12 steps

Ronnie Simpson, with thanks to Bruce Schwab and those awesome Energy Systems, brings you this up to date, play by play report from the Vendee. And be sure to read just do it below – a rather different look at the Vendee…

With Bernard Stamm’s re-fueling and subsequent retirement after Cape Horn, this Vendée Globe fleet has now contracted to just 12 boats; 60% of it’s original size of 20. This “dirty dozen” finds themselves well spread out with the top four sailing towards the doldrums off of Brazil, the following five battling north and east of the Falklands, two more making their final approaches to Cape Horn and at the back, Alessandro di Benedetto still sailing towards his final ice gate, the Pacific East gate.

Gabart steadily pulling away from Le Cleac’h to a 200+ mile gap

Having not been separated by more than 100 miles since the second Crozet ice gate in the southern Indian Ocean, Francois Gabart on MACIF is beginning to pull away from Armel Le Cleac;h on Banque Populaire. Opening up his biggest lead of the race, Gabart is steadily pulling away at the rate of close to 3 knots. Sailing side by side and upwind up the Atlantic on a port tack, Gabart flopped over to starboard some 900 miles southeast of Rio de Janeiro. Banque Populaire followed in MACIF’s wake before tacking 50 miles west of where Gabart tacked. At this point Cleac’h was just 80 miles behind, but since then, we’ve seen Gabart sail away from Cleac’h at a frenetic pace, adding more than 130 miles to the deficit, which surely begs the question, “why is he this much faster?”.

Is Armel tired? Is he missing a sail? Is his boat damaged? Or is the additional 50 miles of easting that Gabart made really worth 3 knots? By being further east before tacking to starboard and reaching in the trades, Gabart will spend more time with apparent wind angles of 60-70 whereas Cleac’h and Banque Pop are about 10 degrees harder on the breeze. Is this in itself worth 3 knots? 60-70 AWA is close to the sweet spot for Gabart’s “secret-weapon” blast reacher, although the pair is in significantly less breeze than they were when Francois threw up his incredible 545 mile day using the special sail. Only time will tell what the difference is, but over the last 24 hours Francois Gabart has averaged some 13.3 knots to Cleac’h’ 10.6 knots of boat speed, with the pair sailing in very similar conditions on virtually the same heading.

Or perhaps we’re seeing Francois finally come of age in this, his first Vendée Globe. When sailing down the Atlantic and when approaching the second ice gate, Armel tended to choose the shorter, more direct route which played to his advantage in the past. He was looking like a tactical genius on two separate occasions. Now it is the “Golden Boy” who is playing the part of tactical genius.

Anarchist Estar has run the numbers and predicts “Golden Boy Gabart” to continue pulling away to a lead of more than 18 hours by the time the pair reaches the doldrums, benefitting form slightly more breeze at a better angle. Expect this gap to grow closer to 24 hours.

Alex Thomson’s westerly route up the coast pays in the short-term, opening up an intense battle for third place while the end result is yet to be seen.

The most thrilling battle on the entire race course is that of Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss and Jean-Pierre Dick on Virbac-Paprec 3. The two-time Barcelona World race champion Dick took an easterly route to follow in MACIF and Banque Populaire’s wakes, whereas the Englishman Thomson took a westerly route, sailing up the eastern coast of South America. While Dick was sailing upwind in northerlies, Thomson was benefiting from a low off the coast of Argentina which put his previous-generation Farr design in southerlies, allowing him to make massive gains on both Dick and the leaders. Moving into third place briefly and closing the gap to MACIF to just under 300 miles at one point, Thomson has had to face reality and take a painful hitch east to clear the coastline of Brazil. Nearly becalmed in the middle of a low, Alex is now sailing upwind into northerlies that will turn northeast, effectively a huge header, before veering easterly allowing Thomson to tack over to starboard. Dick, meanwhile, has just reached the beginning of the easterlies and made his tack to starboard, although possibly a bit early. Sailing into the header for several more hours may have paid dividends down the road.

Golding re-engages Jean Le Cam

As if this Vendée Globe wasn’t exciting enough, another battle has re-emerged in this race; this time between Jean Le Cam on Synerciel and Mike Golding on Gamesa. The two previous-generation boats with multi-time Vendée veterans at the helm have been playing a game since the early stages of this race in which they have swapped position repeatedly. First it was Golding leading down the Atlantic. Then Jean Le Cam declared war on Golding and claimed that he “was hunting British”. Hooking onto the backside of a low when entering the Pacific, Le Cam put several hundred miles on a frustrated Golding before the Englishman got serious. Reeling Le Cam in over the past 2,500 or so miles, Golding has now closed the gap to just over 100 miles. Le Cam and Golding both took the Le Maire Strait between continental South America and Staten Island, before splitting the Falkland Islands. Le Cam encountered light breezes sailing west of the Falklands before hitting seaweed on multiple occasions, becoming stuck on his rudders. Recalling memories of Le Cam wrapping a net around his keel when entering the Southern Indian Ocean, “King Jean” blogged “Seaweed can be a real pain, I had one stuck in the rudder yesterday, they’re tricky! They’re sent by the devil, they could almost stop a yacht!” Will we see a split? Will one of these “gun slinging uncles” tack inshore to try to benefit from a coastal low? Or will they stay east to avoid the lows and simply work around the high?

Spanish, French, Swiss menage a trois separated by just 20 miles

Spanish sailor, and long-time Anarchist, Javier “Bubi” Sanso on Acciona 100% Ecopowered has improved from a position of 10th place when approaching the Horn to an incredible 7th place as of this writing. Rounding Cape Horn at the back of a 6-boat pack, he watched Bernard Stamm retire in front of him and then it was Dominique Wavre sailing through the Le Maire Strait and aiming west of the Falklands before encountering northerlies and reaching off to the east. “Bubi” followed closely in Arnaud Boissieres’ and Akena Verandas’ wake, sailing east of Staten Island and the Falklands before pointing his bow north. Accelerating past Boissieres and a briefly-jammed genoa furler and then benefitting from Dominique Wavre’s unsteady course and recent autopilot troubles and Bernard Stamm’s retirement, Bubi has picked up 3 positions in just 3 days. Incredible stuff from the lone Spanish sailor in this race. With Boissieres and Wavre’s issues now sorted, watch for Bubi to continue making gains. Sailing a new-generation Owen-Clarke design that excels to windward, Acciona 100% Ecopowered is looking strong in 7th place, having resolved all of his small lingering problems. Now in a tight 3-way battle, watch for this fight for position to last all the way up the Atlantic.

This epic marathon race around the globe is nearing it’s finish and conclusion. There’s 5 separate battles going on right now. The doldrums are ahead for the leaders, Cape Horn is ahead for the backmarkers and the middle of the fleet will soon conduct battle upwind to the west of an organizing Saint Helena high. Thrilling stuff as we near the end of this race. Stay tuned!

-Ronnie Simpson