With just a few hours to go before he changes from one ocean to another, Alex Thomson is still in control heading down the final part of the Atlantic. Around a hundred miles from Cape Agulhas, the British skipper does not appear handicapped by his damaged starboard foil and is maintaining his lead over Armel Le Cléac’h and Sébastien Josse. Behind, we are looking at gaps of days, even if the wind is arriving from there as an Argentinean low moves in.
The leaders are heading east approaching the entrance to the Indian Ocean with the pack mainly heading SE, and the two tail-enders heading south after crossing into the Southern Hemisphere (Didac Costa crossed the Equator in the middle of the night after 17d 12h 13’) while Tanguy de Lamotte (Initiatives-Cœur), continues his voyage northwards 600 miles from Les Sables d’Olonne, which he should reach on Sunday…
Turn, turn, turn
After eighteen days of sailing, the 26 skippers still in the race are now all in the Southern Hemisphere meaning that the Coriolis Effect, which in the North moves things to the right, while in the South to the left. It is this force that is behind the wind movements around lows and highs. In the North winds blow anti-clockwise around the lows, while in the South they circulate in a clockwise direction.
The lows developing off Argentina offer the Vendée Globe skippers a northerly wind on their northern edge, which gradually backs NW’ly and then suddenly westerly with the associated cold front. That is what happened to Alex Thomson (Hugo Boss) on Thursday morning. The front which carried him from Brazil to South Africa has now dissolved into the Furious Fifties and the leader is today sailing along the southern edge of the St. Helena high. As a consequence, the wind has gone westerly and eased to around fifteen knots, meaning that the British skipper has come around to 80° to keep up his speed. The two boats chasing him, Armel Le Cléac’h (Banque Populaire VIII) 110 miles back and Sébastien Josse (Edmond de Rothschild) 220 miles back are in the same situation.
Small gains and losses
Behind this group of three, the weather pattern is not the same for the next group of boats, who are benefiting from a 15-knot NW’ly allowing them to head down towards the Antarctic exclusion zone a long way south of the Cape of Good Hope. Logically, Morgan Lagravière (Safran), Paul Meilhat (SMA) and Jérémie Beyou (Maître CoQ) should gain a few dozen miles from the frontrunners in the coming hours. That is less the case for Yann Eliès (Quéguiner-Leucémie Espoir) who is going to have to wait until the weekend for another Argentinean low to move the high that is developing off Port-Elizabeth.
The British skipper is now only a hundred miles from the Indian Ocean, so it will be in the middle of the afternoon that he passes the longitude of Cape Agulhas (34°50’S – 20°E), or in other words 18 days and just under six hours after the starting gun was fired in Les Sables d’Olonne. We can compare this time to Armel Le Cléac’h’s reference time in 2012 (22d 23h 46’), when he had a lead of four hours over Jean-Pierre Dick and François Gabart… This time the leader (Thomson) should be around six hours ahead of his nearest rival and almost a day ahead of the third boat, and almost three days ahead of Yann Eliès.
Less favourable for the leaders this weekend
However, what lies ahead looks less favourable for the frontrunners, who won’t be able to catch the low coming out of the heat of Mozambique and will find themselves struggling in very variable winds throughout the weekend. Things will only start to clear between South Africa and the islands in the Southern Ocean on Sunday afternoon… A welcome break to carry out a thorough check-up of the boats, which have been through some rough weather over the past four days. This slowdown should please the three boats further back. Late this morning, a new low should offer a NW’ly wind to Jean Le Cam (Finistère Mer Vent), who sailed close to Jean-Pierre Dick (StMichel-Virbac) during the night and Thomas Ruyant (Le Souffle du Nord pour le projet Imagine). The three skippers will be able to sail along at high speeds towards the Roaring Forties and that is set to continue for at least a week.
Even if he is 600 miles back from this trio, Kito de Pavant (Bastide Otio) should accelerate. Already south ofteh Tropic of Capricorn, the sailor from the South of France is reaping the benefits of his Brazilian option and should see speeds increase this afternoon. That will not be the case though for the bulk of the pack, still struggling in the ridge of high pressure. Louis Burton (Bureau Vallée) was in front of this group of ten solo skippers, but the Argentinean express train is running late and on a more southerly track. What can they do to catch the train, which is now 300 miles ahead of them? If they miss this high speed link, there are no other trains scheduled this weekend. An area of high pressure developing in the Bay of Rio de Janeiro is replacing the St. Helena high, which is being squeezed by the Argentinean low.
The coming days are not looking good for the pack, which may get blocked in the middle of the South Atlantic by a huge area of calms or even face head winds, while the two tail-enders will have a chance to go right around this area. After a tricky period off Brazil, Sébastien Destremau (TechnoFirst-faceOcean) and Didac Costa (One Planet-One Ocean) may catch the easterly trade winds near Cape Frio and hop onto the next train to Cape Agulhas…
Dominic Bourgeois / M&M
Enda O’Coineen (Kilcullen Voyager Team Ireland): “We’re going directly south as much as possible so we can get to the low pressure that will carry us to the Southern Ocean, hopefully. I’ve got 15-16 knots of wind, and we’re doing around 13 knots of boat speed with the asymmetric spinnaker up, so all great. I’m looking to try to catch Sébastian [Destremau] who’s been ahead of me a while. In one sense the race is incidental but in another sense you can’t help but race. I’ll have to hold myself back when we get some decent conditions. I’m doing a lot of in-depth thinking and it’s a bit of a retreat. I’m conscious of my position but not analytical about it. I try to do the best for the boat and the team, and after that I’m just sailing the planet. I’ve spent too long in damp clothes and after about a week of that I wasn’t that conscious of it, but then my bottom got quite sore. I then became more conscious of it and I raided the first aid kit and got some ointments and some treatments. I also delved into my goody-bag of dry clothes and just dried off a bit. After 24-36 hours it was easier to sit and it got more comfortable. These are things you take for granted and you have to watch out for that sort of thing otherwise it can get quite out of hand. But I think that’s a first world problem! In the context of humanity it’s not a problem.”
“I’ve got imagery down below. Right up forward I have deep forests but in the main part of the boat I have a scene of a street in Galway. It’s Quay Street, where my family used to have a pub years ago. It’s a streetscape with all the different pubs, and a lot of people in the photo. It’s connecting me with people. Previously it was just carbon and kevlar so I tried to put a bit of personality into the boat. I’m not that sentimental, I’m a big boy and capable of being away from home. It’s just a connection with humanity. We all need each other as people, and it’s a bit artificial to be so isolated. Society functions as a society not just a bunch of individuals. That’s why this race is actually a contradiction – on the one hand you have the skippers out here alone but on the other hand you have large teams supporting them. The picture is a good mental stimulant, otherwise you’d go brain dead.”