The 'Grand National' for the Open 60 IMOCA class is turning into a three horse race between Jean-Pierre DICK (FRA) and Loick PEYRON (FRA) on Virbac-Paprec, Roland JOURDAIN (FRA) and ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Ellen MACARTHUR (GBR) on Sill et Veolia and Jean LE CAM (FRA) and Kito DE PAVANT (FRA) on Bonduelle, and will turn into a real gallop to Bahia, Brazil as the wind starts to build to 20 knots off the South American coast now that they are getting into the steady southeast Trades.
In these slightly more moderate 15-20 knot winds than the 20-30 knot breeze in the Northern Hemisphere Trades, and sailing downwind, perhaps the Farr designed Virbac-Paprec has a nominal advantage, but when the sailing angle is between 60 and 90 degrees on a reach, the two Lombard boats, Sill et Veolia and Bonduelle, may then have the upper hand. The small separation in latitude east to west between the top three is negligible on this 900 mile sprint to the finish as the 'jockeys' have already played their jokers in the Doldrums and that did not shake up the pack.
The only tactical option left if boat speed is relatively level is to wait for the last 250 mile stretch tacking along the Brazilian coastline between Recife and Bahia, which two years ago was where Sill and Ecover fought a close and passionate battle for second place after 4,000 miles of racing. Whether to sail close inshore or further offshore can make a real difference as the local weather can favour either option depending on the thermal effects from the temperatures between the land and the sea.
The skippers' reactions differed yesterday as to whether there are any more cards to play nearer to the finish. LE CAM on Bonduelle spoke of steady breeze from here to the finish, 'It's a monotonous monohull race from here on, unless a miracle happens, we won't see the order change, the breeze is steady, that much we do know.' Whereas Ecover's Mike GOLDING (GBR) had quite opposite views, 'It could be a light airs finish, as for our chances of winning still, well with the usual suspects out here it may be a big ask, but you never know!'
Leading skipper DICK on Virbac-Paprec was more open-minded, 'It's amazing the proximity of the performance of these boats, we've never been much more than 20 miles ahead of Sill et Veolia all this time, the boat speeds are very similar, we're studying the weather very carefully, we'll do everything we can to cross the line first!'
These three will also be watching their wing mirrors as in the west, Ecover, Skandia and Pro-Form are flanked under 70 miles behind, guaranteeing that the end of this race will be down to the wire. Brian THOMPSON (GBR) on Skandia and Marc THIERCELIN (FRA) on Pro-Form were both realistic in determining that they are unlikely to get to the front of the fleet with the stabilizing winds, but as THOMPSON puts it, 'We have a great three way tussle for fourth place on our hands for the next 1,000 miles. Ecover has a ten mile lead and Pro-Form is supposedly 25 miles back, but the reality is that she is abeam of us by 65 miles and has a big advantage in being able to crack off on this close reach across the southeast trades. I'd put her at least level with us at present.'
Behind these six boats, Hervé LAURENT (FRA) and Laurent MASSOT (FRA) on UUDS are maintaining their slim lead over Anne LIARDET (FRA) and Miranda MERRON (GBR) on Roxy as they head towards the Doldrums, giving the girls another chance to hopefully regain their lost position if they negotiate this patchy zone better. MERRON was positive about their situation, 'Today has been a definite improvement on yesterday, though the cost of being becalmed is a close race between us and UUDS for now. Since early morning, we have had 17-24 knots of breeze, sailing under big gennaker, getting some good surfs down the waves. Worth enjoying while it lasts, because in a few hours we will be in the Doldrums. It looks like our classmates in front got through relatively unscathed…'
Joe HARRIS (USA) and Josh HALL (GBR) on Gryphon Solo are still 175.9 miles ahead and well in control of nearest rival Servane ESCOFFIER (FRA) and Bertrand DE BROC (FRA) on Vedettes de Bréhat as the leading Open 50 skirts round the Cape Verde Islands to the west, but the skippers can see that it is going to be more difficult to defend from the front with now Kip STONE (USA) and Merfyn OWEN (GBR) on Artforms attacking from behind on the western side of the race course. HARRIS explains, 'One of the advantages Kip has is that he can see what's happening to us and he can avoid some of the pitfalls. Kip has made a distinct move to the west gybing down the rhumbline and has so far successfully avoided this calm patch. For now we are working hard to plan our strategy for the doldrums where we expect to be later this week.'
STONE responded yesterday with an invitation for HARRIS and HALL to make their race even more nail-biting, 'It's better and better out to the west of the competition. We've had some big breeze which has allowed us to close the gap on Gryphon Solo. If you could tell Joe and Josh from me that if they'd like to pull into the Cape Verde's for a night on the town, we'll pay for it, I made the offer at the Canaries and they didn't take up on it, so this time I'm happy to make sure there's no expense spared, I'll hand over my credit card number in advance!'
