With a third place finish in the Vendée Globe apparently almost guaranteed, Jean-Pierre Dick (Virbac-Paprec 3) heard his dream break with an abrupt bang before midnight on Monday night as Virbac Paprec 3 lost her keel with just over 2,000 of the 28,000 mile race left
With a squall coming there was a great risk of capsize after losing the four tonne keel (providing approximately half the weight of the boat and most of its stability) and it took all the experience and expertise of the 47-year-old skipper to avoid the worst.
He managed to ease the pressure on the sails, turn the boat running downwind and fully fill the ballast tanks to stabilise the boat. The immediate danger has passed but he is still very vulnerable.
Until that point he was continuing to close on the front two and still had faint hopes of catching them.
Dick, still technically in third place on the ranking because he has not retired, is heading for shelter at the Azores, still over 1,000 miles away on Monday morning. He is on a starboard tack in a northeast wind of 20 knots. He cannot take a direct route at the moment and must head north-east for two days, but in 450 miles he should pick up some undisturbed south-west wind and will be able to head directly to the Azores archipelago. He is expected to arrive there in six days, which will be a difficult time because he was expected to have arrived in Les Sables by then.
The skipper from Nice is in his third Vendée Globe. He finished sixth in 2004-05 but had to retire from the 2008-09 race with broken rudders after hitting a UFO.
Dick's misfortune is part of the thread that runs through the history of the Vendée Globe. There is no good time to suffer a failure but there is something especially cruel about it happening so close to the finish. The second edition of the race in 1992-93 saw the first such cruel blow as Philippe Poupon, in second and chasing the leader Alain Gautier, dismasted. But Poupon was still able to limp home in third the place. The line has continued to the modern day and Roland Jourdain lost his keel bulb whilst clear in second place in the last edition in 2008-09 and was also forced to seek shelter at the Azores, where he assessed and then retired. Such keel failures failures obey only the laws of physics and chance not those of merit.
Already in this race, the North Atlantic claimed two keels in the first two weeks of this race, when Marc Guillemot's titanium keel broke off on the first night and then Jeremie Beyou suffered hydraulic failure of the canting mechanism and almost lost the whole keel in the second week.
Virbac Paprec 3 was one of the six new boats in this edition and one of the four VPLP-Verdier designed boats. Many, including Alex Thomson, had said they would be too light and fragile to make it around the world. But that has appeared wide of the mark. Vincent Riou (PRB) was forced out in the second week of the race, in the South Atlantic, after unluckily hitting a harbour buoy that drifted and submerged 500 miles off the coast of Brazil. But the VPLP-Verdier boats have continued to form the leading pack from start to finish and either MACIF or Banque Populaire have led for most of the race, setting an unrelenting pace that could smash the old record by a week if they finish in 77 days on January 26. Dick was dropped by them in the Indian Ocean and soon after made his first of several trips up the mast to make fixes, but he has been their permanent shadow ever since.
Thomson into third
Alex Thomson (Hugo Boss) who could now achieve both his targets of third place and 80 days around the world. But Dick's sudden failure will have sent a shudder through him and the entire fleet and underlined the old Vendée cliché that 'to finish first (or anywhere) first you have to finish.' The race is not over until you cross the finish line at Les Sables d'Olonne.
Only yesterday on Vendee Globe TV, Thomson had talked about keeping up the pressure in case one of those ahead had a problem. But he said he would not wish any misfortune on anyone, "At the stage of the race we're at now, I would be very sad for anybody who has a problem, I wouldn't wish it on anybody."
Thomson, is still in fourth place, 236 miles behind Dick, 562 miles behind second-placed Armel Le Cléac'h (Banque Populaire) and 657 miles from the leader, Francois Gabart (MACIF). But he has a huge 1,627-mile lead on those behind him, with Mike Golding (Gamesa), who passed Jean Le Cam (SynerCiel) overnight, albeit by only a mile again.
Golding (Gamesa) will understand Dick's shock more than most, after losing his keel with 50 miles to go in the 2004-05 edition, where he limped in third after the closest race in Vendée Globe history.
Le Cléac'h continued to erode Gabart's lead, taking back almost 50 miles in the last 24 hours. At the 04:00 ranking he was 95 miles behind, but Gabart had found the better breeze in the last hour, averaging 15.6 knots to Le Cléac'h's 11.2 knots, although as through the night, Le Cléac'h's better angle and VMG was nullifying that. After what has befallen Dick their finish will be even more tense.
There was some drama at the back of the fleet too as eleventh-placed Tanguy de Lamotte (Initiatives cœur), suffered a halyard failure and watched his huge Code 0 sail drop into the water. "The road does not end, she extendable,"
he wrote this moring. "The second halyard broke and the code 0 is passed in water. I had to change the sail before dark and I visually checked the halyard all the time since and noticed nothing suspicious...I was going to write you a nice email saying that it was a beautiful day with albatross and flying fish: it's nice to have two at the same time. It will be necessary that I go up the mast as soon as possible to return to retrieve the headsail halyard, meantime, I rest and will do it tomorrow."