the getting is good

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

First it was a dramatic start with 300,000 adoring fans in a rain-soaked Les Sables d’Olonnes. Then a thrilling speed test across the Bay of Biscay, followed by a carnage-filled run down the coast of Portugal. Finally after tip-toeing across the slow and frustrating doldrums, the Vendée Globe has entered it’s latest, and arguably most exciting stage: the chess match to enter the Southern Ocean. In between the fleet’s leaders and the first ice gate stands a complex weather scenario with two highs and a low coming up from the South. Race leader Armel Le Cleac’h on Banque Populaire is trying to rhumb line it to the first ice gate, while Jean-Pierre Dick on Virbac-Paprec 3 has made the difficult decision to take a flyer to the West, hoping for stronger breeze. The “Golden Boy”, Francois Gabart is stuck in the middle onboard MACIF, trying to cover both Dick and Cleac’h, while the “Boss” Alex Thomson and Swissman Bernard Stamm follow in Cleac’h’s wake. A few hundred miles back, the three elder statesman of the fleet hope to watch the leaders and use the unstable South Atlantic weather to close and re-gain touch with the frontrunners, while a 4-boat pack continues to sail a further 300 back. Happily bringing up the rear is the relatively ancient, fixed-keel Team Plastique of Alessandro di Benedetto. Since our last update, another boat has officially retired, that of ’04-’05 winner Vincent Riou onboard PRB, after his collision with a large metal harbor buoy.

The Great Divide

For the first time since the race started, Vendée race fans have a split fleet to watch. With a split-high scenario setting up over the next couple of days, Jean-Pierre Dick on Virbac-Paprec 3 has made a ballsy move and gybed onto starboard and away from the rest of the lead pack on Monday morning. Owning the West and sailing almost due South, the two-time Barcelona World Race champ hopes to be the first sailor in the fleet to hook into the strong Westerlies that will propel the fleet into the Southern Ocean. Race leader Armel Le Cleac’h has opted to work east, stay north and attempt to sail straight for the Aigulles Ice Gate; the first ice gate of the race. MACIF skipper Francois Gabart stuck to Cleac’h’s hip and attempted to follow the race veteran but eventually gybed to cover Dick, setting up this split-fleet scenario. Given all of the chaos at the front of the fleet, Alex Thomson has followed Banque Pop and has moved into second place on the tracker, with Bernard Stamm on Cheminees Poujoulat, maintaining a similar heading, some 50 miles West. Important to note is that at this point, the tracker positions are somewhat irrelevant and probably short-lived.

An excellent analysis from Anarchist “Estar” in the Vendée Globe thread:

“Banque Pop’s direct/shortest route was always a risk. Its only very rarely been successful in these RTW races.  But for a while the picture was so muddled that no-one knew what the correct path was and a reasonable approach was just to bag as much distance to the mark as possible. We all just have to give JPD great credit for seeing the new picture first and committing to it.”

And a further shout-out to “Estar” for providing EXCELLENT analysis and even overlaying routing software projections over downloaded GRIB files, complete with up-to-the minute analysis and predictions. And while we’re throwing the love around, mad props to “popo” for taking existing YouTube videos off the Vendée site and adding English subtitles, almost in real time! If you’re not following the Vendée thread, you’re missing the best English language Vendée coverage there is!

The two highs present a huge routing challenge as there isn’t much room between them, no breeze in the center, slow head winds above, and most likely stronger breeze below and behind the westernmost high. The scenario is quickly changing and evolving, making it somewhat of a crap shoot at the moment, wreaking havoc on skippers, race fans, virtual regatta players and armchair quarterbacks alike. Two days ago, it looked like Dick stood to make massive gains on the fleet. One day ago, it looked as though a weather scenario might set up that would allow Cleac’h to thread the needle and sail straight to the ice gate and consolidate some massive gains. And today, it just looks like a hell of a yacht race. It truly is anyone’s race right now.

One thing to note for everyone following the race is that Gough Island is required to be left to starboard, forcing skippers North of the isolated South Atlantic island as the first official ice limit, while the Aigulles Ice Gate has been moved both 1 degree North and 7 degrees East as the Vendée Globe race committee aims to keep skippers north of concentrated movements of “growlers”; the fragmented, semi-submerged pieces of larger icebergs that have broken off and ultimately pose a greater risk to competing skippers than actual icebergs, seeing as they are harder to detect via radar and tend to blend in with breaking seas.

