and then there were two…

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

And then there were two. After a month of close racing with a 5-boat strong lead pack and a 3-boat second pack following just a day or so behind, this seventh edition of the Vendée Globe has been blown wide open by “the twins” at the front; rookie prodigy Francois Gabart on MACIF and defending 2nd place finisher Armel Le Cleac’h on Banque Populaire. Sailing nearly identical VPLP-Verdier designed sisterships, one major difference, and a game changer at that, has come to light this week. Francois’s “secret weapon”, a blast-reaching jib is proving to be worth it’s weight in gold in the breeze-on reaching conditions of the Southern Indian Ocean.

Francois’ secret weapon

Under IMOCA class rules, skippers sailing in the Vendée Globe are allowed to carry ten sails, creating a lot of opportunity for variations in sail inventories. Some opt for more spinnakers while others opt to carry more gennakers and reaching sails. Apparently, the “Golden Boy” Gabart has opted for a special “blast-reaching jib” which is attached at the bow of MACIF, ahead of the J2/ Solent, yet behind the bowsprit. After the mysterious poster “Magnus Henderson”, rumored to be former VOR Director of Communications Marcus Hutchinson, leaked some insider knowledge on top French sailing site “Voiles & Voillers”, rumors began swirling around the secret sail before Gabart’s mentor and two- time Vendée Champion Michel Desjoyeaux commented: “I know why Francois is so fast. He has a sail ( blast reacher) which is an improvement of what I had four years ago. We are sure now that Armel does not have the same sail. It works on the angles that he had when he broke the record, so around 120 (TWA. AWA around 65-75. -Ronnie) degrees with around 35-40 knots of wind, with ideal conditions of swell and sea.”

The epic drag race for the lead continues

Since Gabart’s incredible record setting 24-hour run, he and Le Cleac’h have remained virtually tied, engaged in the same two-boat match race that’s been taking place for weeks. Swapping the lead, converging, extending and converging again, some now famous photos have been published on the Vendée site that clearly show Banque Pop visible in the background as Gabart was looking back from the compaionway and taking a photo of MACIF’s cockpit. Still enjoying fast reaching conditions, Gabart has only recently extended his lead to 30 nautical miles as of this writing, presumably still using his not so secret anymore blast-reacher jib with both sailors still enjoying a solid 20-25 knots of breeze on starboard tack with a true wind angle of about 130. Falling off the low that they’ve been riding for a week, the twins will reach a bit of lighter air, still well out in front of their pursuers before hooking onto either a subtropical low coming down from the North or another fast-moving low coming up from the South, based on two conflicting forecasts. Either way, the close match race looks to continue some 800 miles South of Australia, with both skippers having just passed the Western Oz gate and Cape Leeuwin. We are all witnesses to Vendée Globe history right now. Watching two young, immensely talented sailors push their ultra-fast boats this fast and in such close proximity across the Southern Ocean is like watching two heavyweight prize fighters duke it out for 12 rounds while in their prime. Records are being dispatched at the crossing of every Cape and waypoint right now, with the Les Sables- Cape Leeuwin record sure to be next. Absolutely fascinating stuff right now.

A 3-boat pack re-forming behind the leaders?

Of the original leading group of 5 boats, 3 have now been dropped after being jumped by a ridge of high pressure. First, it was Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss in his previous- generation Farr design. Dealing with another broken rudder tie bar and the breakage and subsequent loss of one of his hydrogenerators, the Briton hedged his bets and made a decisive move to the North, threading the needle in between two highs. Falling off the bus soon after Thomson was Swissman Bernard Stamm and his new Juan K- designed Cheminees Poujoulat, taking a more Southerly route than Thomson before bailing and following in AT’s wake some 100 miles back. Like his rival Thomson, Stamm is currently dealing with his own issues; another ripped sail, broken cockpit grinder, broken hydrogenerator and do-it-yourself dental surgery to name a few. And finally, it was two-time Barcelona World Race Champ Jean-Pierre Dick falling off the back. Too far South to make a move North, Dick, one of the pre-race favorites has had his hand forced, relegated to slowly following in the wake of the dynamic duo out front, some 360 miles back of the two race leaders. Sailing into light headwinds South of a subtropical low that looks to benefit Thomson and Stamm, Dick was making 12 knots at the last check-in and the forecast looks to show Jean-Pierre facing headwinds before hooking up with the next low coming up from the South, at which point he could converge with Thomson and Stamm. A frustrated Jean-Pierre Dick explained his difficult situation in losing touch with the leaders and at the likely prospect of allowing his two non-French followers to catch up:
There is a high pressure bubble behind me gradually moving towards me, which means that the lead boats have more wind and I have less. What I’m afraid of is getting caught in this ridge of high pressure. So what I need to do is get away from the ridge and try to make as good headway as I can to pick up a stronger breeze after Australia. It’s not going to be easy passing this waypoint at the East Australia gate.” Not only does Dick have to deal with less breeze than his competitors, but he is also forced to deal with conflicting, and rapidly changing, weather models.

