gabba gabba hey!

Ronnie Simpson brings you up to speed on the Vendee Globe, brought to you by Bruce Schwab Energy Systems

Now nearly 50 days into this seventh edition of the Vendée Globe, the two race leaders  Francois Gabart on MACIF and Le Cleac’h on Banque Populaire remain locked into their intense match race that has been raging for several weeks. Two days ago when confronted with a transition zone of light, disturbed and variable breeze, the pair had an opportunity to split up. Taking a northerly route would have entailed sailing more miles, in more predicted breeze, while the southerly option was more direct but with a forecast for lighter breeze. With both options being a bit of a gamble, many watched for the split, but that wasn’t the case as the pair continues to sail side by side, separated by just over a mile as of this writing.

Every day that these two leaders stay together, it begins to look more and more like this race might remain close until the finish. After the transition zone, MACIF and Banque Pop should ride the same low to Cape Horn and round within minutes of each other. With a significant amount of upwind sailing between Cape Horn and France, it could be an upwind drag race to the equator. If the pair can emerge from the doldrums together, it looks like it may be game on up to Biscay. This is absolutely fascinating stuff and every day that it continues, a new record is set. No two boats, solo or crewed, have ever raced each other so close for so long. This is bordering on ridiculous. The pair is often well in sight of each other and have been for the majority of this race, now quickly approaching it’s final third.

Two of the world’s best sailors are sailing on equally fast designs utilizing similar meteorological data and routing software. Neither one has made a slip up and both boats have proven to be well built and thoroughly prepared. We are all witnesses to history here as the bar is being collectively raised. 80 days is under attack and the Vendée is no longer a marathon race. It is now a sprint around the world, non-stop, throwing down 500 mile days at will. Less than 20 years ago, a fully-crewed 86-foot maxi-catamaran (Commodore Explorer, skippered by Bruno Peyron) became the first to eclipse the mythical 80-day mark. And now a pair of singlehanded monohulls may go as fast or faster than Bruno and Co. Simply fascinating

Virbac-Paprec 3 and Hugo Boss gaining on leaders

While Francois Gabart and Armel Le Cleac’h may be sailing an unbelievable race at the front of the pack, let’s not forget that they are not pulling away from Jean-Pierre Dick on Virbac-Paprec 3 and Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss. In fact, it’s quite the opposite right now. At the last check in, Jean-Pierre Dick was gaining on the two leaders at a rate of some six knots, having closed the deficit to less than 390 miles, the smallest gap since the West Australia Gate some 4,400 nautical miles ago. Riding 25 knot northwesterlies at the top of a fast-moving low, Dick has managed to gain back close to 300 miles in the past 48 hours as the two leaders have been stuck in the light-air transition zone between two systems. Closing the gap, Dick could manage to further re-gain touch with the leaders by Cape Horn.

Likewise, Alex Thomson is in the same pressure, allowing him to also gain on the leaders. At 830 some miles back from the leaders and closing, Thomson has gained back everything that he had lost since the New Zealand Gate. Still plagued by hydrogenerator problems and looking for a place to fix them, Thomson is desperately needing the entire fleet to get trapped in light air so that he has an opportunity to work on his hydrogenerators without shedding hundreds of miles to the leaders. Using valuable fuel reserves to charge his batteries without full function of his hydro, it definitely begs the question of how long Alex’s fuel reserves will hold out or if he’ll be relegated to the same type of situation as Bernard Stamm, having to seek shelter to effect repairs to the damaged charging system.

What’s up next for the top 4

Predicting what will happen to the top 4 boats in this race is difficult at the moment, especially with Cape Horn in the near future. It looks as though Jean-Pierre Dick will continue gaining on Gabart and Le Cleac’h but the question is by how much. With a low spinning up off of Argentina and moving east, the two leaders could hook into southerly to southwesterly breeze that could slingshot them north after the Horn, leaving JP floundering in their wakes. If Cleac’h and Gabart don’t round the Cape in time, they could miss the low which would allow Dick to stay in touch and avoid losing miles after Cape Horn.

Even reaching Cape Horn is a bit difficult to predict as this current low that is allowing Dick to gain on Cleac’h and Gabart is already a bit softer and less organized than originally predicted. If this thing stalls or continues to fall apart, then Dick could continue making gains right up until the Cape, at which point, he could be just hours behind effectively making this a 3-boat race. One forecast shows light air across the board for the leading boats approaching Cape Horn while another forecast shows a band of pressure conveniently appearing from the East Pacific Gate to the Cape, allowing for a quick and hopefully painless rounding of the Cape. Alex Thomson on the other hand, looks to be the biggest benefactor of this current system, which could allow him to continue gaining on the leaders and even on Jean-Pierre Dick as the top 4 approach Cape Horn.

Le Cam back up to speed as “second pack” tries to reform

In our last update, Jean Le Cam looked poised to gain miles on Alex Thomson, where in reality just the opposite happened. Le Cam, who was hooking into a low moving south of New Zealand was fast for a while but stalled in the transition zone after the low dissipated. Allowing his 3 pursuers to close up rapidly and watching Alex Thomson hook into the same low as JP Dick and sail away, “King Jean” still finds himself all alone in 5th place. Synerciel has lost a further 150 miles to Hugo Boss, bringing the deficit to about a thousand miles, while Gamesa and Mirabaud are charging up from behind, some 400 miles back. Expect Le Cam to remain par for the course with both Thomson ahead and his pursuers behind over the following days.

