Sailing downwind is not only a relief after headwind storms and frustrating high pressure. The stress could be even greater with the wind from behind.
When the boats are charging towards Guadeloupe in high speeds, big sails up, and no miles to lose to the boats around you, the risk of overpowering is obvious. After 10 days of intense battle, solo on their boats, the skippers are tired and really have to sharpen their concentration in the fast and powerful conditions. Kingfisher is pulling away out front, and Ellen MacArthur is pushing the boat very hard considering that she is solo onboard. Impressive!
This morning Ecover blew its masthead spinnaker in the shifting conditions. This explains why Ecover lost so many miles this morning to his rival up front (32 miles behind Kingfisher at 1500 GMT). Frustrating for Golding, but the weather forecast predicts stronger winds, and the light wind spinnaker might not be needed.
Ellen MacArthur is urging on her Kingfisher at an amazing pace, spending a lot of time at the helm and working to maximum in the intense conditions: "...Bit stressed and very nervous, basically, but that's fine, pretty normal, I think! Winds at 20-25 knots, just had an hour with 28-30 knots. Big breeze for this spinnaker - couldn't get the thing down if I tried in any case! Only thing to do was to hang on so going very fast at the moment doing 18 knots over the ground."
It is very physically tiring handling all the manoeuvres and Ellen MacArthur is once again proving what an excellent sailor she is.
Sill in 4th position and Arcelor-Dunkerque in 3rd are both continuing diving south and moving forward at the same pace. Roland Jourdain has 125 miles of catching up to do before he can secure a podium position. He confirms that it is hard work even reaching with these boats: "it would be much better if there were two of us onboard for all the heavy manoeuvres."
While the frontrunners are coping with the stress of speed on the borderline of the trade winds, the second part of the fleet has been struggling with the calms of the anticyclone. The anticyclone centred on the west of the Azores, has been moving slightly southeast, which becalmed the mid-fleet yesterday. Mirand a Merron on UUDS (7th in the IMOCA class), and Australian Nick Moloney on Ashfield Healthcare (still first in the 50-foot monohull class) were amongst the unlucky ones close to the high. This second group of the fleet could not go as high west as the frontrunners and have to head south for better winds. Miranda Merron reported from the frustrating calms this morning: "…I spent a lot of time turning around and listening to the mainsail slamming from one side to the other trying to pull out the mainsail car. From time to time the wind paid a visit, and all of a sudden we were movi ng along at 8 knots, but not always in the right direction."
Merron was still frustrated at the midday call from the race headquarters: "The wind is in the south, but Guadeloupe is in the west! It is psychologically very hard not to be able to go the right direction."
Nick Moloney (Ashfield Healthcare) said this morning: "Everything is OK aboard but it's true that the wind state isn't easy. You have to be really careful and look out for the slightest little breeze that you can catch… But I think I should be in the trade winds in the next 24 hours. Hopefully."
At last the race headquarters heard from the race veteran Mike Birch today. On a very cranky line the 71-year old skipper told us he was stuck in the light winds, could not do much about the situation but did not have enough to read! Birch is not that happy with his position (8th in IMOCA class) but claims that "it is not over yet."
Stève Ravussin has fixed his problems on TechnoMarine and in front of the fleet he is racing fast with caution towards the finish. Ravussin does not trust the autopilot in the powerful conditions and is helming at least 8-10 hours a day. Banque Populaire (Lalou Roucayrol) in the north, was not able to skirt the high pressure as he had planned. A very frustrated Lalou Roucayrol is aware of Michel Desjoyeaux on Géant closing the gap with a steady breeze in the south. Biscuits La Trinitaine (Marc Guillemot) is at the edge of the anticyclone and must start the drop down south as soon as possible so as not to be swallowed up by the centre.
Franck Yves Escoffier on the 50-foot trimaran Crêpes Whaou is still up front with the bigger boats. Anne Caseneuve on Yachting Casino.com is on the hunt, but more than 200 miles behind the Breton.