sam was able to cut the rig away and secure the vessel to motor to port. Davies motored Savéol to Funchal, Madeira and arrived on Saturday morning.

Burton retires The other retirement in the fleet is that of young Louis Burton on “Bureau Vallee”, (ex Delta Dore), who was forced to retire with a damaged cap shroud after hitting a fishing trawler at 18 knots of boat speed. With the damaged shroud, Burton attempted to sail back to Les Sables d’Olonne to effect repairs and restart within the 10-day window permitted by the race, but “the weather window to cross the Bay of Biscay…. closed suddenly…. making it very dangerous to return to Les Sables d’Olonne and requiring us to sail on port tack”, said Burton, the fleet’s youngest skipper at 27 years old. The Parisian has sailed into La Coruna, Spain, mast still intact. “We will be back in four years”, he added. This is like a bad case of deja vu for Burton, who just two years ago, collided with a fishing trawler in the 2010 Route du Rhum, yet managed a 20th place finish in the 44-boat strong Class 40 division.

A thrilling race at the front of the pack At the pointy end of the now 16-boat fleet, a lead pack of six yachts spanning 110 nautical miles has emerged. Of these six boats, only British skipper Alex Thomson is on a previous-generation IMOCA 60, bringing up the rear of this speedy pack. The top five boats are all new builds including 4 new VPLP/ Verdier designs and the fleet’s lone Juan K design in Bernard Stamm’s “Cheminees Poujoulat”.

Sisterships “Banque Populaire” and “MACIF”, skippered by the two immensely talented  skippers Armel Le Cléac’h and Francois Gabart respectively, have swapped the lead with the older, more experienced Le Cléac’h on “Banque Pop” routing himself brilliantly to make a move West, outside of Gabart and slip into the lead. Following in Cléac’h’s wake is the 2-time Barcelona World Race champion Jean-Pierre Dick on “Virbac-Paprec 3” who has managed to also take advantage of the stronger breeze to the west and re-engage with the lead pack, bringing Vincent Riou on “PRB” with him. After suffering a “minor scare” from hitting a “big floating tree trunk” at 18 knots of boat speed, the ’04 winner claims no damage to “PRB”.

Holding onto 2nd place for much of the first week, despite the lead changes, Bernard Stamm on the Juan K-designed “Cheminees Poujoulat” has slipped into 4th place after sailing much of day 7 at upwards of 3 knots slower than the lighter VPLP designs. The Swiss skipper and his ultra-powerful reaching machine from the famous Volvo 70 designer clearly did not like running south in the 15-knot Northeasterly tradewinds, as Stamm lost more than 40 miles in 12 hours. Interesting to note, as the breeze went 40 degrees forward to ENE, Stamm sped back up to a competitive pace and actually had the highest posted speed in the top 4 during the last position report. Stamm’s Juan K design clearly excels in upwind to beam-reaching conditions. Anything aft of that and the VPLP’s have shown a clear superiority.

The pragmatic Vincent Riou, only former Vendee winner in this fleet, has seemed content during the first week to merely stalk the front runners, stay in touch, and wait until the right time to make his move. Showing a discipline and maturity perhaps lacking in the two young hard-chargers swapping the lead, Riou has been making long-term investments since Day 1, owning the West, seemingly since rounding Finisterre more than 5 days ago. Showing the same tactical genius that allowed him to win the ’04-’05 Vendee by just 7 hours, Riou looks poised to cross the ITCZ slightly further West than the leader Armel, which should pay. Riou is currently 100 miles behind the leader with Alex Thomson on “Hugo Boss” sailing closely in his wake, despite having to undergo major repairs yesterday to a rudder tie bar.

HUGO BOSS major drama and repairs onboard Thomson explains “I was low on battery juice so I popped the hydro down and went below to see how many amps were going in.  At the time I was averaging about 18 knots and I heard a strange noise so went to the door and I could see the hydro vibrating very severely and getting worse. I realised it was going to break and rushed to pull it up but before I got there it ripped off the back of the boat and did a cartwheel and smashed the starboard tie bar. I was on port tack so the starboard rudder was not connected to anything and I knew instantly that the boat would wipe out.  It did but I managed to get the boat flat and got downwind to roll up the A3 spinnaker keeping the port rudder in the water doing all the steering.”