Expect Banque Pop and his pursuers to retain their temporary strong positions on the leader board before being pushed South and consolidating with Dick and Gabart near Gough Island. If this fast-moving Western High continues it’s path East, it looks like the whole fleet might get parked up near Gough Island, further enhancing this front-pack compression and making possible the “Gough restart”, just before a low from the South brings more breeze.

Good hunting for Le Cam

The ever-entertaining multi-time Figaro Champ and ’04-’05 Vendée runner-up Jean Le Cam on Synericel has shown impressive speed over the past 96 hours, finally reeling in Briton Mike Golding to gain control of sixth place and lead the second pack’s charge in bringing the fight to the leaders.This second pack of Le Cam on Synerciel, Golding on Gamesa and Dominique Wavre on Mirabaud look to be loosely following Dick and Gabart in their Westerly approach around the high. When asked about the possibility of being hunted down by the “English hunting” Le Cam, Mike Golding joked, “I won’t. I am a one-man war machine.” You’ve gotta love the tongue-in-cheek trash talking going on between these multi-time Vendée veterans!

Expect this second-pack to make gains on the frontrunners as they encounter smaller “holes” and maintain higher boat speeds in their approach to Gough Island and the Aigulles Gate, allowing the fleet to compress while adding even more excitement and intensity to this potential Gough Island restart!

Boissieres on the move

After a miserably slow crossing of the doldrums, Arnaud Boissieres on Akenda Verandas has had a ripping ride ever since. Consistently posting 24-hour runs either near or at the top of the fleet, “Cali” has been on a tear, moving up to just west of Spaniard Javier “Bubi” Sanso on Acciona 100% Ecopowered, who is still playing catch up in his new-generation Owen Clarke designed boat after his pit stop in the Canary Islands to ascend his rig. Tanguy de Lamotte continues to wow fans around the world with his jaw-dropping performance on his three-generation old Lombard designed Initiatives-couer, still holding onto tenth place on the leaderboard, although this will probably be short-lived as his Easterly course becomes less favored in the next 24 to 48 hours, as Acciona and Akena Verandas hook into northerlies and begin a sleigh ride that should take them towards Gough Island and the Roaring 40’s in rapid fashion. Bertrand de Broc on Votre nom Autour du Monde is finally re-gaining his step after joining Boissieres in an equally miserable crossing of the doldrums.

Alessandro di Benedetto happy at the back

I’m beginning to sound like a broken record with my love of all things Alessandro, but you absolutely have to admire what he is doing at the back of the pack. The “adventurer” of this Vendée fleet, di Benedetto became the last boat in the fleet to cross the equator, but judging by his demeanor, entertaining on-board videos and feathered sailing companions, I don’t think he minds being at the back of the pack! Sailing a 15-year old fixed-keel boat on a shoe-string budget with Team Plastique, Alessandro is doing a fantastic job in sticking to his plan of sailing a smart, conservative race. Not to mention, his French-Italian accent is hilarious!

Riou abandons

After hitting a floating metal “harbor buoy” that had presumably broken loose and was left to drift around the Atlantic, ’04-’05 Vendée Champ Vincent Riou onboard PRB has officially abandoned the Vendée Globe and is slowly limping into port in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. With a 1-meter long tear near the bow of his VPLP/ Verdier designed Open 60, there was significant delamination to the outer skin of the hull, with crushed-in honeycomb core. Riou, a composites expert, was able to fix the tear in the hull, but was unable to fix the real problem; a damaged outrigger shroud. Shockingly, as if some sort of bad joke, Vincent Riou has now abandoned two consecutive Vendée Globes after sustaining damage to an outrigger. In the ’08-’09 race, Riou turned around to rescue the capsized, keel bulb-less Jean Le Cam, damaging his outrigger on Le Cam’s keel fin in the process. A day later, Riou’s yacht dismasted and he was awarded a share of third place as re-dress. I’ll bet he goes with a classic rig next time!

Stay tuned for our next update in 3-4 days, this is turning into an epic race!

-Ronnie Simpson