“Second pack” separates

Now in entirely different sections of ocean and weather than the leaders, the trio of Dominique Wavre, Mike Golding and Jean Le Cam are bleeding miles to Gabart and Le Cleac’h at a greatly accelerated rate with Golding and Wavre losing some 700 miles in just 72 hours, effectively doubling the gap between these three middle-aged skippers on previous-generation boats and their younger counterparts on newer, faster boats. After falling off the low that carried the top 5 across much of the Indian Ocean, Mike Golding on Gamea made a move to the North, attempting to play the same scenario as his countryman Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss. Instead, he sailed into less breeze than his French counterpart on Synerciel, losing upwards of 200 miles to the Brit-hunting Le Cam. Now more than 150 miles behind Le Cam, the two skippers encountered light headwinds before being caught by another low that is allowing them to make 13 knots in 15-20 knots of Southerly breeze on the back of a passing low. Positioned some 1,350 and 1,500 miles behind the leaders respectively, Le Cam and Golding are preparing for a fast-moving low that is coming up from behind. Le Cam explains the situation:
I’m mostly keeping an eye on what’s coming from behind because that’s what you’re supposed to do in the Great South, where depressions come from the west. And what’s coming to us this time is huge! 40 knots on the files, which means 50 knots in reality. And I’m not even talking about the gusts! It’s really no laughing matter and we’ll have to make sure we don’t get caught in tat. I hope the depression will calm down a little. One thing is for sure: We’ll have to sail faster than it. But it call all change by the time the front is actually here on Sunday afternoon.”

Meanwhile, Dominique Wavre on Mirabaud has further lost touch with Le Cam and Golding, sailing in the light breeze that plagued his comrades on Gamesa and Synerciel two days ago. This marks the end of an era for the three skippers who have been sailing together since the Cape Verde Islands in the North Atlantic.

Bubi making moves despite rudder damage

About 4 days ago, Spanish sailor and SA contributor Javier “Bubi” Sanso on the new- generation Owen-Clarke designed Acciona 100% Ecopowered was said to hit something while sailing. Gybing onto port tack yesterday, Bubi was able to look at the port rudder of Acciona and observe that the impact had broken off the bottom tip of the carbon foil, about one foot worth. The area that has broken off is said to be a sacrificial tip, specifically designed to break off in the event of an impact, preserving and protecting the rest of rudder.

Owen-Clarke Design’s own Merfyn Owen dropped in on the Vendée thread in the SA forums and shed some more light on the incident:
This is the third occasion in twelve years that an OCD rudder has been damaged in this way. In 2001 while exiting the Doldrums in second place Ellen MacArthur crashed into a whale shearing Kingfisher’s daggerboard completely off and loosing the sacrificial tip of her port rudder. Despite having a cassette system and carrying a spare she didn’t use it….Mike Golding’s Ecover 2 lost her sacrificial tip to another whale in the 2003 TJV and completed the race.

Hopefully this means that Bubi won’t encounter any problems, and as such, he has reported no change in observed performance, speed or control, having sailed with the damaged rudder for 3 days before gybing and physically observing the damage.
Despite the missing foot of rudder, Bubi is coming on like a freight train, riding 25-35 knots of Northwesterly breeze on the leading edge of a low, allowing him to average speeds in the upper teens, consistently gaining on Wavre, who is still slowed by a ridge of high pressure.

Elsewhere in the fleet

At the back of the fleet, Franco-Italian skipper Alessandro di Benedetto on Team Plastique has just passed the first Ice Gate and the Cape of Good Hope. Spraying more champagne on the deck of Team Plastique than he consumed, the 41 year old has now gybed his Finot-Cong designed Open 60 for the second Crozet Ice Gate, some 700 miles away.
Tanguy de Lamotte, meanwhile, some 700 miles in front of Alessandro and 3,000 behind the leaders has passed the Crozet Gate and reports all is well and his Vendée Globe mission has made it possible to save another child’s life:

“(To Charles Caudrelier): You’re the one who first told me about Mécénat Chirurgie Cardiaque, and we just made it possible for a fourth child to get heart surgery, thanks to all of you for making that possible. I can’t wait to be back in Les Sables in February to share it all with you.
Every new day now is a new record for me, I’ve never been alone at sea for that long. I just don’t want it to end…”

If you have not yet done so, make sure to visit Initiatives-couer’s Facebook page.  For every “like” that the page receives, 1 euro will be donated to the non-profit that Tanguy is racing for. 10,000 Euros will provide valuable life-saving heart surgery to save another child. The goal is 80,000 “likes” to save 8 lives. After the mortifying elementary school shooting in Connecticut today, it’s a small way that we can use this great Vendée Globe race to save a child’s life. “Like” their page now!
-Ronnie Simpson