On the other side of the race course, the race is more of a Steeplechase between the top three ORMA 60 foot trimarans. They still have another day of tacking into the southeast Trades with a fairly choppy sea state to contend with on their track before they are released around the Ascension Island turning point. The game is not played out on a straight line as each boat picks their own strategy for when and where to tack to the east or south. Pascal BIDÉGORRY (FRA) and Lionel LEMONCHOIS (FRA) on Banque Populaire has a relatively small 63 mile lead, and like her rivals is not yet out of the woods when it comes to the chance of structural damage or technical handicapping in these tough upwind conditions.
BIDÉGORRY and LEMONCHOIS in the lead have repositioned themselves now furthest in the east nearer the rhumb line ahead of their rivals, Gitana 11 and Géant, after tacking to the east to retain their controlling position in relation to the mark and the next two boats. Michel DESJOYEAUX (FRA) and Hugues DESTREMAU (FRA) on Géant have responded with a counter-tack to the east to mark Gitana 11 and aim to make gains on Banque Populaire before they round Ascension Island. Fred LE PEUTREC (FRA) and Yann GUICHARD (FRA) on Gitana 11 are following suit but prefer to stay a little more east in order to round the mark from the east on a faster sailing angle.
DESJOYEAUX on Géant described succinctly the situation, 'I think Banque Populaire has roughly a six or seven hour advantage over us right now. I can say for certain that the tension in this race has never come down since we left Le Havre, this course is particularly exacting, and apart from one nice afternoon off Portugal I don't think in all my life I've spent so long at sea being so punished by the big blue ocean like this! It's more like mountain-climbing than sailing out here...'
As soon as the first boat is round they will be throttled up to 25 knots boat speed careering downwind in the southeast Trades and so this mark rounding is absolutely critical for determining the eventual order into Bahia even though with 1,450 miles still to run there is still plenty of sea for circumstances to change. Two years ago Alain GAUTIER (FRA) and MACARTHUR on Foncia were two hours ahead of Groupama and five hours ahead of Fujifilm and yet it was Groupama and Fujifilm arriving first and second into Bahia after the final gybing battle off the Bahian coastline.
Open 50 Multihull Crêpes Whaou ! is on a mission to be the first boat into Bahia…in the whole fleet. Franck-Yves and son Kevin ESCOFFIER (FRA) have been by far the most positive and exuberant skippers throughout this tough Transat, truly loving the experience of racing their new Van Peteghem/Prévost 50 foot multihull. 'I have so much faith in this boat, it's uncomplicated, a real zippy machine, I wouldn't change a thing, I love sailing 50 footers. We've got 22 knots of wind, one reef in the mainsail and staysail up, we're building up to a crescendo finish for this Transat Jacques Vabre!'
The ORMA 60 multihulls are climbing upwind in a 15-20 knot southeast Trade wind. The sea state is quite choppy, not dangerous but nonetheless tiring on the boats and the skippers. They will continue to tack towards the Ascension Island for another 24 hours, trying to make small but significant gains on the lead in relation to the wind direction which may vary slightly.
The first IMOCA Open 60 Monohulls are now into the southeast Trades but the breeze is not yet fully stable and yesterday remained variable between five and 15 knots. However, they have at least got back on to a direct heading for the finish line. The leading Open 60 Monohulls should benefit from a gradually building breeze from 15-20 knots, as they cross the Equator, and then 20-25 knots at around five degrees south. Their boat speeds should begin to rise as they reach the stronger breeze nearer the South American coast.
For the fleet behind, the Trades in the Northern Hemisphere are still quite irregular thanks to the disturbance from cloudy and stormy conditions off Cape Verde Islands. They must get out of the weaker winds between the Canaries and the Cape Verdes. The northeast Trade winds are well established at 22 west. The shortest route is not the fastest for them and the comeback of Artforms from a more westerly route is proof of this.
Jean-Pierre DICK (Virbac-Paprec): 'We're on great form, have finally got some proper rest where you don't have to get up every five minutes now we're out of the Doldrums. I'm learning so much sailing with Loick, and we're having to study the weather carefully as Sill et Veolia are very close behind and we're going to do everything we can to finish first! In fact our boats are very similar in boat speed, each one has its weaker points but we've never been more than 20 miles apart after 4,000 miles, the proximity of the performance of these boats is amazing! We can't see anyone, though, you can't really see anything more than three or four miles away. We had a very pleasant Equator crossing, although Loick was asleep at the time…we'll have to wait for the finish to drink some champagne!'
Jean LE CAM (Bonduelle): 'It's more or less a motorway south, we're just eating, sleeping and reaching on a straight line, no real tactics to play, it's pretty much a procession now, quite monotonous really. It's not resignation on our part, just that with only 48 hours left sailing in a very stable weather system, unless a miracle happens, the order isn't going to change. Even if we sail one knot faster than Sill et Veolia we will arrive only just behind them. I reckon we'll finish in 2 days and 14 hours time…'
Mike GOLDING (Ecover) spoke to Sir John HOLMES, the British Ambassador in France, who attended the Transat Jacques Vabre satellite phone-in show in Paris
yesterday morning, 'It's all going well onboard Ecover, as of a few hours ago we got clear of the clutches of the Doldrums and are on our way into the Trades. We had a reasonable Doldrums crossing except for the fact that we were free-hoisting our sails as the furler system has broken, so it was pretty hard work. We're happy where we are positioned, we'll be racing for another three or four days I think. The gaps between the boats are very small, and we could slow up on the approach to the line, it could be light airs to the finish so we're pushing on as ever, hoping that the rudder isn't too much of a handbrake. We're going to do our best, as for winning, well, against all the usual suspects out here, it's a big ask, but you never know!'
