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poetic justice?

The latest analysis on the fascinating Vendee Globe race from Ronnie Simpson. Brought to you by Bruce Schwab Energy Systems

Nearly 44 days into this Vendée Globe race and the leaders are still basically tied. This epic, record-smashing singlehanded match race around the world continues into it’s seventh week quickly becoming the stuff of legend. No dramatization in this writing, the two leaders Francois Gabart on MACIF and Armel Le Cleac’h on Banque Populaire continue to swap the lead on an almost daily basis, still separated by just a handful of miles; 7.5 as of this writing. The nearly identical VPLP-Verdier sisterships are consistently posting up duplicate speeds of one another, down to the tenth of a knot. Reviewing the Vendée tracker before writing this article only reinforces the extraordinary nature of this race. South of everything but Antarctica and more than halfway around the world, the guys are literally trading gybes, often in sight of one another, at sustained average speeds in the upper-teens and low-twenties. Solo. Fascinating stuff. Now a quarter of their way across the Pacific Ocean, the two have recently dispatched the New Zealand gate, with Le Cleac’h pinging the gate first and then gybing south, some 70 miles west of where Gabart crossed the gate and gybed. Cleac’h and Gabart now have just two gates (out of 8) left before reaching Cape Horn and beginning their trip home up the North Atlantic.

No close Vendée Globe match race would be complete without some brilliant psychological warfare, this edition being no exception. First, it was JP Dick not reporting that anything was wrong with Virbac-Paprec 3, only reporting the damage after heroically going aloft and fixing the problem. And now it’s 29-year old Vendée rookie Francois Gabart’s turn to play some psychological games as he has done by reporting “Spoon damage” on MACIF. With the rest of the fleet stopping to fix problems, nursing wounded boats around the globe and climbing their own rigs, the race leader is posting before and after pictures of 3 broken “sporks” and then a repaired one, taped together with black electrical tape. The always-smiling Golden Boy added:

“… No kidding I don’t have much else to eat with! I have my fingers but…

Fortunately I fixed it! I hope it will hold!

Have a good weekend

François”

With Gabart smiling, wearing Santa hats, claiming “he’s ready for Christmas” and joking around in videos and interviews, he is simply rubbing salt into the wounds of a battered fleet of pursuers struggling to keep up. Even Armel Le Cleac’h is sounding worn-down and melancholy, with his last Vendée Globe Live TV interview sounding quite brief and dejected, despite him trying to sound upbeat:

“It’s dark night outside. There is some sea. The weather conditions are going to be harder in the hours to come. The depression is coming on us. Christmas is going to be tonic.”

Is Cleac’h tired? Is Gabart really as fresh as he appears? Or are they having the same tough times that their 3 pursuers; Dick, Thomson and Stamm, have had? Are they having as smooth of a race as they show? Only time will tell. Perhaps something, or someone will finally break, but for now the two look set to continue sailing fast on starboard tack, headed straight for the penultimate gate, the West Pacific gate. After slowing in some moderate westerlies, the pair looks set to hook into an east-moving low that will keep them reaching fast in 25-35 southwesterlies. Watch for the leaders to maintain their slightly north of east heading and rhumb-line it the next gate. Again sailing in better conditions than the rest of the fleet, the leaders should continue extending on everyone but possibly Virbac-Paprec 3.

Virbac-Paprec 3 meanwhile continues sailing in third place, sailing a race almost equally incredible to the two leaders. Reaching the New Zealand gate after the leaders, Dick sailed well North of the entire thing, aiming straight for the trough of compressed breeze between a strong developing high east of New Zealand the low that Cleac’h and Gabart are hooking into at the moment. Broad-reaching east northeast in 25-35 knots of northwesterly breeze, Dick threw down a nearly 480 mile day on Saturday to re-claim 120 hard-fought miles from the leaders, bringing the gap down to nearly 500. Maintaining high speeds and again on-pace with the leaders since his up-the-rig heroics, the two-time Barcelona Champ was slightly slower on the last check-in but looks poised to stay in solid breeze in the trough, potentially working his way back up to the leaders when this low dissipates and the leaders hit the next ridge of high pressure. If Virbac-Paprec 3 can stay close to the leaders and catch the next low before MACIF and Banque Populaire, then we could potentially have a 3-horse VPLP match race to Cape Horn. That next low after this one could take all 3 leaders to the Cape.

Thomson maintains while Stamm heads to Auckland Islands for repairs

Now sailing all alone in 4th place since the loss of his Swiss match racing partner Bernard Stamm and Cheminees  Poujoulat, Englishman Alex Thomson is merely trying to maintain his position, still just under 900 miles from the leaders who look poised to extend further as they catch onto this next low. Spending the majority of his past day working on his hydrogenerator like his fallen comrade Stamm, Thomson was expected to reach lighter northerlies this morning that should allow him a productive day of work on repairing his hydros and restoring power to Hugo Boss, the only previous-generation boat in the top 5. Considering the hydrogenerator and rudder tie bar problems that Alex has had to deal with, not to mention a couple of days of major losses after getting dropped off the low a week ago, it’s absolutely incredible that he is where is in the fleet right now, situated just under 894 miles behind the leaders. Facing more unstable weather in the trough between two systems, Alex should shed more miles in the next 3 days, and now has to begin looking behind him. With Stamm stopping in the Aucklands and a hard-charging Jean Le Cam just 840 miles behind, Alex finds himself out of touch with the leaders who have pulled away and now has to nurse his boat back to health and fend off a crazed brit-hunting Frenchman in 3-time Figaro winner and 1-time Vendée Globe runner up Jean Le Cam on Synerciel; a very similar boat to Hugo Boss, with both of them being now 6-year old Farr designs.