Bubi goes aloft for mainsail headboard car repairs… again

While some boats in the fleet have dealt with recurring hydrogenerator problems throughout this race, Spain’s Javier Sanso on Acciona 100% Ecopowered has now had to climb his own mast, twice, to repair his mainsail headboard car. Stuck with 1 reef in his mainsail for nearly two days, Bubi sent himself aloft under sail this time, having anchored in the lee of Tenerife in the Canary Islands some 6 weeks ago during his first repair.

Heroic stuff from the long-time Anarchist and 8th place sailor in this race. Seemingly playing catch up during this entire race, one can only hope that Sanso and Acciona 100% Ecopowered can re-gain touch with Mirabaud, Gamesa and the rest after Cape Horn and truly show off the potential of his new Owen-Clarke design. With a boat that excels to windward, Bubi will certainly be one to watch in the predominantly upwind conditions that the fleet will likely encounter on their way from Cape Horn back to France.

Stamm’s situation improves…. and deteriorates

The good news is that after leaving his anchorage in Sandy Bay in the Auckland Islands and sailing to New Zealand’s South Island, Bernard Stamm has reportedly repaired both of his hydrogenerators and rejoined the race. The bad news is that he received assistance from a Russian research vessel when his anchor began dragging in seaweed during rough weather at anchor in Sandy Bay. As a result, the Swiss skipper of Cheminees Poujoulat has been protested by the race committee.

The problem with Stamm’s hydros occurred due to their mounting and deployment method, as stated by Bernard in a Vendée Globe Live TV interview:

At the start in Les Sables d’Olonne, the hydrogenerators were mounted on little trucks on a track to raise and lower them out of the water. And we supported them with chainplates. Off Portugal one of the chainplates was damaged and so broke the track. And then the second also broke. We tried to remove the U-bolts and fix them firmly with lashings…. the hydros were still too loose. There was some cavitation – air being drawn in and preventing the propellors working right. The only alternative was cutting the transom.”

Encountering rainy conditions, it was difficult for Stamm to sand and prep the areas to be worked on, as well as for him to get the epoxy resins to set properly, making for a strong repair. With only a very limited amount of supplies onboard, Stamm was delayed further and further by the conditions causing the planned 1-2 day repair job to turn into a 5 day repair, including the detour to New Zealand’s South Island.

Perhaps the most meaningful element of this story is that Stamm has received outside assistance and been protested by the race committee. As reported by race director Denis Horeau on Vendée Globe Live, Stamm’s anchor was slipping in seaweed when he contacted the crew of the Russian research vessel Professor Khromov via VHF radio. The crew “responded positively” and came over to Cheminees Poujoulat and helped Stamm to retrieve his slipping anchor before attaching it to Professor Khromov, allowing Stamm to remain safely moored in Sandy Bay. Under race rules, competitors are allowed to anchor by themselves or pick up a mooring, however outside assistance is expressly prohibited. An international jury of 5 will decide Bernard’s fate once all of the facts have been compiled. Will Stamm’s “exceptional honesty” be rewarded in reporting the case to the race committee, resulting in either no penalty or a time penalty? Or will Stamm be disqualified? When breaking his engine seal upon his arrival and anchorage in Sandy Bay, Stamm was likely to be given permission to do so based on “extreme circumstances” that helped ensure his (and his boat’s) safety.

Either way, after a slipping anchor forced his last Cheminees Poujoulat aground in the Kerguelen Islands in 2008, which resulted in his retirement from the Vendée Globe, this is surely like a bad nightmare for the Swissman who is still trying to finish his first Vendée Globe, now on his third attempt. The story lines that have developed during this race are the kind of stuff that not even a Hollywood script writer could imagine. First it was Marc Guillermot losing a keel…. again. Then it was Kito de Pavant retiring on Day 2…. again. Then it was Louis Burton striking a fishing vessel… again. (last Route du Rhum in a Class 40…) Then it was Vincent Riou and PRB damaging an outrigger and retiring…. again. And now it’s Bernard Stamm (possibly) being forced to retire from the Vendée due to a dragging anchor….. again. Absolutely fascinating story lines developing in this seventh edition of the race.

Stamm has now re-started from New Zealand and was making 14 knots at the last check-in. If he is allowed to stay in the race, he will surely be one to watch. He’s got 4 boats just ahead in Akena Verandas, Acciona 100% Ecopowered, Mirabaud and Gamesa. With a new-generation Juan K design that has proven itself to be on pace with the leaders and absolutely romp to windward and in close reaching conditions, Stamm could make huge gains across the Pacific and up the Atlantic in his bid to still claim a top 5 finish.

An excellent explanation of Bernard Stamm’s rules infraction and subsequent RC protest available here.  Thanks to Anarchist “popo” for the translation (make sure “transcript” is enabled in you tube)

Di Benedetto loving it at the back of the pack

Team Plastique skipper Alessandro di Benedetto may be at the back of the pack, but he is absolutely loving the adventure that his fixed-keel Finot designed Open 60 is giving him. Just crossing Cape Leeuwin, Australia a day ago, he has gybed south into more breeze after the West Australia Gate and is now heading ENE towards the East Australia Gate. If you want to see what a truly happy sailor looks like when passing Cape Leeuwin, click here  (go to 58 seconds to see AdB)

Our next update should coincide with the leaders rounding Cape Horn! Stay tuned! -Ronnie Simpson.

Title inspiration with apologies to The Ramones.