but it’s a cold heat

Bruce Schwab Energy Systems brings you this Vendee Globe report

Now more than 58 days into this seventh edition of the Vendée Globe race, things are miraculously still continuing to heat up. The thrilling match race at the front continues to rage on with the leaders struggling up the Atlantic, now within 3 days of the southeast trades. Just behind them, an inspired albeit worn down Jean-Pierre Dick had gained literally hundreds of miles on the leaders despite having to climb his mast several times. Dick eventually broke his inner-forestay, forcing him to slow for repairs. Alex Thomson has continued his awe-inspiring race in fourth place, somehow closing the gap to the leaders while simultaneously working on his hydrogenerators and struggling to reach the finish line with his dwindling fuel reserves. Behind the top four, a steady stream of no less than six IMOCA 60’s will be rounding Cape Horn in the next 60 hours. Despite the epic battles taking place all over the course right now, the biggest headline of the past 96 hours is again that of Bernard Stamm. With new evidence opening up the door for his reinstatement after being disqualified, the Swissman tragically hit an unidentified floating object and destroyed his last working hydrogenerator. With no more diesel fuel and no working hydrogenerators, his race is over. He will need to refuel after Cape Horn.

MACIF and Banque Populaire still match racing

The gap may not be in the single digits as it was for much of their month in the south, but Francois Gabart on MACIF and Armel Le Cleac’h on Banque Populaire are still engaged in a close match race as they sail up the Atlantic. Sailing predominantly to windward, the two leaders have been constantly bleeding miles to Jean-Pierre Dick and Alex Thomson behind them, with both skippers surely breathing a collective sigh of relief as Jean-Pierre Dick and Virbac-Paprec 3 slowed behind them for repairs. Sailing a course south and far east of the Falklands, the two leaders split when MACIF opted to go bow down and sail a longer route that would keep him sailing faster in more breeze, while Banque Populaire chose the shorter, more direct route. Recalling memories of the first leg of the race when sailing down the Atlantic, MACIF took the longer, breezier route around a split Saint Helena High, following in Jean-Pierre Dick’s wake while Cleac’h sailed the slower, more direct route. It will be fascinating to watch Cleac’h and Gabart at their next opportunity to split, given their previous routing decisions.

At this point, it’s looking like the major tactical dilemmas are both behind them and in front of them, in regards to the two leaders. Until after the doldrums, expect the pair to remain close. Cleac’h and Banque Populaire have shown a tendency to be slightly higher and faster than MACIF when sailing to weather, so look for Cleac’h to close the gap, currently sitting at 57 miles. Looking back to Vincent Riou and Jean Le Cam’s thrilling drag race up the Atlantic in 2005, which was won by a margin of just 7 hours, this race is looking like it may come down to the wire, barring any breakages. Having said that, with another 80 hours or so of upwind and potentially boat-breaking conditions, any weakness or damage left over from the South may rear it’s ugly head at a most in-opportune time.

An inspired Jean-Pierre Dick charging in third place…. amidst constant repairs, while Alex Thomson continues making gains

There’s been some amazing stories of heroism, courage, inspiration and seamanship in this Vendée Globe, but perhaps no one has shown more fight and heart than two-time Barcelona World Race winner Jean-Pierre Dick, still searching for his first VG podium position. After rounding Cape Horn on the front of a low and sailing just east of the Falklands, the veteran skipper sailed just east of the Falklands, sailing a more direct route than the two leaders. Gaining miles in wholesale fashion, Dick steadily gained on the leaders until he was just 225 behind Gabart and 170 behind Le Cleac’h, respectively.

And then his solent stay (attachment) broke…. Sailing upwind in 30 knots of breeze with 2 reefs in the main and the solent (#3 jib, inner forestay furled headsail on IMOCA 60), the soft dyneema or vectran strop that attaches the bottom of the furler to the deck failed, causing the sail to flop around wildly, but more importantly threatening the structural integrity of the mast. Immediately turning downwind to save his mast, Dick sailed just 137 miles over 24 hours at an average speed of just 5.7 knots. The latest press release on the Vendée site states that Dick has completed the repairs and is now back under way, once again making northing. Purely speculation on my part, but one can only imagine the difficulty in fixing a broken strop that connects the solent stay to the deck. With no luff tension, the solent sail won’t furl. With the bottom of the stay not connected to the deck, it was surely flapping to leeward, making it impossible to lower the sail on deck. Merely retrieving the deployed sail and re-attaching it to the deck must have required a herculean effort from Dick who maintains his third place position in this race.

As if fixing a broken solent stay strop wasn’t enough, it was announced 3 days ago that Jean-Pierre had had his largest masthead gennaker (2,900 square feet…) hoisted and stuck at the top of the rig since December 22. In addition to his first two climbs up the mast that we reported on two weeks ago, Dick has had to climb the mast of Virbac-Paprec 3 five more times on December 25, 26 and January 2, making for a total of SEVEN trips up his mast during this race. Before repairing the problems and dropping the large gennaker, two major problems were presented to Dick: one, the sail presented a major danger even when furled and two, JP couldn’t use any other downwind headsail onboard Virbac-Paprec 3.

