nervous time

Ronnie Simpson breaks down the Vendée Globe for you. Thanks to Bruce Schwab Energy Systems for their support.

For the race’s top four boats, this Vendée Globe is well within it’s final week. Considering that the race started more than 73 days ago, a week may seem like nothing, but for Jean-Pierre Dick in third place, it will surely seem like an eternity. The veteran skipper of Virbac-Paprec 3 has lost his keel with just over 2,000 miles left to sail  back to Les Sables d’Olonne. In an interview with Vendée Globe TV, Dick described the situation:

“It happened a little before midnight… There were already noises in the boat, rather strong and quite screeching. I thought it was the sound of keel jack but in fact the head of keel was already damaged. All of a sudden there was a popping noise. Fortunately, I was between the outside and inside, there were several squalls and then there was a new squall happening. The boat was lying on its side in a second I realized that the keel had broken. I was able to quickly get to the mainsail winch to ease the mainsail a little. The boat began to luff and went down quickly on the water. There was certainly a moment of doubt about the boat, luckily it did not flip over. After a few minutes I was able to ease the solent (sail) and furl it. The boat was safe enough to put in more ballast and take a risk and further reduce the canvas.

“It is a shame to lose the keel at this stage of the race. About the outcome, I do not know yet, we’ll see what will happen if I continue running or not. Currently, I am still in the race, I did not give up. The mast is there, as are the sails, the boat floats and I took a little advice from a specialist in the field, called Marco (Guillemot). I called him and he gave me some tips. For now I have a lot of ballast filled in my boat and I think I’m in good conditions. The boat is safe enough not to capsize if there is gust of wind. It is always impressive is true but the boat always moves between 11 and 12 knots. We are going at least to the Azores at first.”

For the moment, Dick is still holding off Alex Thomson for third place, but that is sure to change in the near future. What will he do? Will he sail to the Azores, or will he sail for the finish? My money says he’ll go for the finish. After this Vendée, Jean-Pierre is moving on to sail MOD 70’s. This was supposed to be his swan song on the IMOCA circuit. After breaking his boom and having solar power only for much of the 2004-05 Vendée, he finished sixth. With a new boat for the last edition, he was leading when he hit a UFO and broke his rudders. He DNF’ed.

Now sailing towards a podium finish in this Vendée, the two-time Barcelona World Champ, three-time Transat Jacques Vabre Champ and 2011 Yachtsman of the Year has lost his keel. While the third place finish is very likely out of the picture, I believe that we are all about to witness one of the greatest shorthanded offshore sailors in history pull off an incredibly heroic feat and sail his IMOCA 60 more than 2,000 miles back to Les Sables d’Olonne, France and a 4th place finish. Whether Jean-Pierre sails towards Les Sables and the finish or the Azores, he will face significant weather in the area, with two successive lows, each with 50+ knots in their center delivering westerlies and southwesterlies of up to 40+ knots on his route. The southwesterlies at the front of the two lows are the most vicious, although fortunately Biscay offers some shelter from these conditions. All we can do at this point is watch with bated breath as this talented and resourceful skipper attempts to pull of the incredible.

Other skippers weigh in and offer support

With the failure of Jean-Pierre Dick’s keel, more controversy has been raised about keels, their construction, durability and IMOCA class rules. Mike Golding, Alex Thomson and Jean Le Cam have been the most outspoken thus far. Mike Golding, who became the first Vendée Globe skipper to finish the race while missing his keel in 2004-05 added some valuable insight to what likely occurred:

“I think everyone will be looking down in their keel pits and making sure everything is the way, or at least looks the way it should be. The trouble with these fabricated steel failures is there is pretty much no warning, you don’t really see anything, you don’t hear anything, you don’t feel anything, and then right at the end it tends to fail, it tends to release, it bends massively before it breaks. Probably Jean-Pierre mentioned in his report he felt a gust of wind and he went out and checked the sails, the reality is I recall exactly the same experience, in hindsight I don’t think the wind increased at all, there was no gust, the keel was bending and then the bang is when it finally releases. So what happened to JP [Jean-Pierre] sounds extremely similar to what happened to me, I ended up quite confused about why the boat was heeling so much when the keel was seemingly in the right position.”

