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Bruce Schwab Energy Systems presents this Vendee Globe report

After less than 40 days at sea, this seventh edition of the Vendée Globe is amazingly more than halfway over for the two leaders Francois Gabart on MACIF and Armel Le Cleac’h on Banque Populaire. Passing the boundary of 146° 55‘ east longitude that officially separates the Southern Indian Ocean from the Pacific Ocean, these two match-racing VPLP-Verdier designed sisterships at the pointy end of the fleet are still maintaining their record-setting pace, still more than 2 days ahead of the reference time. Continuing to swap the lead repeatedly with one boat extending out to a lead of a few dozen miles before being tracked down and passed by the other, the duo of Le Cleac’h and Gabart were separated by just 3 nautical miles as of this writing, having sailed more than 12,000. Incredible stuff at the front of the fleet.

Jean-Pierre Dick’s Indian Ocean heroics

Le Cleac’h and Gabart’s closest pursuer, Jean-Pierre Dick on Virbac-Paprec 3 rapidly fell off the pace nearly a week ago, watching an 80 mile deficit become more than 400 miles in what seemed like an instant. The two-time Barcelona World Race champ had fallen off the back of the low that was at the time propelling the leaders towards the West Australia Gate, causing the massive loss of distance to Cleac’h and Gabart. Apparently though, it wasn’t just lighter breeze that slowed the Vendée veteran, as the world learned yesterday that he had a problem with his “halyard hook”, which holds the top of his small fractional gennaker and spinnaker. Without being able to fly the two sails, critical in the breezy reaching and running conditions of the Southern Indian Ocean, Dick continued to bleed miles and would have had no chance of mounting a charge to close the deficit to the leaders, now at more than 500 miles.

In another daring display of heroism and courage that embodies the spirit of this epic solo, non-stop around the world race, Dick knew what he had to do if he wished to remain competitive:

“I had been waiting for favorable weather conditions to climb up the mast for several days…. It is a risky type of operation but I had no choice. You’re by yourself, there’s strong wind and a rough sea and, to top it all, it’s cold and you’re in the screaming fifties. Needless to say, you ask yourself a lot of questions before climbing up there….
I waited until the conditions were calmer and I set Virbac-Paprec 3 running downwind to slow her down to 10 knots. Climbing up the mast and going down was quite perilous, you’re shaken right and left, I wasn’t very confident. I managed to replace the damaged part….. I’m very happy I did it because in this part of the world, you don’t get that many opportunities to go and become an aerial acrobat. Virbac-Paprec 3’s potential is back to what it used to be, which is great news for the rest of the race.”

Ascending 20-meters out of 29, Dick was aloft for approximately two hours. Anyone who has ever been sent aloft for more than about 15 minutes can tell you that your inner legs and groin area will absolutely be on fire from restricted blood flow and pressure, let alone the associated numbness as parts of your body begin to “fall asleep”. The only thing more painful than this would surely be coming down prematurely and having to make another trip up and down the rig. Once back in the cockpit, an elated and exhausted JP Dick took a quick self-interview before taking a well-deserved nap.

Another very interesting note is that just hours before his trip up the rig, Dick was interviewed by Vendée Globe TV and remarked that “It’s magical here. Beautiful.” before admitting that it was a bit stressful at times. The third-placed skipper made absolutely no mention of his boat problems, impending mast climb or anything out of the ordinary. The psychological games that some of these 13 Vendée Globe sailors are playing with one another is absolutely incredible. One can only wonder what stories will come to light once the race is over and the always smiling Francois Gabart and robotic, unemotional Armel Le Cleac’h confess to problems, drama and repairs that took place on board. Absolutely incredible stuff from the skipper of Virbac-Paprec 3.

Thomson and Stamm now match racing

Alex Thomson and Bernard Stamm have maintained their incredibly close battle for fourth place, now separated by just 14 miles. The Englishman Thomson on his Farr-designed Hugo Boss reports that his autopilot accidentally gybed the boat in about 25 knots of wind. Says Thomson:

It was not an enjoyable moment, having your whole world turn on its side in an instant. I felt the boat start to go and jumped out of my bunk to try and get to the helm to stop it but I only got as far as the companion way before she went, and then she was on her side. It took me a while to get the boat upright again and then gybe back. I did a check around the boat and it seems that I got away with no serious damage. It is really rough out here. Very bumpy and really confused waves. I am trying not to go too fast at the moment as she starts to slam a bit.”