Marc THIERCELIN (Pro-Form): 'We've been crossing the Doldrums at supersonic speed! The conditions change all the time, which means we're having to change sail combinations quite often, but the clouds continue to follow us around, and so does the wind. It's been raining non-stop, and the humidity on board is unbearable. I don't think we've seen the sun since the Canaries. It's pretty uncomfortable, I'm now just desperate to arrive so I can dry out. We need to negotiate the wind rotation towards the West very carefully so we can head towards Salvador. We can't compete with the new generation boats on pure boat speed, but it's great to know that we are just in their wake, and that we should arrive just a few hours behind them. Since the start, Eric and I have gone all out, lots of manoeuvres, hand-steering…It's been full on! We always race to win, it remains our objective, but if we're in the top five without losing much in terms of distance from the leaders then we'll have sailed a good race.'
Brian THOMPSON (Skandia): 'We have been cutting into the leaderboard the last two days as we had a better Doldrums crossing. Now the leaders will extend as the wind slowly favours them by backing. Realistically, in these stable conditions, its hard to see us getting to the front, but we have a great three way tussle for fourth place on our hands for the next 1,000 miles. Ecover has a ten mile lead and Pro-Form is supposedly 25 miles back, but the reality is that she is abeam of us by 65 miles and has a big advantage in being able to crack off on this close reach across the southeast trades. I'd put her at least level with us at present.'
Miranda MERRON (Roxy): 'Today has been a definite improvement on yesterday, though the cost of being becalmed is a close race between us and UUDS for now. More interesting though. Luckily it was quite a cloudy day as it is getting rather hot in this part of the world. Chocolate stays melted at night. Since early morning, we have had 17-24 knots of breeze, sailing under big gennaker, getting some good surfs down the waves. It's now the middle of the night, full moon, and much the same. Worth enjoying while it lasts, because in a few hours we will be in the doldrums. It looks like our classmates in front got through relatively unscathed. There are loads of flying fish, though not many suitable specimens have found their way on deck. Still, there are plenty of miles left for flying fish sashimi!'
Kip STONE (Artforms): 'It's better and better out to the west of the competition. We've had some big breeze which has allowed us to close the gap on Gryphon Solo. If you could tell Joe and Josh from me that if they'd like to pull into the Cape Verde's for a night on the town, we'll pay for it, I made the offer at the Canaries and they didn't take up on it, so this time I'm happy to make sure there's no expense spared, I'll hand over my credit card number in advance! Merf and I have fallen into a good sleep pattern, we sail as two solo sailors, overlapping on the gybes. This is the first day we've dried out the boat and seen some sunshine for a while. We're staying focused and getting ready for the big push to Bahia..!'
Pascal BIDÉGORRY (Banque Populaire): 'Last night we were up on deck the whole time on manoeuvres. We hardly rested and we're pretty knackered now…The sea is quite choppy too. I really want to just get to Ascension Island now, crack off the sheets, sail on a more comfortable angle for these boats. We should get there in about 30 hours. This morning we took our feet off the pedal in these boat-breaking conditions, it's already been ten days we've been out here bashing these boats around.'
Michel DESJOYEAUX (Géant): 'Since the middle of last night, the wind has risen above 22 knots. We had 30 knot squalls come through, even one at 33 this morning. As we don't have a huge amount of sail area up it's okay, but you still have to watch out for them all the same. I think Banque Populaire has roughly a six or seven hour advantage over us right now. I can say for certain that the tension in this race has never come down since we left Le Havre, this course is particularly exacting, and apart from one nice afternoon off Portugal I don't think in all my life I've spent so long at sea being so punished by the big blue ocean like this! It's more like mountain-climbing than sailing out here...'
Fred LE PEUTREC (Gitana 11): 'We've just tacked on a wind shift. Ascension Island is like the windward mark, really, and we're just gritting our teeth a bit as the upwind conditions are not kind on the boat, and we're starting to bounce a bit on quite a choppy sea. We'd love to play the shifts all the time but without a full crew it's impossible to tack as often as we'd like. We have little chance of catching Banque Populaire, they must be five hours ahead of us, so we're trying to arrive at the Ascension Island at the same time as, or at least as close as possible to Géant, and for the boat to be in the best state to attack the rest of the race.'
Franck-Yves ESCOFFIER (Crepes Whaou !): 'This was Kevin's first Equator crossing and we haven't had a moment to crack open the champagne but we will! Having four or five monohulls ahead of us is motivating, I hope you don't mind if we try to beat them into Brazil! I have so much faith in this boat, it's uncomplicated, a real zippy machine, I wouldn't change a thing, I love sailing 50 footers. We've got 22 knots of wind, one reef in the mainsail and staysail hoisted, we're building up to a crescendo finish for this Transat Jacques Vabre!'
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