The characteristic low pressure systems, which sweep around the Southern Hemisphere, have disciplined themselves into a more typical pattern.
In the Indian Ocean, the low pressure centres stabilise themselves at around 52° South and advance fairly rapidly. The one situated at 77° East & 52° South is moving at 35 knots. As a boat averages about 15 knots, and the depression is travelling at about 20 knots faster, a boat doesn't stay a long time under its influence. An average duration is one day, which implies for the skipper a great deal of physical work.
Ahead of the depression in the light Northerly winds, the boat climbs on Port tack to try and keep the speed up. When the wind shifts and builds from the Northwest, one can begin to head more to the East, still on port tack, but under reduced sail. When the wind finally veers to the West, it is then at its strongest. So the key is to choose either the North or South side, depending on the strategy for the next day and the depression following. As soon as the centre has passed over, the wind begins to turn SW and then South South West, easing off gradually. At that point, the skipper must gybe and set more sail, always keeping an eye out for the incoming depression in order to reposition the boat accordingly. This rhythm is one of constant adaptation of the sail configuration, a routine which allows little respite for the single-handed skipper.
The first ten boats have covered the first half of the Indian Ocean. The weather there is by no means horrendous, even if at times there are 50 knot gusts. The sea is never enormous and the wind is more stable at around 25/30 knots, allowing the boats to maintain some very good speeds.
Yves Parlier (Aquitaine Innovations) and also Dominique Wavre (Union Bancaire Privee) may have consecutively set new 24 hour speed records, however these conditions are not a regularity and the average speeds have settled a little lower now. Parlier had a whole day in the bag at the Equator compared to his leading position four years ago, and yet at the passage of the Kerguelen Islands he now has around 100 miles ahead of his position then. Admittedly the conditions of late have not been favourable in pushing up the average speeds, however, now that the weather systems are behaving more to the norm, we could see these increased.
Michel Desjoyeaux (PRB) is still leading, but he can see the figures of Roland Jourdain (Sill Matines La Potagere) and Yves Parlier getting bigger on the horizon behind his boat. Jourdain is but 70 miles away, albeit 2 degrees further South. Parlier has been whipping his boat like a jockey in order to reduce his gap to 133 miles from the leader now. This situation should stabilise, only then to invert itself. If Parlier has been consistently the fastest in the fleet for the last two days, the current low pressure carrying him along will overtake him and favourite will then be Michel Desjoyeaux. So then it will be the leader who will accelerate off and his pursuers who will slow down, waiting then for the incoming depression to start this concertina game again. It's certainly an art for the skippers to manage this routine in terms of navigation and weather analysis, the constant anticipation using up every ounce of their worth.
Ellen MacArthur (Kingfisher) and Thomas Coville (Sodebo) are framing Marc Thiercelin (Active Wear) to the North and South respectively, just 20 miles in it between them, despite the first two suffering ripped sails in the last 24 hours. For Coville it was just the bottom edge of the small gennaker, his first sail damage. For Ellen, however, it was firstly the tack of the staysail, then an involuntary gybe, followed by broken battens and a jammed mainsail, which forced her to climb the mast and get the sail down manually in big seas. The Kingfisher Website has some dramatic and emotional interviews with Ellen.
On day 39 of the race, and on the brink of entering the second half of the race, the Vendée Globe is still an endurance regatta with the tension staying high.
Ranking polled at 0900UTC 17/12/00
Boat Skipper Speed DTF DTL
1 PRB Michel Desjoyeaux 17.5 14104 0
2 Sill Matines & La Potagere Roland Jourdain 15.3 14173 69
3 Aquitaine Innovations Yves Parlier 16 14237 133