Still suffering from an energy shortage due to the loss of one of his hydrogenerators, Thomson is continuing his incredible race, relaying that the conditions were too rough to use his last functioning hydro. Limping the boat around the globe, Alex is spending more time at the helm than usual and is oftentimes going without much of his communications equipment. Relying on diesel fuel in these rough Southern Ocean conditions, Alex is surely going to be running short on fuel when coming back up the Atlantic and will undoubtedly try to save his last hydrogenerator for the smoother conditions of the Atlantic. Also commenting on the rough conditions with steep wave sets and confused cross-seas, a frustrated Thomson admitted that he couldn’t push as hard as nearby rival Bernard Stamm due to a difference in boat design. The wider, more bouyant bow section of the Juan K-designed Cheminees Poujoulat was more efficient in the steep conditions and less prone to slamming, allowing for safer, faster sailing. An  envious Thomson stated to Vendée Globe TV a few days ago “Yes, i’m well aware that Bernard is 3 knots faster”.

Things aren’t much easier for Stamm who is also dealing with his own hydrogenerator problems, a broken cockpit grinder, ripped sail and lingering effects from the painful dental surgery that we reported on last week. A fascinating and challenging race for 4th place between two skippers that have dealt with a significant amount of adversity yet are keeping the hammer down in the Southern Indian Ocean.


What’s up next for the top 5

For the first time in 10 days, the top 5 will all be in the same weather system with the pack clinging onto a low-pressure that has come up from the Southern Tasman Sea. Expect the top 5 to pull away even further from the rest of the fleet with the potential for Virbac-Paprec 3 and Hugo Boss/ Cheminees Poujoulat to close up slightly on the leaders MACIF and Banque Populaire as the two leaders reach the ridge of high-pressure after the low. The always candid Mike Golding and highly animated Jean Le Cam will surely be worth a few angry and entertaining videos once they get closed off by a ridge on the back side of the low and watch the lead 5 put another thousand miles on them. Let’s hope that Hugo Boss and Cheminees Poujoulat can stay on the bus this time to close the gap and once again make this a 5-horse race. JP Dick is rejuvenated, his boat is fixed and his dogged determination and courage shows that he will do anything he can to not lose touch with the leaders. He should gain back the 130 miles that he lost ascending his mast once the leaders hit the ridge, again closing the gap to less than 400.

Second pack reforms, this time with Bubi

A couple of days ago it looked like sixth-placed Jean Le Cam was pulling away from Mike Golding with Dominique Wavre off the pace and Javier Sanso a further 500 behind. The “second pack” had fallen apart. My how things change. In just 72 hours the gap has closed to under 300 miles between Le Cam in sixth and Bubi in ninth, once again creating a second pack, but this time with four boats instead of three. The 4-boat group is sailing 1600-1900 miles behind the leaders

Javier “Bubi” Sanso on his new-generation Owen Clarke designed Acciona 100% Ecopowered is capping off an absolutely incredible run from behind, having played catch-up since ascending his mast for repairs in the lee of Tenerife in the Canary Islands early in the race. With a best-in-fleet 420.6 miles sailed on Tuesday, the ninth-placed Spaniard has gained on eighth-placed Swiss sailor Dominique Wavre to the tune of some 700 miles in the past 10 days.

Le Cam, meanwhile had a big scare when his Farr-designed Synerciel sustained what the Frenchman called “the crash of his life”. Strong words from the multi-time Vendée veteran. Sailing in 40-45 knots of breeze, “King Jean” says that Synerciel:

Went down a huge wave and crashed at the bottom. It’s like driving your car full speed and crashing into a huge pile of butter. I hit the rudder jack partition because the navigation table seat where I sat was snatched (broken- Ronnie note)…. This guy is fine, and so is the boat. I didn’t break anything but my knee, hand and back are pretty sore and I hit my head pretty hard. So I went to bed to recover a bit from the shock. I had already experienced crashes, but nothing like that! Seen from the outside, I’m sure the rudder blades were out of the water. I’m glad nothing went all over the place on board, except for me and my seat!

This second pack is about to engage in an epic battle that could rage on for some time. With Le Cam, Golding and Wavre having battled closely since the North Atlantic, even earning the name “the Gun-Slinging Uncles” from the French press, the addition of Bubi should make this battle even more exciting. Sailing a newer, faster boat, expect Bubi (longtime Anarchist and SA fan) to soon displace Dominique Wavre on Mirabaud for eighth place. Mike Golding and Gamesa are closing up on King Jean and Synerciel, and will both be difficult for Bubi to pass. The pack is going to encounter light and unsettled conditions before seeing another depression south of Australia. It’s unclear if this depression will be an obstacle for the four skippers or a fast low that they can all hook into and ride. One thing is for sure, going North will pay. None of the routing shows that sailing south of the East Australia Gate will be an option. I’m thinking that this is going to be an exciting tactical four-way battle that we will all be able to enjoy into the New Year.

Elsewhere in the fleet, positions remain the same with Arnaud Boissieres in 10th, Bertrand de Broc in 11th, Tanguy de Lamotte in 12th and Alessandro di Benedetto bringing up the rear.

-Ronnie Simpson