Sailing their own match race into the open wilds of the Pacific, the leading duo in the Vendée Globe have begun to extend away again. But not from each other. Armel Le Cléac’h (Banque Populaire) said he could see Francois Gabart (MACIF), no more than two miles away they passed the Auckland Islands, on the radar overnight. For his part, Gabart sent home a video trying, but not wholly succeeding, to show Le Cléac’h’s sails in the distance.
The two did not hesitate as they crossed the Campbell Plateau, with the big rough seas caused by the vertiginous shelf on its western boundary. Le Cléac’h spoke of hand steering through an area where the human touch is more responsive than even these modern autopilots.
Le Cléac’h maintained the slenderest of leads – just 2.2 miles – at the 1500hrs UTC ranking. “We could see each other (Gabart) in the fog,” Le Cléac’h said. “I wanted to talk to him on the VHF, it didn’t work,but, no, I’m not mad at him or anything. I’m definitely keeping an eye on him, though.”
Denis Horeau, the race director for four of the seven editions (the first in 1989 and the last three since 2004-05), cannot remember anything like it. “Never,” he says. “There are two reasons, firstly the gates have changed the strategy and the second is that they are very similar sailors in the boats that have both been made by Michael Desjoyeaux (the only two-time winner of the race). They are getting the same weather files and they have the same conditions so it is natural they are in the same place.”
Alex Thomson (Hugo Boss) and Bernard Stamm (Cheminées Poujoulat) have joined the three in front in the Pacific. Thomson had seen his lead cut to three miles after a double northeast. Thomson is slightly slower than Stamm and is looking for an advantage by playing the navigtion card as Stamm continued on the road south east. From the south, Jean-Pierre Dick (Virbac-Paprec 3), has also decided to go north-east to try to catch the tail of the northwest wind that propels the leaders.
If the Indian Ocean is anything to go by the gains the leading duo make here could be significant. Nine days ago, at the first ranking of the morning at 0400hrs UTC of Tuesday, December 11, as they passed through the Amsterdam gate, just 159.6 miles separated Francois Gabart in first and Alex Thomson (Hugo Boss) in fifth. Mike Golding (Gamesa) in sixth was just 653 miles behind.
But as they dived southeast with the northwest winds of a low pressure system, Le Cléac’h and Gabart gradually burnt off the rest who fell out of the back of the fast moving system and then suffered in the transition. Thomson peeled east at the Amsterdam gate with technical problems, Stamm was forced to join him on December 12 and Dick had to head east to the West Australia gate on December 14. By 0400hrs on December 14, Dick was 247 miles behind and Stamm, then in fifth, 525 miles.
Dick had ‘only’ lost 168 miles in 72 hours, Stamm 407. But from there, sailing in different systems, the losses multiplied. 36 hours later at the 1500hrs ranking on Saturday, December 15, Dick was 490 miles behind, Thomson 801, Stamm 859 and Golding, who had dropped to seventh behind Jean Le Cam (SynerCiel), 1672. The losses have stabilised since then, but the damage was done.
Speaking to Vendée Globe TV, Brian Thompson, the record-breaking circumnavigator who was fifth in the last Vendée Globe, said that small boat advantages meant big gains in the south.
“If you can stay ahead of that front you can ride that wave, rather like a surfer, that wave of wind, for hundreds, maybe thousands of miles,” Thompson said. “If you fall off the back of that, say you’re going one knot slower and you fall off the back of that wind, you’re suddenly going to be doing five-six knots slower on the backside of the front.
“So, if you can be fast in those conditions, 25-knot broad reaching, then you can accumulate and compound the advantages that you’ve got over the other people. Those two boats, especially Francois (Gabart) with his 24-hour record shows that when you’re in that northwest wind before a front you can go incredibly fast.”