no argument here

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

A few days ago, I wrote that the Vendée Globe was entering “arguably it’s most exciting stage” yet. While the skippers surely didn’t read those words, they have made a very strong argument in support of that claim nonetheless, as the race has been absolutely on fire ever since. For the first time in two weeks, we have seen new race leaders in Jean-Pierre Dick onboard Virbac-Paprec 3, who’s westward roll of the dice has helped propel him from a lowly position of 5th place just 6 days ago to first place by Saturday night and in Francois Gabart onboard MACIF, whose phenomenal boat speed and decisive move to cover Dick have both paid dividends. Along the way, the two have endured a match race with the two new generation VPLP-Verdier designed boats breaking Alex Thomson’s 24-hour singlehanded IMOCA class speed record a number of times, smashing the mark that stood for nearly ten years and then piling on an extra 20 or so miles just for good measure. Having been relegated to second place, former race leader Armel Le Cleac’h once again consolidated with the two record-setters, briefly regaining the race lead as this lead group enters the roaring forties and the deep south. Engaged in a 3-way drag race towards the Aigulles Ice Gate, the first such gate of the race, the trio of VPLP-Verdier’s are descending upon it like a pack of wild hyenas averaging an astounding 20 knots of boat speed, trading the lead at seemingly every check-in.

A thrilling battle at the front 

After Jean-Pierre Dick gybed West and South more than a week ago, Francois Gabart followed to cover the two-time Barcelona World Race champ, setting up the split-fleet scenario that we discussed in the last article. Gaining more than 400 miles in north-south separation, the lead pack has again regrouped, now tighter than ever with the three French skippers exchanging the lead multiple times in the past 24 hours, as of this writing. With the two lead packs all sailing on a starboard tack, Cleac’h sailed slightly hotter to make a bit more southing, effectively bringing him, JP Dick and Francois Gabart even closer together. Anarchist “Estar” has run all of the numbers through his routing software and projects MACIF, Banque Pop and Virbac-Paprec 3 to all reach the Aigulles Ice Gate at exactly the same time, seeing as how they are virtually tied right now. Saturday night, all three boats have pulled even with Banque Pop furthest North,Virbac-Paprec 3 in the middle and MACIF furthest South, with a mere 15 miles separating all three boats, now more than 3 weeks and 7,000 miles into this seventh edition of the Vendée. Sailing north and slightly behind the leaders are the new-generation Juan K designedCheminees Poujoulat of Bernard Stamm and the previous-generation Farr designed Hugo Bossof Aelx Thomson, the only previous-generation boat in the top 5.

Expect the race to remain close over the coming days. At this point, it is truly anyone’s race and it will continue to get even closer. Expect Bernard Stamm to be the lead group’s biggest mover and shaker in the next 24-48 hours. Being North of the 3 leaders, he will encounter the Southerly breeze a bit longer than than the 3 leaders and this should benefit him, as his Jaun K design has proven to be a reaching monster. As the breeze goes aft on Monday, watch for Alex Thomson to continue running hot angles and make some Southing to avoid getting trapped in a developing High.

Three elder statesman continue stalking the leaders 

Beginning to sound like a broken record here, but the 3-boat “second pack” of Jean Le Cam on Synerciel, Mike Golding on Gamesa and Dominique Wavre on Mirabaud have continued to stalk the leaders, slowly closing the gap, despite the record-setting pace of the frontrunners. “King Jean” has continued sailing his previous generation Farr design at a frenetic pace as the three-time Figaro Champ has now closed the gap to less than 300 miles between him and the race leaders. With just a 70-mile split between Le Cam and the Swiss veteran Wavre, the trio of “old guys” have been sending it in close formation since before the Cape Verde Islands, some two weeks ago. Fast and consistent, the pack has been following in JP Dick’s wake since he made his remarkable move West. The ring leader Le Cam has shown no hesitancy in being aggressive, evidenced by his decisiveness in becoming the second boat in the fleet to commit to the aforementioned westerly option, and his again entertaining quotes where he has proclaimed to “attack JP Dick” and “wage war” on other competitors. If there is one skipper in the fleet who shown an ability to engage the public, make people laugh, share impassioned self-interviews and showcase his personality, it is the Frenchman Le Cam.

Expect the 3-boat pack to remain close and consistent. These über-experienced skippers have shown a great deal of maturity, skill and discipline perhaps lacking in other parts of the fleet, while still displaying fortitude and no shortage of pace, however they may see some light air near the Aigulles Gate, allowing the “rich to get richer”, as the lead pack may extend out on this second pack. If caught in the grasp of this high, expect the second group to dive south immediately after the Gate in search of more breeze.

