While Armel Le Cléac’h may be able to breathe a sigh of relief with Alex Thomson stuck in a wind hole, the worries are not over for the Breton skipper. Until he passes Cape Frio, the British skipper remains a threat. There is another duel raging in the approaches to the Horn with Le Cam and Eliès closing the gap on Jean-Pierre Dick, who rounded earlier this morning.
Apart from some of the skippers who were there at the front being forced to retire due to structural damage (Vincent Riou, Morgan Lagravière, Sébastien Josse and Paul Meilhat), meaning that the debate to foil or not to foil more or less ended, this 2016 race will be remembered for the duel at the front of the fleet. Who would have thought that the 800-mile lead off Tierra del Fuego would vanish in six days? Between Drake Passage and Cape Frio, we find what is the most unpredictable part of the race course, as we have seen in many record attempts in the past.
The Andes act as a natural barrier and the lows get blocked by it. To the South, the Antarctic offers cold air, while to the north Brazil and the Amazon puff out warm air. It is when these air masses come together that the weather patterns change. Going right back to the 16th Century, sailors talked about how hard it was to predict what would happen in these waters – huge storms, flat calm periods, chaotic waves and a cross swell. This makes it hard to look more than two days ahead. The key is often to try to make your way north as best you can and that may be close to or further away from the coast of Argentina. Armel Le Cléac’h, who has just got out of the sticky patch, is doing just that, while Alex Thomson is still crawling along in the light airs between two high pressure cells. It looks like the solution will come from the coast of Brazil with upwind sailing ahead in a NNE’ly air stream.
However this Brazilian coastal route may lead to a dead end. Once into the bay of Rio, it could be hard getting back out. They need to look towards the medium term, where to the east, there is currently very little wind, but this could become the wiser choice for two reasons. The St Helena high will be shrinking back to South Africa by the end of the weekend taking with it its wind holes as an Argentinean low moves in. The second reason is that when sailing, the usual tactic is to place yourself between the finish and your rival. Moving back to the NE, as Banque Populaire VIII is doing on Friday morning is a way to keep Hugo Boss in check.
But taking into account how these two have ben pushing hard since the start 54 days ago, we can imagine that the fight will continue until the Nouch South buoy is in sight. The Breton sailor finished second in the last two editions of the Vendée Globe, while the British sailor has clocked up four round the world voyages on IMOCAs, so they both have plenty of experience to help them. While their boats are more or less from the same mould, they each have their own advantages. Banque Populaire VIII seems to be in good shape and does better tacking upwind, while Hugo Boss is handicapped by the loss of her starboard foil and is not as fast upwind. The former seems to be a good all-rounder, while the second excels with the wind on the beam on the starboard tack.
Before reaching, there will be upwind sailing in the NE’ly trade winds for at least 500 miles. So the gap as they approach the Equator might not mean very much. Armel Le Cléac’h will be hoping to extend his lead again until they get to Cape Frio, but Alex Thomson may narrow the gap again before they reach the Doldrums. So it looks like it could all be decided in the North Atlantic. So far, the British sailor has been in front for fifteen days and the Breton for 37. Thomson was first to the Equator (9d 07h 02’ with a lead of 2h54 mins) and the Cape of Good Hope (17d 22hrs 58 mins 4hrs and 32 mins ahead), while Le Cléac’h was first to Cape Leeuwin (28d 20hrs and 12 mins witha lead of 5h 16 mins) and Cape Horn (47d 00h 32 mins with a lead of 1 day 23hrs and 8 mins).
While Jérémie Beyou (Maître CoQ) is following more than 700 miles behind the two frontrunners, Jean-Pierre Dick has just passed Cape Horn at 0634hrs UTC, but needs to worry about the pair chasing him (Le Cam-Eliès). Tierra del Fuego is living up to its reputation of being unreliable. All three are being pushed along by a moderate Westerly, but the wind eases off after Staten Island. By tonight, there will hardly be ten knots blowing off the lighthouse at the end of the world and all three will be affected.
New Year’s Eve looks complicated for all three between Patagonia and the Falklands and it will not be until dawn on the following day that easterly winds will develop from a new low coming out of Argentina. New Year’s Day looks like being windy with the centre of the low in their path with SW’ly winds in excess of forty knots. This system should propel them quickly towards the Thirties offering them a rapid climb up the coast of Brazil. However, they will have to be attentive in the squalls and the front will be very aggressive. The rest of the fleet will be in relatively quiet conditions, with the exception of the trio formed by Bellion-Boissières-Roura, who are experiencing a big southern low.
Alex Thomson (Hugo Boss): “It is very light winds right now, just three to four knots, I am not really going very fast and I don’t imagine I will go very fast today at all, I have to wait for the high pressure to come past me. I will lose some of the miles I have been gaining. It was the luck of the draw. It could just as easily be Jérémie catching up to me or I could have been Armel going another eight hundred away from me. We got close but Armel has always been in front, he was always going to get to the other side of the high pressure before me. And he will extend away. But it means I am going to be closer than I was. It looks like some reaching after the light winds and then upwind until we tack and start going north again. He will always be in more wind and more freed, more lifting conditions, so he should be going faster. We will just have to wait and see what happens in the Doldrums. The target is to be in contention at some point up the Atlantic, close enough to have a chance at the title coming into the finish. The chances of making a remarkable comeback are quite slim but to be this close is much better than being eight hundred miles away.”