His ruse soon became apparent though when he spoke of snow and hail sticking to his sails. Sneaking up on our fleet from the north-west, a rather feisty, fast-moving depression has been steamrolling its way over the back of the fleet over the past few days, stirring up the seas and winds, and even overtaking Mike GOLDING (Ecover) and Sébastien JOSSE (VMI). To the south of it in a zone of transition, Roland JOURDAIN (Sill et Véolia) is making headway in west south-westerly winds. Behind him Golding and Josse are in mid-depression in the tailing system with bitterly cold easterly winds and a terrible sea state, the duo looking to have escaped the trough between the two systems now, set for downwind. Behind them, in the wake of this same depression the atmosphere is one of calm for Virbac-Paprec and Temenos, as well as Skandia slightly further north, the group still unable to make the desired southerly towards the first southern ocean gateway under South Africa, their system not belonging to that of the southern ocean. Further back still, the unfortunate Dinelli, Liardet, Parnaudeau and Leibovici are set to lose their gains on the bulk of the fleet, with some rather difficult conditions on the horizon. To resume, the rich will once again get richer and the poor poorer, as is the nature of this race, with some rather nice, bright conditions in prospect for the lead duo as they sail across 5000 m depths that are deeper than the height of Mont Blanc and hot and cold currents creating a vast contrast in temperature.
'The seas are fabulous and the light is really pretty special here', said Jean today. 'It's so cold that this morning I couldn't get my fingers to press the button on my autopilot. Thankfully friends suggested that I bring some big rubber gloves like they use in the fish markets to get the fish out of the ice and they're coming in really handy. It doesn't look like there's much sleep on the programme with 'Vincent the Terrible' keeping on the pressure but I'm happy to have held him off until now. You have to really be reactive in these conditions and there just isn't the time to eat and sleep at the moment.'
Leader Vincent RIOU was also racing in rather uncomfortable conditions but managed to joke that 'Jean shouldn't be losing sleep over me at this stage!' On a more serious note, he said of his surprising earlier gybe north a few days ago 'I messed up the passage a little but you can't win them all. It's grey outside and the visibility is grey with the outside temperature at 0 degrees. I've been upwind since this morning with rain and hail in 6/7 degree seas. I didn't do very well at the end of the night as I fell asleep and lost some valuable miles in my southerly. I'm not too worried about the future though as the seas look set to be easier as we head east.' He did have a small issue linked with the mainsail traveller and a batten earlier on but it has since been fixed and he is making 5 more knots than Jean at 15.4.
In a transition zone behind the lead duo Jourdain, Josse and Golding are still making fairly good speeds, aware of the dangers of doing just that. 'It's a part of the game when you do these long races. You're constantly teetering on the brink of having to pull out. Yesterday I was going upwind in 40 knots of breeze. It doesn't take much to drop the rig, or blow the main out, or any one of a number of things that could finish your race. It's par for the course. But the reality is that it's been a fairly easy run, and now we're down in the south things are going to start breaking. It's a difficult situation when you're behind, you're forced to push a little harder, with all the risks that that entails. As I'm sitting here now, something could go twang and that would be the end of it. You don't live in constant fear of it but you're constantly aware of it.'
Compatriot Conrad HUMPHREYS (Hellomoto) has taken a real tumble from just such a situation. 'It's very grey and very bumpy with lots of waves. I have 25 knots of wind and it's not very nice outside. When my gennaker snapped yesterday I almost lost my Code 5 when it fell in the water but thankfully that particular trauma is now over by some miracle, even though I nearly fell into the water twice. I had been at the point of cutting it away, even though it will be a hugely important sail for the big south, but then suddenly it drifted out from under the boat and billowed up onto deck! When the gennaker halyard went again for the second time yesterday I think I was pushing the boat too hard. I took the decision to reef in and the top mainsail batten caught behind the intermediate cap shroud which then chafed. I spent 10 hours repairing the ripped batten cover.'
Reactivity seems to be the key word of the day throughout the fleet then. Alex and Jean-Pierre Dick very much aware of that as they both broached last night. The latter had 40 knots of wind during the night, and the boat went right over on its ear with the mast in the water, but at the time he was naked inside the boat on the loo and having a quick wash. He had no choice but to go out on deck as he was as you have to be quick in these situations. As a result he spent the next hour on the deck naked, trying to get the boat upright again. The only real damage was a broken mainsail batten and doubtless a rather cold body!
The crossing of the transition zones between some very large and frank weather systems has seen a considerable reduction in speed throughout the Vendée Globe fleet. The still high speeds yesterday evening have dropped sharply overnight, depending on the individually selected trajectories, as a result of big seas and shifty, variable winds. It's pay day for some reaping the benefits of good anticipation, while others regret a late or badly-timed shift in position.
Anne LIARDET (Roxy) and Raphaël DINELLI (Akena Verandas) are now attempting to make southerly. Further north, Thiercelin (Pro Form) and Moloney (Skandia), are continuing to benefit from a north-westerly airflow to gain easting. The bulk of the fleet then has been split apart under the effects of the depression. Each of them are playing their hand with one sole objective, entering into onto the band wagon of well established depressions from the Antarctic at last.
As stated yesterday evening, Alex THOMSON (Hugo Boss) has not abdicated. After the cruel rupture of the carbon support of his gooseneck (linking the boom to the mast), he is being forced to head north in search of clement condition to carry out delicate lamination repairs to the carbon skin; an operation which requires a minimum of climatic mildness. He is currently 890 miles from Cape Town.