Alex Thomson, JP’s closest pursuer in the race added: When I joined the class in 2003, I was a little surprised that I had to change the keel on my first boat because it had exceeded its mileage of 80,000 miles. Since then people have been building keels that last only one round the world race to save a few kilos of weight. I came from the world that a keel lasted for the life of the boat and that is where we need to get to. In 2009 IMOCA brought in some regulations to make keels safer but it obviously has not been enough…… Enough is enough, the keels need to be made of solid steel and last the life of the boat, before someone gets hurt.”

Battle at the front getting closer… and farther apart.

Recalling memories of the recent crossing of the doldrums, a desperate Armel Le Cleac’h has gone on the offensive and stolen more miles from race leader Francois Gabart, who was slowed by lighter breeze upon his entrance to the Azores High. With Francois’ lead deteriorating to just 85 miles last night, it is currently hovering right around 100, with both skippers averaging around 11 knots at the last check-in. As the circulation of breeze around the Azores High becomes disrupted by a north-east traveling low, Le Cleac’h now looks like he’ll get trapped in the ridge before the low, further delaying his finish. Estar has run the numbers and a predicted gap of just a few hours at the finish has now grown to a predicted gap of 12 hours. For Gabart, the routing looks fairly straightforward; running in westerlies, and then seeing a clocking breeze from south to northwest as he reaches and runs across the Bay of Biscay. Neither of the two leaders should see breeze forward of the beam for the rest of the race.

Thomson still battling Dick, while the war between Le Cam and Golding continues

Jean-Pierre Dick’s keel fell off, so surely Alex Thomson will finish third place, right? Not necessarily. With breeze aft of the beam until the finish, and Jean-Pierre Dick still in the race and sailing far faster than many would have guessed with no keel, Alex Thomson can’t take his foot out of the throttle just quite yet, although he should be able to absolutely send it from the Azores to Cape Finisterre. Estar’s routing numbers based on revised polars for Dick’s wounded boat suggest AT and Hugo Boss to finish just 3 hours ahead of JP Dick and Virbac-Paprec 3, although I expect this number to grow as JP goes into survival mode and AT goes into “send-it” mode.

Like all great Vendée battles, Jean Le Cam and Mike Golding made a great split and have now come right back together, virtually tied while racing up the coast of Brazil. With Golding sailing a traditional route through the Saint Helena High and Le Cam banging the coast of Brazil near Rio, the pair gained 600 miles of east-west separation before being re-united. Their thrilling battle continues with the pair reaching towards the doldrums in a weak Southeast Tradewind belt, making just 10 and 9 knots respectively. Behind them, the three-way battle of Dominique Wavre (Mirabaud), Javier Sanso (Acciona 100% Ecopowered) and Arnaud Boissieres (Akena Verandas) rages on with the skippers battling themselves and light-air with all three making just 6 to 12 knots at the last check-in’s. Also slowed by a large high and weakened southeast trades, the trio is constantly shedding miles to Tanguy de Lamotte and Bertrand de Broc who are the two fastest sailors in the fleet right now, making between 14 and 16 knots. The benefactors of the most predictable and “normal” ascent up the Atlantic thus far, both sailors have had the luxury of rounding Cape Horn, pointing their bows north and riding consistent breeze aft of the beam. That’s all about to stop however as both sailors are predicted to fall into the same light-air scenario as the three boats in front of them.

Alessandro’s struggles and broken rib

Alessandro di Benedetto continues to smile and laugh in the face of adversity; this time with a broken rib and now missing his small spinnaker, which has washed overboard in the incident, which occurred early on Monday morning. From Alessandro: “About one hour ago at 3AM, I was trying to rest when the boat lay down in a sudden on the port side (I think it’s because of a wave). I was under solent with two reefs in the mainsail. I went out to put everything back together. I was putting down the port rudder when another wave smashed on the boat and made the mainsail go on the starboard side. I caught the mainsail sheet on the right side of my face and I fell on the left side of my chest.”

Before the injury, Alessandro had been up his mast twice for repairs and hadn’t slept in 48 hours. Dealing with intense fatigue, pain during maneuvers and a severe lack of downwind headsail options, Alessandro’s performance is becoming the stuff of legend as he was back up to 16 knots at the last check-in in his ancient 16-year old fixed keel boat.

Will Gabart hold on to win the race? Will JP Dick attempt to sail 2,000 miles to the finish with no keel? Who will break next? Stay tuned for all these answers and more as the Vendée Globe reaches it’s thrilling conclusion.

-Ronnie Simpson