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With the Vendée Globe’s two leaders now back in the Northern Hemisphere and less than 3,000 miles from Les Sables d’Olonne, a slow and problematic entry into the doldrums for Francois Gabart has allowed Armel Le Cleac’h to make massive gains, further opening the door for a thrilling battle all the way to the finish line. Less than 500 miles behind, an inspired Jean-Pierre Dick clings to the prospect of a podium finish having re-gained the miles he lost to Alex Thomson and Hugo Boss as his westerly option up the coast of South America only made for short-term gains. A further 1,000 miles back sees Jean Le Cam and Mike Golding swapping position repeatedly for 5th place while a multi-national trio is now spread out in formation, drag-racing north desperately trying to re-gain touch and make it a 5 way battle for 5th. Another 1,300 miles behind, Tanguy de Lamotte is beginning to attack Bertrand de Broc, with both sailors having recently rounded the infamous Cape Horn. Alone in the Pacific for a few days, the fleet’s backmarker Alessandro di Benedetto on Team Plastique has also now rounded Cape Horn. With close racing, tactical battles and drama unfolding on every part of the race course, it has now become readily apparent that this will not only go down in history as the fastest Vendée Globe in history, but also the most evenly-paired with all boats projected to finish within 3 weeks of one another.

Gabart and Le Cleac’h back at it

With race leader Francois Gabart on MACIF steadily pulling away to a 270-mile lead up the Atlantic, it was beginning to look like he might have this race all wrapped up barring some major routing error or breakage. Banque Pop appeared slower than polars, and many were speculating that Armel might be missing a sail or fixing damage. But with MACIF slowing down to a crawling six-knots when entering the doldrums, Armel Le Cleac’h and Banque Populaire have come storming back, closing the gap to just over 90 miles as the two leaders exit the doldrums. In the same fashion as we’ve seen earlier in the race, Le Cleac’h took a shorter, more direct route upon entering the doldrums than did MACIF. Now having gained back nearly 200 miles, the big question will be how many of these miles can Cleac’h bank before Gabart slips away when he reaches the fresh breeze. Tactically, Gabart definitely covered Cleac’h, with Estar’s numbers showing that both sailors were sailing 20-25 degrees higher (and further east) than the optimal routing suggests. Is the Jackal setting a trap and hoping that the Golden Boy falls into it? Looking at the routing, it definitely does look like Cleac’h has lured Francois to the east, hoping to trap them both in light air for longer and delay, and slow, Francois’ escape after the doldrums. After the doldrums, it will be an upwind to reaching race through a very distorted NE trades and then negotiating a forming Azores High. Take the outside (west) for more breeze or sail a more direct route in less breeze through the edge of the high? With both sailors claiming to be at 100%, this battle for the lead will be a thriller to the finish.

Dick re-passes AT and pulls away

Alex Thomson and Hugo Boss had done so well on their westerly gamble, turning a 400-mile deficit into a 120-mile advantage, but it was all in the short-term. Once JP Dick got to the trades, he put the hammer down on Virbac-Paprec 3, quickly extending out to what has again become a nearly 300-mile advantage. The race is far from over though as AT looks set to benefit from a narrower passage of the doldrums than his rival Jean-Pierre, as well as a more traditional re-entry into the reaching conditions of the NE trades while Dick may struggle for a day upwind after the doldrums in a still abnormally upwind NE trade wind. Expect Alex to make some solid gains in the next 3 days although how much will have to be seen. Every bit of leverage that he can bank over the next 72 hours will be huge when deciding how to negotiate the high. The race for the final podium position is far from over.

Le Cam and Golding battle while 3-boat pack splits. 2 follow Le Cam, 1 follow Golding

Quite possibly the best battle in the entire fleet right now is that for 5th place. Jean Le Cam and Mike Golding have continued their intense battle that has raged since the start. With Le Cam briefly sailing into a light patch, Golding re-passed “King Jean” and showing good humor, questioned the prospect of Le Cam missing a sail. A bit of ribbing by the Englishman towards the notorious joker from Port-La-Foret who had famously poked Golding a couple of times when Golding was slow in the Indian Ocean. With the pair now negotiating a complex Saint Helena High in the South Atlantic, Le Cam has taken a westerly gamble while Golding has chose the more traditional route to the east. Golding and Gamesa will have a shorter route in lighter air, while Le Cam and Synerciel have had to tack to port clear the coast at Rio, before tacking back and having a tighter angle compared to Golding to clear the Brazilian bulge at Recifé. Virtually tied in the rankings, this is a brilliant battle to follow.

Behind them, the trio of Acciona, Mirabaud and Akena Verandas have also split. With all 3 skippers within about 100 miles of one another in the rankings, Javier Sanso and Acciona 100% Ecopowered have chosen to follow Golding to the east, while the Swissman Wavre on Mirabaud and Boissieres on Akena Verandas have followed Le Cam to the west. Many of the sailors in this 5-boat group are complaining of contradictory forecasts, with forecast breeze out of the west and actual breeze out of the northeast. This was clearly evidenced by seeing boats such as Mirabaud pointed directly into the breeze on the tracker, and still doing 10 knots.

Tanguy attacking de Broc after rounding the Horn

After his first rounding of Cape Horn in 30 knots of breeze, Tanguy de Lamotte finally got a chance to rest after a few hectic days upon his approach. A rejuvenated skipper has emerged on Initiatives-couer and is slowly gaining on Bertrand de Broc, now closing the gap to just under 200 miles. De Broc sounds tired in his interviews and has a boat which needs some work, namely repairing his genoa, which he’s sure to need in the battle against de Lamotte in the days and weeks to come. If Tanguy can reel in de Broc, or if another boat breaks, he will be in the top 10 in a 15-year old boat. Tanguy has sailed an incredible race from day one.

Alessandro’s first Cape Horn rounding since doing it in a jury-rigged 6.5 meter Mini

Sorry for that, I just think it’s always relevant to mention the utter badassery that is Alessandro rounding the Cape in a Mini under jury-rig. If there is one true adventurer in this race, it is and has always been Alessandro di Benedetto. Sailing the oldest boat in the fleet, and the only fixed-keel boat at that, Alessandro is dealing with a number of problems at the moment, but compared to what he dealt with in his last Cape Horn rounding, this must be a cake walk for the Franco-Italian adventurer. Click here to read  a great and informative description of Alessandro recovering a gennaker that had blown it’s halyard and gone overboard. The seamanship required by these Vendée Globe skippers is truly extraordinary and Alessandro is a great example of this!

Don’t blink or you’ll miss something in this race. Great battles all over the place. Stay tuned.

-Ronnie Simpson