With no spare rudder tie bar onboard, it was critical for Alex to fix the broken steering piece. After consulting with his shore-side technical crew, Thomson was able to use a grinder onboard and cut strips of carbon with which to splint the  3-meter (10 feet) long broken rudder tie bar back together, in what was a 7-hour long repair that left the cockpit coated in carbon dust. With the starboard hydro generator still damaged, it’s critical that Alex again can effect emergency repairs. Explains Thomson, “I need the hydro back in action as I will not have enough diesel to make it round the world without it”

Despite all of the drama onboard “Hugo Boss”, Alex Thomson still managed to record the best 24-hour run in the entire fleet yesterday, with “HB” making an astounding 430.8 nautical miles at an average of nearly 18 knots. The only sailor in the fleet using Doyle Sails, he credits them in his consistently high average speeds “I’m just playing my own game and really I shouldn’t be as fast as them but somehow I seem to be, things are going right. I’ve got some great sails and I seem to be going in the right direction”.

Beyou’s keel problems Battling with AT on “Hugo Boss” all the way down the Atlantic thus far, Jeremie Beyou on “Maitre CoQ” (ex-Foncia) pulled up lame yesterday with keel problems. The hydraulic jack that allows the keel to cant, and to remain centered, has malfunctioned forcing him to sail 70 miles east to the Cape Verde Islands to further investigate the problem and try to make repairs. Sailing a boat with a Vendee win in ’08-’09, and a 2nd place in the last Barcelona World Race, this is a major blow to the 2-time Figaro winner.

3 veteran skippers battling mid-fleet In the middle of the fleet, Jean Le Cam on “Synerciel”, Mike Golding on “Gamesa” and Dominique Wavre on “Mirabaud” are engaged in a 3-way match-race for 7th place, and are virtually tied, some 340 miles behind the leader Armel Le Cleac’h. Winner of 2nd place two Vendee’s ago, Jean Le Cam speaks of the intense competition, “I haven’t slept much last night, I spent a lot of time at the helm with my spinnaker up and I’m sure Mike (Golding) did the same. It’s war time!!! I’ve just finished a sails change, I haven’t had a minute of break. I’ve taken my t-shirt off, I’m so sweaty….. We’re higher than Dominique, that should give us a better angle to sail down faster.” The three elder statesman of this fleet, all sailing last generation boats are consistently averaging 1-3 knots slower than the lead pack, which is beginning to threaten Le Cam’s own Vendee record for fastest boat to reach the equator: 10 days, 11 hours, 28 minutes.

Elsewhere in the fleet Anarchist Javier “Bubi” Sanso on Acciona was forced to sail behind the Canary Islands to ascend his mast and retrieve his main halyard while also making a repair to the main sail track and the main sail slide at the top batten. Describing his trip up the mast, “Each time I went up a metre I was like a sack of potatoes swaying from  side to side…. When I got to the top, 30 metres above the boat, I have to admit that there was a really beautiful view and I found a way of not being shoved all over the place….. I managed to fix the line to the track that was there happily waiting for me at the top of the mast. I rested a few minutes and disconnected the system I use to haul myself up, before starting to go down…. After getting down I started working on changing one track for another and also a slide from the last main sail batten which had broken….. At 20.00 the boat was tip-top to get back into the race again 100%. The problem was that my sheltered spot in Tenerife had me trapped until 04.00 in the morning when I was finally able to move out towards the south and then gybe west.

After sailing with no main sail for more than 30 hours, Bubi lost more than two days with his mainsail issues, but is now sailing at full speed. Shortly after re-joining the race, he managed to re-pass Tanguy de Lamotte on “Initiatives-couer” and is sailing in a 3-boat formation with both Lamotte and Bertrand de Broc on “Votre nom autour du Monde” (Your name around the World), who is slowly working his way back through the fleet after turning back to port before the race’s start due to puncturing his bow on a team RIB. Bertrand is showing great speed in the ex-Brit Air (2nd place in the last Vendee under Armel Le Cleac’h). Special mention must also go to Lamotte who is sailing a 1998 model Lombard designed Open 60. Despite the vintage of his boat, he has constantly battled and often passed newer-generation boats in the early stages of this race.

Gutek’s issues continue Polish skipper Zbigniew “Gutek” Gutkowski’s issues continue into the second week of his first Vendee. A last-minute boat change just two months before the start is beginning to haunt the skipper of “Energa” (ex- Hugo Boss). Gutek’s autopilot malfunctioned while preparing to douse his gennaker and the boat suffered an accidental gybe, badly wrapping the gennaker around the forestay. Waiting for calmer weather, so that he can climb his mast, Gutek explains, “The only option is to climb up the mast and cut everything off. But it is also risky. Every free piece of rigging flying round can cause the mast damage….. But, you know, when I was steering by hand, it was really great. ENERGA was going so fast, so easy, ticking 17, 20, 22 knots, it was wonderful, the boat is fast and beautiful and I love it.”

It’s that love of the game and enthusiasm that drew both Alan and I to Gutek when in Les Sables. I very sincerely hope that Gutek can solve some of his issues onboard “Energa” before entering the Southern Ocean. Stay tuned for our Vendée Globe update coming in the next 3-4 days!

-Ronnie Simpson