Freshly shaven wearing an immaculate clean shirt 55 days after starting the Vendée Globe in Les Sables d'Olonne, leader Armel Le Cléac'h shows little emotion as he records a broadcast for a New Year special for French TV. Clearly there is a job still to do, winning the Vendée Globe for the first time, and his unwavering focus, his tunnel vision if you like, is once again evident.
Le Cléac'h is giving nothing away as ever. Indeed, it would not be breaking ranks to reveal the interviewer left the stage shaking his head, bemused that, once again, there was not even the slightest sniff of a ‘scoop'. It was seemingly perfectly scripted for the sailor, who is hard-wired to try and win this race at the third time of asking.
In fact he gives away precious little at all, other than revealing that he, the skipper who has led the solo round the world race since December 3rd and now leads it into the New Year, has also had his problems, his DIY repairs to do. But, he asserts, the boat Banque Populaire VIII, and skipper are at 100 per cent.
The Breton sailor pointed out that he has the advantage, if it might be considered as such, of having duelled up the Atlantic in the last edition. Indeed, he pointed out, four years ago he was about the same distance behind François Gabart as the Briton Alex Thomson is behind him today.
“Four year's ago, off Argentina, Francois had about the same lead that I have, and he managed to keep that up right the way to the finish. Right now, there's only three hours separating me and Alex so I'll hopefully be able to use my experience of that time to push harder and that will be helped by the close contact racing I've had of late. But Alex has that same experience of course so we both know what needs doing.”
Of losing a cushion of more than 800 miles to Thomson, Le Cléac'h explained:
“The last few days have been pretty hard to bear after losing a big lead, that was the fruit of a massive amount of hard work in the Pacific, due to having unfavourable weather.
“Now the zone of high pressure has certainly reshuffled the cards and got things back in some kind of order and logically it has broken Alex Thomson's progress as it was impossible for him to get around it so we've both been slowed a lot.”
“My slight cushion of a lead now will be good, at least for the coming days, as we'll have to tack our way up the coast of Brazil in search of the tradewinds. The situation is certainly better for me now than it was three or four days ago, which I'm happy about.”
“You just have to take the cards you're dealt and make the best of your hand without getting too annoyed. I'm just trying to sail my own race right now. Naturally, I'd have preferred different weather so I could have held onto my lead but that's not the case. I am still in the lead though and that's the most important thing. With this high pressure area the strategy's always hard to decipher as there is variance between the forecasts and what's on the water.”
“We've sorted the bits of damage aboard and now we have to focus on negotiating the numerous tricky sections ahead including the Doldrums.”
The turning of the year has been a time for reflection, a chance to look back and to glance forwards, even if it is only to the next set of weather GRIB files and what they bring.
Irish skipper Enda O'Coineen will hopefully have time to raise a glass and wish his Celtic brethren a huge ‘slainte mahaith' during January 1st in Ireland. Ne'er Day in the south of New Zealand was taken up fully by repairs and recovering from the huge effort and stress of recent days. After sailing 280 miles to the north west of his original track, the skipper of Kilcullen Voyager has completed an exhausting set of repairs to his computers, reset his automatic pilots and secured his mainsail with two reefs and the option to go just a little smaller, before getting back on the racecourse today.
He was due to maximise his rest and recovery time today, looking to replenish his energy after two failed attempts to anchor in Pegasus Bay on Stewart Island to the south of New Zealand, but heads across the Pacific towards Cape Horn in better shape.
Elsewhere, skippers like Eric Bellion have been reflecting on how appreciative they are that their Vendée Globe dream is still alive. The skipper of Commeunseulhomme, leading a quartet of skippers towards the middle of the Pacific in 10th place, said today:
“It is a very strange day. I am in a strange mood. Sometimes you are not happy, you just do your jobs. Today I look back a bit at what I did in 2016 and I say to myself that I worked a lot. I worked like hell in 2016 to be at the start of the Vendée Globe. And from that point of view I am very happy to still be in the race. There are many who aren't. I hope that the first greatest day to come in 2017 will be Cape Horn. It would be a dream. But there is a lot of work to do to get there. I am fully concentrated on what is next. I am totally focused.”
Conrad Colman has now lost two sails, his number two Solent jib torn after being hit by a rogue 50kt gust. He refused to be drawn on the duel, which seems likely to develop between the young Kiwi and his former Barcelona World Race co-skipper Nandor Fa. Colman says, in the meantime, that Fa is ‘the boat in front, but we are both racers and we both want to do the best we can.' But with Fa getting into lighter, high pressure just now Colman is likely to catch a few more miles.
He talked about finding his IMOCA, Galileo, now Foresight Natural Energy, describing the boat which was designed by a South African who is based in Auckland, New Zealand, built in Brazil and which Colman walked past every day near his home in Lorient, quietly recognising the boat which was being used for day charters as a bit of an uncut, unpolished diamond.
“It was built in Brazil and designed by a South African guy called Angelo Lavranos who lives in New Zealand in Auckland, which is my home town. From its birth it has been an international boat as has been my project.” Colman recalled, “Since 2007 it has been in France after it pulled out of the 2008 Vendée Globe with electronic problems, and I have been working day in day out to make sure I have not succumbed to the same fate. And it has been hard with my pilots because I have now done ten Chinese gybes and wrecked two of my key sails as a result. But I have kept the boat in the race.”
He adds: “In 2008 the boat was turned over to a charter company and did lots of day charters in Lorient, my home town, and so I have been walking past this boat every day and really never gave her a second look. Then as the field narrowed in terms of the potential boats for the Vendée Globe I kind of realised there was great boat with really solid foundations right under my nose. And at that point it was the best boat on the market. And I have been really happy with the Galileo. It has a great turn of speed.”