Update: Jean Le Cam has had a fishing net trapped around his keel. Discovering the problem, “King Jean” donned a wetsuit and diving gear and has dove on the bottom of Synerciel, cutting the netting away from the bottom of the keel, requiring several cuts to get the massive net away. As a result, Le Cam was stopped for 30 minutes, slowed for several hours and has relinquished his 6th place ranking to Mike Golding on Gamesa. JLC is now back in the race, making 12 knots as the second pack begins to encounter lighter air.

Records are made to be broken…. 

Shifting gears back to the monumental display of speed that we all witnessed in the past 48 hours, an incredible 4 boats in the fleet surpassed Alex Thomson’s previous 24-hour solo speed record which stood for nearly 10 years. First, it was Francois Gabart who amassed 482.91 miles in 24 hours. Before record-keepers could even begin to confirm the record, Jean-Pierre Dick posted up an absolutely staggering figure of 498.90 miles; within spitting distance of 500. Just five short hours later, the trackers revealed that Dick had broken his new personal record by becoming the first singlehanded monohull sailor to ever break through the 500-mile barrier by recording a new world record of 502.53 nautical miles in 24 hours, sailing at an average speed of 20.9 knots. This record is less than 4 miles short of Dick’s own 24-hour doublehanded speed record of 506.33 miles that he set in 2011 alongside Loick Peyron en route to victory in the last edition of the Barcelona World Race.

In addition to Dick and Gabart’s record-breaking pace, Bernard Stamm on Cheminees Poujoulatand Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss also surpassed Thomson’s old record.

The day before this incredible showcase of pace, Dick, invigorated by the massive boat speeds he was sounded like a giddy school boy in describing his emotions at returning to the Roaring Forties and the Southern Ocean:

“It’s a little like a velvet carpet; we’re surfing! The weather is not very nice. This is the early signs of the Great South! The sky is rather white with clouds (cirrus) like flying sparks. During the night we had a very beautiful moon which formed a halo in the fog. It was magnificent! I’m back in the world I love! I love sailing in these southern regions. They are very wild and it is very beautiful. I have started to put on under-layers and soon I will put on my boots.”

Several skippers in the fleet reported seeing speeds in the high 20’s, with Dick’s tracker reporting 25.9 knots at one point! The pace of these new generations VPLP’s and Juan K design are absolutely phenomenal! Once deep into the Southern Ocean, it’s almost inevitable that with the right conditions and right sea state, one of these sailors will break Dick’s new record of 502.5 nm.

When the rich get richer, the poor get poorer…. 

With the frontrunners running away at record-breaking speed and the “second pack” showing unwavering consistency, the back markers of the fleet are all finding it impossible to keep up. Sailing mostly older boats, and with another split-high scenario in the South Atlantic, the bottom five are losing miles to the leaders in mass quantity as they negotiate an again complex Saint Helena High.

Leading the effort in trying to bridge the gap to the second pack, Javier “Bubi” Sanso, sailing the only new generation boat in the bottom half of the fleet is being stalked by a developing high. Pushing his Owen Clarke designed Acciona 100% Ecopowered as hard as he possibly can, the fleet’s sole Spanish skipper had slowed to 12 knots at the time of this writing, with his nearest pursuer Arnaud Boissieres on Akena Verandas being caught in the trenches of the high, making just 8 knots. 350 miles behind Mirabaud and 350 in front of Akena Verandas, Javier finds himself in a rather lonely stretch of the South Atlantic.

Elsewhere in the fleet, Bertrand de Broc on Votre nom Autour du Monde continues to be stymied by the weather, having sailed into another massive hole. Adding insult to injury, it looks like this area of high pressure is going to follow him all the way to Gough Island, which must be left to starboard, forcing him to stay in the light stuff, while Tanguy de Lamotte on Initiatives-couer also finds himself between a rock and a hard place as he will likely be forced to sail into the same high, with his only alternative option being to sail additional miles over the top, straight into slow headwinds.

Difficult stuff for the bottom third of the fleet….

While Bertrand de Broc is suffering, Tanguy is going to be hating life as his route to Gough looks long and slow. Expect Bertrand to re-pass Tanguy for 11th position while the rest of the pack will maintain position and continue to bleed miles to the front runners. The one wild card to watch is Javier Sanso. With his speedy new-generation boat, it will take just one fortuitous weather system to allow him to re-engage the second pack. In the right conditions, he has shown the ability to average 20 knots, in line with the front runners.

What’s up next 

Don’t expect any records to be broken in the next 3-4 days, but the front runners and second pack should all cross the first Aigulles Ice Gate during that time and be well on their way to the second “Crozet” Gate. A developing high should see the front runners gain miles on their stalkers, while the long-term forecast shows a potential for the fleet to again compress at the second gate. The major tactical decisions are going to be when to dive south and how far to dive after crossing the gates. With the top-three skippers potentially within eye sight after the first third of the race, conducting battle at record-breaking pace, this is turning into one of the best editions of the Vendée Globe yet!

Check out our next update in 3-4 days!

-Ronnie Simpson