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

545.3. Let me repeat that for you: Five-Hundred Forty Five decimal three…. No, that’s not the bar tab from a liquor-infused office Christmas party, it’s the number of miles that 29-year oldVendée Globe rookie Francois “the Golden Boy” Gabart sailed in just 24 hours onboard his VPLP/ Verdier designed Open 60 MACIF, en route to absolutely shattering both the previous IMOCA class record and the solo monohull 24-hour record. Besting the previous IMOCA class record (set doublehanded by Jean-Pierre Dick and Loick Peyron in the last Barcelona World Race…) by nearly 40 miles, Gabart maintained a previously unthinkable average of 22.3 knots of boat speed during his record-breaking 24-hour run. The best part is that it wasn’t just for show, it was for position as the incredibly talented young French skipper stole miles away from race leader Armel Le Cleac’h, re-gaining the race lead for a short while before losing it yet again to perennial race leader Le Cleac’h, winner of second place in the last Vendée

MACIF and Banque Populaire are virtually tied right now, engaged in an intense match race that’s been raging for weeks. Every time that I log onto the Vendée tracker, I expect to see one of them back off or break, but instead they just keep accelerating and somehow getting closer. The two skippers, generally heralded as the two most talented sailors in this fleet, have opted for greatly differing routes and strategies a number of times during the first month of this Vendée Globe, only to consolidate and re-engage in their thrilling speed test after each separation. The younger Vendée rookie Gabart has proven to be much faster in terms of outright speed than the slightly older and more experienced Le Cleac’h, while Le Cleac’h is proving to be a tactical genius in the Southern Ocean. The gap had only recently increased to 14, advantage Gabart, as of this writing.

But the biggest story of the last half-week of racing has to again come back to the staggering mileage that Gabart put up on MACIF. 545, let’s look at that for a moment. In the first Vendée Globe in 1989-90, Tituoan Lamazou had a best 24-hour run of 309 miles. In the sixth and most recent edition, MIchel Desjoyeaux had a 466.6 mile day onboard Foncia. Overly simplifying things a bit, but the boats basically got 157 miles faster in 20 years. Francois just piled an additional 80 miles onto the Vendée record; by far the single biggest jump in Vendée history, and half of what the fleet could accomplish in 2 decades and 5 races. It begs the question to me, how is he doing it?

Are the boats that much faster? After the renowned multihull design firm VPLP collaborated with Guillame Verdier to produce Safran and Groupe Bel, there has been a gradual shift that has seen the majority of top French sailors choose VPLP/ Verdier designs as their weapon of choice; the partnership is responsible for 4 of the 6 new boats built for this edition of the Vendée. With experience designing ultrafast cats and tri’s (think Banque Pop and Dogzilla the BOR 90), the team clearly has learned a thing or three about daggerboards and generating lift. In fact, 3 of the 20 boats that started this year’s Vendée had curved boards (Virbac-Paprec 3, Safran and PRB), and several of them have played with the angle of the boards, includingMACIF and Banque Pop.

Some boats in the fleet are said to have undergone major, and expensive, refits to mimic the VPLP’s angled board designs. So is this the reason why the boats have gotten literally 15% faster in just 4 years, because they’re now generating lift on the leeward side of the boat when sailing fast? Or is it the ground-breaking advancements in structural engineering that have allowed the boats to be light-weight, theoretically generating lighter loads and maintaining reliability. Or is it the sails? When reading skipper’s radio interviews and logs, they’re often wondering out loud about what other boats are flying. With the boats continually getting faster and apparent wind angles continually moving further forward, the sails have undergone continual development and there’s a lot of secrecy in the way some teams are sailing the boats and which sails they have. Or are the sailors just pushing that much harder? The intensity of this race is bordering on insanity. Gabart and Le Cleac’h have been machine-like in their ability to maintain consistently high speeds at a never before seen level. Or is it a combination of all of the above? That’s the most likely scenario, and there are some thrilling discussions going on in the forum with an exchange of knowledge that adds a new element to following this race. And again massive thanks to Estar for breaking down the weather and Popo for translating videos.

Thomson’s amazing race 

With Banque Pop and MACIF threatening to break the sound barrier, it’s amazing that three boats are managing to hang on to the pair of speedy VPLP’s, and even more incredible that one of them, Alex Thomson, is sailing a previous generation boat, and a wounded one at that. Alex has reported that Hugo Boss hit something in the water at high-speed on Sunday night, damaging his boat and causing him to again affect repairs to the five year old Farr design (ex-Veolia Entertainment):

I hit something in the water while travelling at 22 knots. I was at the navigation table at the time and was sailing on port gybe with solent/J2 and 2 reefs in the mainsail in 28 knots of wind. I heard a loud bang forward of where I was which i think must have been something hitting either the keel or the daggerboard. I heard a series of softer bangs as whatever I hit bumped along under the hull and a final big bang as it hit the rudder and hydro generator…. the starboard rudder fuse had broken and the rudder had lifted with minor damage. The hydro generator blade was damaged and one of brackets was in pieces and eventually lost overboard. The rudder tie bar (the previously unbroken one) was also smashed in 3 pieces…. I set to work swapping tie bars to get the leeward rudder operational so I could steer safely in the right direction. The waves were very big and were coming up and over the transom and mainsheet traveller and were hitting the rudder blade while lifted. Both rudder cassettes sustained some damage while doing this and it was pretty dangerous hanging off the transom while being completely submerged by the waves….”

One of Thomson’s hydrogenerators has been damaged beyond repair and Alex now claims that he has to go into power-conservation mode if he wants to finish the race. With the addition of hydrogenerators in this edition of the Vendée, boats are now carrying significantly less diesel fuel than in years past and Alex will therefore have to conserve as his 1 working hydro will only work when sailing on one tack.

