The leading multihulls last night at sea saw the top spot change hands, as at 380 miles to the line Groupama (Cammas/S. Ravussin) took over first place, and by early afternoon the French/Swiss duo were roughly 50 miles ahead.
Ellen explains in painful detail their broken bowsprit and hydraulic problems which have slowed Kingfisher-Foncia over night. The arrival of the leader is expected to be at around 1900hrs local time, when the thermal breezes fill in against the SE Trades in the Bay of All Saints - a veritable minefield for the skippers just to negotiate the final 5 miles. Phenomenal speed sailing for the monohulls as Ecover & CDB kick the spray together under shooting stars. Pushing for England, Alex Bennett on One Dream One Mission is going too far. Hold onto the edge of your seats...
The two pseudo-British Open 60 monohulls, Ecover (Golding/Hutchinson) & Casto-Darty-But (Moloney/Turner) haven't yet finished settling their scores, and both are battling tooth and nail and still in sight of each other for second place. Under full main and genoa going at high speeds of 17 knots plus, both boats are waiting for the wind to swing to the NE nearer to the Brazilian coastline for them to hoist their gennaker, and then their spi's.
Australian skipper Nick Moloney had a twist in his stomach over this eventuality. "I think Ecover will go better than us if we finish under spinnaker. Otherwise last night was beautiful, and we've been speeding along in 18 knots of wind."
Mike Golding spelled out the same conditions. "We are reaching along in sight of CDB on the horizon, the final miles will be extremely tactical. They arrived 1 mile off our stern last night as we rounded Fernando de Noronha on a moonless starry night. With the rocky coastline just visible to leeward we hurtled past the Islands in a whiteout of spray at up to 20kts. CDB closed with our stern - disconcerting, as their lighting is on the blink - all that was visible was a whirlwind of spray balling up behind us."
On board the leading boat Sill Plein Fruit, co-skipper Gael Le Cleac'h feels the pressure rising. "We're going along at 16 knots under full main and Solent because the wind is up, turning slowly East. We expect to reach the Bay of Bahia Monday night, probably during the night. Conditions are ideal, surfing along under pilot over a flat sea."
For leading Open 50 One Dream One Mission (Bennett/Larsen), life is all about changing gear and notching up as much of a lead as possible before hitting the convergence zone off the Brazilian coast, as Alex explains. "Until 30 miles offshore, it's all about straight line speed, keeping as close to the rum line as possible, until we reach the coast where the SE trades meet the sea or land breezes, an area for potentially huge losses or gains. So we're changing gear the whole time. In that I mean we're trying different sail configurations in relation to the wind speeds, often changing sails 3 or 4 times in an hour if need be, just to give us the edge. Currently we're going faster under full main, genoa and staysail in 16 knots of wind."
For a young Devonshire boy, this is the farthest South he's been from home, but still feels as if "I could be 5 miles off Plymouth - but it is a lot hotter!" For his first Equator crossing, Paul smothered him in mashpotato and sausages...hmmmm, yummy!
Multihulls - Are expected this evening in Bahia
Groupama gybed during the night before Kingfisher-Foncia, and is now sailing under gennaker at 23 - 25 knots boat speed. Swiss co-skipper Steve Ravussin shows his pleasure at finding themselves back in the lead so close to the end: "We're on great form. We're really just keeping an eye on Kingfisher-Foncia, as Fujifilm is now far enough behind, not to be so worried about them with under 10 hours left to the finish. We gybed onto the favourable side in relation to the direct route and we're now to windward of Gautier because the breeze is building and rotating gradually to the North East as we near the Brazilian coast. We're doing everything we can to arrive before night fall as during the evening and morning, the thermal breezes throw up all sorts of light, tricky airs, and just in the last 5 miles anything could happen."
The real reason for the dramatic change of lead was explained by co-skipper Ellen MacArthur in an email received this morning. She painfully described yet another night of troubles when not only did their bowsprit explode, but the hydraulic ram system, which rotates the mast, gave them no end of problems when they tried to put in their gybe.
"I am sitting here, with my eyes closing and stinging and my hair matted and sticking to my forehead. Last night went from bad to worse - worst nightmares.
"We were battling with Groupama last night, hard won miles lost hour by hour till we could see them, then we managed to stay ahead - that was until the big bang as I was on the phone to Lee Bruce our weather router. I shot outside dropping the phone to see splinters of carbon, and a broken bowsprit. Hopes of winning from one second to the next gone.
"We looked at a different option seeing as we could no longer use the gennaker, and after about an hour of dropping a massive gennaker unfurled, tidying up ropes, cutting fingers and settling down we were off again, sailing higher and faster under solent. this was my watch as Alain slept - agreeing that we would gybe in 2 hours. I was tired on the helm, it's been hard to sleep with the pressure, and above all approaching the finish in such a close way.
"The fun really started though when we tried to gybe and discovered that the leeward hydraulic ram which holds the mast up was loose. we'd already had problems with losing oil, but I thought I had found a leak. - we tried everything, bleeding oil out of the system, but the ram wouldn't budge - and finally we decided that it was not going to happen. We stayed the mast on the starboard side by shifting the halyard, and the runner to the chainplate of the floater, and about 45 mins later we gybed.. gingerly with the trinquette and main sheeted in hard we proceeded - but it was clear that it was slow and risky. It took little time for us to decide to go for it. The only real option - to change the whole ram system over.. the rams are about 8 feet long, and weigh abut 40kg. not easy on a trampoline! It seemed to take forever isolating the rams, having oil literally spurt all over us, at one time filling my eyes so the faded things I could see with the headtorch became dim shapes... alain stood at the base of the mast and once we'd shifted each ram from the float - we undid the rigging.. once we got the port ram to the starboard side and we tried to connect it realising the junctions are different on the two sides - almost in vain we did one last check,and found a joint that would do it.
"Finally we were off again at about sunrise - funnily the night had passed quickly and as we sped on once again we felt pleased to have got the job done. How different things had been just 8 hours before... Just shows you have to finish first to win a race... and no-one has cossed that line yet! Ellen"
Third placed Fujifilm (L. Peyron/Le Mignon) lies a further 55 miles back from Kingfisher-Foncia and the Loick's are finding the Trade winds more unpredictable than usual. "Since rounding Ascension, we've been surprised to encounter a lot of squalls, with rain showers, covered skies and variable winds underneath." They have also gybed and are the boat most to windward of the top three, seeking any advantage to pull up to the front.
So if the podium is now fairly certain, the order is far from being definitive, with the local weather perhaps still to throw up some surprises yet in the final miles.
For those behind, more tales of woe as both Belgacom (Nélias & Desjoyeaux) and Banque Populaire (Roucayrol/Parlier) report problems with their gennaker. On both boats the sails dropped into the water as the furler gear broke in the same place at the top of the mast. Both skippers had to climb the mast in 25 knots of wind and big seas to get the halyard. Nélias managed to re-attach the halyard and get the gennaker up again, but Roucayrol's sail was ripped in the process, and so is now out of action.
All the trimarans except for Pindar Systems have rounded the Ascension Islands. In fact the girls Emma & Miki find themselves at quite a distance from the others, not only since nearest rivals Gitana IX and Eure & Loir have abandoned, but also because the wind shifts have meant that they ended up crossing the Equator twice - sacrificing double the chocolate than was hoped!