Bernard Stamm meanwhile has had to seek shelter in Sandy Bay, south of Enderby Island, located in the northeastern part of the Auckland Islands archipelago. Relegated to stopping as his hydrogenerator has stopped working and his diesel fuel spares are dwindling, the Swiss sailor was surely haunted by the prospect of anchoring out at nearly the same latitude as Kerguelen Island, the sight of his retirement in the previous edition of the Vendée Globe. The memories of encountering rough conditions and being washed aground while trying to anchor are all too fresh in Bernard’s mind, with him reporting to the race committee just before 6 AM this morning that he had broken his engine seal and had to use his motor to reach his anchorage with winds up to 40 knots in the area. In the last Vendée Globe, Marc Guillermot on Safran was allowed to use his engine to anchor in this exact spot in the last Vendée Globe, a race in which he re-started and finished third. Race Director Denis Horeau fully supports Stamm’s actions and is likely to allow Cheminees Poujoulat to re-start after his repairs are completed and all information is submitted to the race committee.

While the close race between Alex Thomson and Bernard Stamm may have come to an end, the poetic nature of this duel will go down in Vendée history. Both men are still trying to finish their first Vendée, now each on their third attempt. Both have long been plagued with hydrogenerator problems amongst a myriad of other issues, and both had been match racing each other, swapping the lead repeatedly and often separated by miles, just like our two leaders Cleac’h and Gabart. Stamm even led the race overall for a while when approaching the Crozet Ice Gate. Bernard plans to also conduct a sail repair, rebuild and repair his central winch-grinding pedestal and repair his broken hydros in 24 to 48 hours and leave before Christmas Day and it
s forecasted challenging conditions and strong northerly breeze.

Le Cam is the man

The King is back. Everyone loves a comeback story and in the next two weeks, “King Jean” will be it. After wrapping a net around his keel in the South Atlantic and battling hard across the Indian Ocean, Le Cam has now managed to drop his longtime rivals Mike Golding and Dominique Wavre behind, sailing his new-to-him chartered Farr designed Synerciel (ex-Gitana Eighty who led the last Vendée early before dismasting a month in with Loick Peyron at the helm). Maintaining a gap of about 840 miles to Hugo Boss, Le Cam and Thomson were both making 16 knots at the last check-in. Thomson was forecast to hit light northerlies, while Le Cam was looking to outrun a brief hole before hooking into a low that will carry him under New Zealand and away from his pursuers. Depending on what this low does and how fast Le Cam can sail, he could likely find himself once again on the same weather system and in the same patterns as Thomson. Watch for the 3-time Figaro winner to pass the parked Cheminees Poujoulat and begin reeling in Hugo Boss. The Brit-hunting Le Cam already took care of Gamesa, finishing him off by sailing away and then adding “I think Mike has a problem with his sails because it’s not possible to sail like he does with the current wind directions.”

A battle of attrition and speed, Jean Le Cam is about to find himself in the top 5 and gaining on fourth place. Amazing stuff from the 53 year old multi-time Vendée veteran who sports the best hair in the Vendée, only rivaled by The Professor himself.

Misery loves company

Gamesa, Mirabaud and Acciona 100% Ecopowered are suffering in the light and moderate breezes in between two highs at the moment with a low building below them. Quickly allowing Jean Le Cam to sail away, the 3 boat race is going quite slowly with Golding and Sanso taking painful gybes south at just 10 knots and 7 knots of boat speed respectively. Dominique Wavre on Mirabaud was making 13 knots at the last check-in, right in between the two, but the forecast is bleak for these three in the middle of the fleet. Currently passing under Tasmania, the trio should continue struggling with light airs before catching breeze on the back of Le Cam’s low, again stalling on the ridge after the low, further losing miles. And then there were three. With 4 boats, it was fun while it lasted, but now it’s back to a three way battle for seventh place with Jean Le Cam being traded for Javier Sanso.

Elsewhere

At the back of the pack, Arnaud Boissieres on Akena Verandas continues to sail by himself in 10th place while Bertrand de Broc and Tanguy de Lamotte both currently negotiate the West Australia gate. The trio is spread out but should soon all be in solid breeze from an east-moving low that should carry them under Australia and to the East Australia gate before stalling out and heading south. Maintaining 13th position is an always-smiling and laughing Alessandro di Benedetto sailing fast in his ancient fixed-keel Team Plastique, averaging more than 16 knots over one four-hour stretch. Alessandro should continue to stay in breeze and make a rapid passage from the Amsterdam gate to the West Australia gate before entering the Pacific Ocean.

-Ronnie Simpson