Despite the damage and required repairs, Alex is still challenging Bernard Stamm for 4th place, averaging close to 20 knots. An absolutely incredible effort from the charismatic English skipper who is still trying to finish the Vendée Globe on his third attempt. Jean-Pierre Dick onVirbac-Paprec 3 is sailing in third place, 79 miles behind the Gabart and Le Cleac’h, and roughly 70 miles in front of Stamm and Thomson.

Stamm, meanwhile had to perform dental surgery on himself yesterday! After breaking a tooth, he lost “about a third of a molar” and was advised by Vendée Globe physician Jean-Yves Chauve on how to repair it. Sanding down his tooth, he used a mirror and a small surgical tool to glue on a patch. Spectacular video of Stamm, in immense discomfort, performing the task on the Day 32 highlight video on the VG site. The amazing things that these Vendée skipper endure!

What’s ahead

Jean-Pierre Dick’s VPLP designed Virbac-Paprec 3 is clearly fast when it gets breezy and the two-time Barcelona World Race champ has shown an incredible ability to send it in the big stuff, so watch for him to make a move when the fleet hits even more challenging conditions. Dick has never shown any shortage of pace when needed, so it almost seems like he is content to sail just fast enough to stay in touch at this stage, hoping one of the young guns breaks in front of him. Stamm, back in fourth place seems to know that he’s slightly outgunned in these ultra high-speed conditions, but when the breeze goes forward, his Juan K is devastatingly fast. One only has to look back to the start when Stamm came charging through the pack, sailing to windward, to claim a very early race lead. If he can stay close in the Southern Ocean’s heavy running conditions, he could find himself making gains when sailing up the Atlantic Ocean after Cape Horn, which is predominantly to weather. Staying close won’t be easy for Stamm, though, as the gap to Dick and Gabart/ Le Cleac’h looks like it’s going to increase. With the top 5 boats all riding a fast-moving low, they are riding a clockwise-rotating system of mostly northerly and northwesterly breeze on the front of the low, which is allowing for these blindingly fast reaching conditions. As the low begins to pass, Hugo Boss and Cheminees Poujoulat will encounter a diminishing breeze that will move aft, slowing them down in comparison to the leaders who will still be reaching with the hammer down. If Stamm and Thompson get outrun by the low, which they are slowly doing, we could see the “Top 5” become the “Top 3”, with the leading trio of VPLP’s making massive gains on the next leg to the Western Oz gate.

Second pack gaining separation 

The second pack of boats; Gamesa, Synerciel and Mirabaud have begun to spread out as Dominique Wavre on Mirabaud is falling off the back of the low, and is now sailing 200 miles behind Mike Golding and Jean Le Cam. Doing 11 knots at the last check-in, Wavre fell behind the fast-moving low, bleeding over a hundred miles to Le Cam, who has again cried “It’s War Time!” as he continues his battle with Golding. Gamesa and Synerciel have also fallen off the back of the low that is propelling the leaders at record pace, and are now set to fall into the clutches of a developing light-air “Tropical Low” that looks like it will fall in behind the breezy low. Golding and Le Cam will have to battle in light air for a few days, potentially even sailing into headwinds before catching onto the next low that will speed them across the Indian Ocean.

The “second” pack was loosely hanging onto the leaders until just in the past few days. When Francois and Co. started dropping 500-mile days while riding this low and this trio of older-generation boats (and skippers) got left behind, they opened up the door to lose a thousand miles. Shedding upwards of 400 miles in the last 3 days, the trio is 750 to 940 miles behind the leaders, and that will probably be well above 1,200 to 1,500 behind in the next week.

Elsewhere in the fleet 

Tanguy de Lamotte has continued to impress in the back of the fleet. Sailing a 3-generation old boat just a couple hundred miles back of Bertrand de Broc on the boat that took second in the last Vendée, the 34-year old has endured a number of mechanical failures and setbacks in his quest to sail non-stop around the world. First, it was an autopilot malfunction that resulted in a crash-gybe that left Initiatives-couer with 4 broken batten cars that connect the main sail to the mast. Quickly jury-rigging a repair, Tanguy sailed with 4 reefs in the main and J2 while he affected repairs to the mast cars. Tanguy explains his repairs:

I have the spare parts. I have six pieces and have only broken four but the diameter (of the pins) is eight millimetres instead of ten. So what I am doing is going to put some epoxy resin with fibreglass and carbonfibre and I have cut some nuts so I can secure the pins at the back of the bush. I can secure all the pieces with the nuts. Cutting steel on the boat is not very easy. I am going to be able to hoist the main later. Those pieces are going to do the job for later and they will be good for around the world”

Secondly, it was a combination of splicing and creating soft attachments to release a broken shackle used as a gennaker-furler deck-attachment. Tanguy felt the boat slow and came on deck to realize his gennaker was no longer attached to the deck, could no longer be furled and was swinging wildly behind the mainsail of his Lombard-designed Open 60.

Between sorting out all of his issues, showing incredible ingenuity and dealing with and racing a wounded boat, the former Class 40 World Champ who studied under the likes of Ellen MacArthur has been hugely impressive in his Vendée debut.

Alessandro di Benedetto, sailing a boat even older than Tanguy’s is bringing up the rear of the fleet after sustaining his first major Southern Ocean blow in Team Plastique, seeing 55 knots of breeze and seeing 30 knots of boat speed under just a headsail while screaming down massive waves in his ancient fixed-keel boat.

I don’t know how this race can possibly get any better, but somehow it will. Stay tuned for our next update.

-Ronnie Simpson