Four days into the Artemis Transat and the leading pack is still amazingly tight in terms of distance to the finish, after more than 800 miles spent at sea.
Tactically speaking, the big question of the day lies within the 80-mile latitude gap separating the top six boats: have some significant choices been made, is the north-south positioning difference really relevant? Aboard BT, third placed Sébastien JOSSE (FRA) believes it is, and says the dice have been thrown 48 hours ago, while his rivals remain sceptic. The skippers have taken some rest and are now preparing to cross a high pressure ridge, expecting to be parked in 24 hours.
"It won't be pleasant",
warns race leader Michel DESJOYEAUX (FRA), "but everyone will have to deal with the same situation, so..."
Still making reasonably good progress, the tightly-packed six leading skippers are sailing with the spinnaker up on flat seas, making the most of their boats' speed potential in the tense context of a close-combat race.
"I can see Generali to leeward,"
said DESJOYEAUX this morning, "and with that type of conditions, hand steering is crucial because the slightest gain in terms of speed has its importance."
Tiring? Yes, but also very motivating, as The Professor pointed out: "The fleet is homogenous, there's a real good fight, thats what we're here for - I didn't come for a cruise, otherwise I would've brought my family along - and I probably would have chosen another route too!"
So... Is there actually a real north-south difference?
"That is the big question of the day",
replies Armel LE CLÉAC'H (FRA) aboard Brit Air, not willing to elaborate any further given the uncertainty of the general situation. For JOSSE aboard BT, "The choices have been made two days ago, the French and American weather models do not agree, I think being further down south will give us an edge."
Yet Jean-Luc NÉLIAS's (FRA) simulations don't exactly point that fact out: "The routing software indicates that for Generali, and BT 70 miles to the south, they would actually arrive only 5 minutes apart at the ice gage - in favour of Generali. But that means nothing when we see the zone of light winds ahead that must be crossed."
Strategically, Foncia's skipper reckons that his and Yann ELIES's (FRA) north position is the right one to cross the ridge, and exit with a good wind angle. Southeasterlies are to be expected behind that barrier, but the more worrying perspective is 24 hours away, as the wind tables suggest - between 2.8 and 3.7 knots of "wind" tomorrow end of afternoon! Interesting for the chasing boats, whose skippers can hope to make up some of the miles they lost, and Arnaud BOISSIERES (FRA) aboard Akena Verandas, 160 miles behind the leader, is welcoming that perspective.
"They've already created an important gap",
says the young Arcachon-based skipper sailing a 1998-launched IMOCA 60, "but given a few efforts to keep my speed up, I should be able to come closer, and it will be the case for Sam [DAVIES (GBR)] too. It was nice to sail with her yesterday, but we lost contact now, she's further south."
Maybe she does have a clear opinion about the famous north-south issue she'll tell us about tomorrow? In the meantime, positioned right in the middle, Loick PEYRON's (FRA) Gitana Eighty is this afternoon the fastest boat (having gained a place between 12:00 and 14:00) and everyone is keeping an eye on the tactically inspired, wise and amazingly intuitive double winner of the event.
The front of the fleet should be sailing upwind in approximately 48 hours, so will have benefited from downwind conditions for at least four full days... A rather unusual situation on the North Atlantic.
Race direction announced today - with 48 hours notice as stated in the Sailing Instructions - that the 36-hour positions blackout will start Friday at 18:00 UTC. The positions will be available again on Sunday May 18 at 06:00 UTC. Ocean racing is not a matter of sheer speed and the choice of trajectory is crucial, so by imposing a 36-hour blackout, the organizers of The Artemis Transat have certainly added some spice to the race. Obviously, the race organization will continue to receive each yacht's position data to monitor the fleet's safety and communications with the skippers will continue, but the gambles and tactical manoeuvres of individual teams will remain secret until the information blockade is lifted.
Artemis Transat - www.theartemistransat.com