Thomson, meanwhile, has remained the greatest benefactor of this current weather scenario, having gained close to 400 miles on the leaders over the past 10 days. Only slowed briefly by light air, Thomson has closed the gap to some 580 miles at the last check-in. Reaching at the top of a low that has come off the coast of Argentina, Thomson is significantly faster than Dick, Gabart and Cleac’h and should remain quicker for some time yet, before negotiating some light-air and then hooking onto the southerlies at the back of another east-moving low. With the top 3 battling headwinds and Thomson hooking into strong tailwinds, Hugo Boss looks poised to continue making gains on the leaders.

Six-boat pack in the middle of the fleet sustains major blow

Sailing in a major Pacific depression with winds of more than 45 knots and violent seas, Jean Le Cam has again declared war. Not on his English competitors, nor the boats behind him, but this time on the ocean itself as he endured his fifth and hopefully final day of the violent and variable breeze. Skippers across this middle section of the fleet have been plagued by unstable breeze quickly rising to 45-50 knots before dropping to 18-25 and then rising again, making it impossible to have the right sail plan up at all times.

Le Cam has completed his final gybe onto starboard last night and should gybe after rounding the Horn to head north. Reaching in westerlies, the beginning of Le Cam’s journey north should be more straightforward than the leaders. Le Cam should pass east of the Falkalnds before sailing North in variable conditions. “King Jean” and Synerciel should be rounding Cape Horn shortly after you read this, surely a relief as he capsized and was rescued by Vincent Riou some 200 miles west of Cape Horn in the previous edition of the Vendée due to keel failure.

Some 300 miles back of Le Cam, Mike Golding and Gamesa are leading a tight 3-boat pack of himself, Dominique Wavre on Mirabaud and Bernard Stamm, whose legendary status is seemingly increasing with the passage of every mile. 200 miles behind that 3-boat pack, Arnaud Boissiers on Akena Verandas and Javier Sanso on Acciona 100% Ecopowered are match racing within sight of one another with Boissieres capturing a photo of Bubi trailing just 2 miles behind.

Stamm to take on diesel fuel after Cape Horn and drop out of race

Poor Bernard Stamm. After being DSQ’ed from this Vendée Globe, the veteran Swiss sailor on Cheminees Poujoulat immediately filed an appeal to the jury to plead his case for reinstatement. Shortly after that, 18 of the other skippers in the fleet got together and signed a petition to show support and also seek Stamm’s reinstatement. Only Francois Gabart did not sign the petition, choosing not to sign a petition which went against the race committee and an international jury. Gabart did however make his own statement in support of Stamm. The day after the petition was signed and forwarded to the race committee, the captain of the Russian research vessel Professor Khromov made a statement to the jury and Stamm’s case was officially re-opened with “significant new evidence”. All signs pointed towards a door being opened that would allow Stamm to be reinstated. With renewed passion and vigor, Stamm began an epic charge through the fleet that saw him consistently posting up the fastest speeds in the entire fleet before making short work of both Akena Verandas and Acciona 100% Ecopowered near the passage of the Pacific East Gate. Sailing 20 miles behind Dominique Wavre and Mirabaud, Stamm looked to move into seventh place and possibly even sixth place as he was reeling in Mike Golding at a ferocious pace.

And then he hit an unidentified floating object and broke his last hydrogenerator.

Bernard Stamm’s race is over. With no functioning hydro’s and no more diesel fuel reserves, Cheminees Poujoulat will have to arrange for a fuel re-supply after his passage of Cape Horn, forcing the stricken Swiss skipper to abandon the race, regardless of whether or not the jury may have reinstated him. With hydrogenerator and battery charging problems since the first week of the race, Stamm’s third attempt to complete the Vendée Globe will end in failure, just like his previous two attempts. With a new Juan K designed boat that has proven itself to be both strong and fast and a supportive long-term sponsor in Cheminees Poujoulat, one can only imagine that Stamm will be on the starting line in the next Vendée Globe. After taking on diesel fuel, Stamm will attempt to sail back to Les Sables d’Olonne, where he is almost guaranteed to be the recipient of a raucous welcoming. Stamm’s international popularity is at an all-time high right now. Sailing with almost no electricity and therefore unable to run his radar, comm gear or receive weather data, fingers are crossed for Bernard’s safe passage of the Cape.

Stay tuned for our next update. Two thrilling battles are shaping up at the front of the fleet while a 5-boat battle (after Stamm drops out) is set to round the Cape. With quick moving lows, it will be fascinating to watch who takes the Le Mare Strait, who sails inside or outside of the Falkalnds and who breaks when the breeze goes forward.

-Ronnie Simpson