For the Vendée Globe leaders, this eighth edition of the solo round the world race is increasingly feeling like a game of two very distinct, contrasting halves.
From the start on Sunday 6th November in Les Sables d'Olonne the pace was fast and furious, smashing records at each key point to Cape Leeuwin and into the Pacific Ocean. Even when Armel Le Cléac'h (Banque Populaire VIII) rounded Cape Horn on 23rd December, the French skipper had an advance of five days, five hours and 38 minutes on the existing record to the legendary cape, set on January 1st 2009 by François Gabart. But a complicated and slow climb up the South Atlantic for the leading duo, Le Cléac'h and British skipper Alex Thomson (Hugo Boss) – who this afternoon is 246 miles behind his French rival – has seen their margin against the record melt away like snow in the sun. By comparison, in January 2013 Le Cléac'h and leader Gabart had a relatively straightforward ascent of the Atlantic, pushing each other hard to the line.
As it stands this Wednesday afternoon the leaders are now only about 1150 miles or about three ‘normal' days ahead of the existing record. And, ahead of them, though the next two and a half to three days to the Equator should see a small acceleration in ‘foiling' conditions – 15-17kts E'ly then SE'ly tradewinds, the Doldrums look wide and active and the passage to the Canaries – at this time – is predicted to be atypical. Once out of the Doldrums the NE'ly trades do not look to be too reliable at the moment. And so any Christmas time great expectations that Gabart's record would be blown apart by days now seem a little more fanciful.
Over the last two days, pre-race favourites, Jérémie Beyou and Yann Eliès, have sounded increasingly content with their position in the race. Both are ultra competitive, three times winners of La Solitaire du Figaro and for sure harboured aspirations of winning. But as they, too, sail northwards up the Atlantic, Beyou in third and Eliès in fifth, it is immediately apparent that they are now much more comfortable in their own minds with their positions in the fleet. In third, Beyou has been fortunate to slash more than 400 miles from his deficit to Alex Thomson and yesterday sounded almost light hearted, a notable evolution for a skipper who has had some dark days, struggling with technical problems.
Today it was Eliès's turn to relish his northwards passage and his emerging intact from the Big South and in fighting form. For all that he might have hoped to beat veteran Jean Le Cam, 57, who is 13 miles behind him in sixth and who he has raced closely with since they entered the Pacific and to have outwitted Jean-Pierre Dick who is 59 miles ahead. Eliès is now 75 per cent of the way through his second attempt at the Vendée Globe. Eliès's first shower in one month, in South Atlantic water of 12-13 deg Celsius, not only was about getting clean, but was as much about resetting his mind, purging expectations and re-focusing on the business of beating his two nearest rivals who between them have six Vendée Globe finishes to their credit. “I am in good company. They are stars of the Vendée Globe. I don't think I'll be able to catch Jean-Pierre (Dick). It's nice to be having this close contest. The other two are exceptional sailors. I'd like to be in front of them, but it's not that easy as they are sailing so well,” said Eliès today, saying that he has read many books so far on his two Kindles, his way of switching off from the stress and noise.
Conrad Colman has tacked back towards the east late afternoon Wednesday and so is believed to have completed enough of his repairs to gradually power up his Foresight Natural Energy after struggling for more than 48 hours since losing the pin which secures his primary forestay, in a major storm during January 1st and 2nd. The Kiwi skipper had less than ten knots when he set his course back towards Cape Horn which is 1300 miles away for him, and he looks set to have light conditions for some hours to come.
EXTRACTS FROM TODAY'S RADIO SESSIONS
Yann Eliès, Quéguiner- Leucémie Espoir:
“It's a bit like a battlefield out here with boat-breaking conditions in thirty knots of wind. There should be 4 or 5 more hours like this before it eases off. We're beginning to feel stressed about the gear. There are huge strains on everything. If I was all alone, I would take it a bit easier. Those with me seem to be pushing even harder. It's like summer here after being down at 58°S five days ago. I managed to take a shower even if it was saltwater and cold. It's something I haven't been able to do since the Cape of Good Hope. We're now on a long stretch on the port tack. You have to be patient in these conditions. It's time to start thinking about the finish in Les Sables d'Olonne even if it's a long way away."
Eric Bellion, CommeUnSeulHomme:
“I spent two days reaching in the low getting shaken around. I'm soaked but I'm happy as I'm making headway. We're trying to keep up with the front. The past two days were the ones where the boat got the worst battering. I think the others suffered more than me, as they were further south. I'm not the same person as when we set sail. There has been a change. I think the deep low was the turning point. I'm more relaxed and am sailing. It doesn't mean I have fewer problems, but it is more fun. I know my boat much better. We talk things over the two of us. It's really a pleasure to be out here. Even I feel at home here, I still want to get back to land. I have an extraordinary boat and she is in good condition. And I'm in good health.”
Jean le Cam, Finistère Mer Vent:
"We're still slamming in this low, but it should ease off this evening. There will be an area of light winds to deal with and then we'll be on the starboard tack to the Doldrums. I have been with Yann (Eliès) for quite some time. When you have a ridge of high pressure like that it's hard to know what is happening, as the forecasts aren't very accurate. It's in light winds that there is the greatest uncertainty. From the Cape of Good Hope to where I am now, I have regained 700 miles from the leaders. I'm an expert at repairing things. I gybed. I heard clac clac and the damage was done. I went to bed as it was dark. I spent the night with the mainsail damaged. I woke up and set about sorting that out. I started at 9 and finished at 6 in the evening. In the end I didn't lose that much, but it was a tiring day. I had the mainsail down on the deck. I thought I had sailed about a hundred miles, but it was only 35.”
Rich Wilson (USA) Great American IV:
“We took a little bit of a beating the other night in the front when a couple of tack-gybes did not go so well. There was lots of wind and 15-18 foot seas and the wind changed direction. The boat got beat up, I got beat up. It was pretty scary. It was very tiring. It took about a day to recover. We have come north to position ourselves for the next depression which is bigger but I think we are better positioned.”