Who Might Win The Eighth Vendée Globe?
As the clock counts down ever closer to Sunday’s start of the eighth edition of the Vendée Globe, the solo non stop around the world race, the question which still prevails among the inevitable massive media frenzy gathered in Les Sables d’Olonne on the French west coast is Who Will Win the Vendée Globe?
In fact there are two parts to that question. Will the new foiling boats, their technology really only race course tested over the last eighteen months, prove reliable enough to make it to the finish? With five top skippers on foils the consensus is that the winner will be one of them, if they make it to the finish. If it is not a foiling boat then the choice tapers to 2004-5 Vendée Globe winner Vincent Riou on PRB or Yann Elies on Quéguiner-Leucémie Espoir.
On paper, based on recent results and past history in the race, the strength and depth of his programme backed by Banque Populaire, drive, talent, experience and ability to sustain high speeds around the world, one theoretical favourite to win is Armel Le Cléac’h. He has finished second twice in the last two Vendée Globes, three hours and 17 minutes behind François Gabart in 2013. Le Cléac’h won this year’s Transat, finished second in the Transat Jacques Vabre last year. He has prepared meticulously and has proven fast and consistent in all of his races since 2013. His foil package and optimisation has been well managed in terms of the compromise between pushing for a late technical advantage versus tested reliability. He has the boat and the skillset.
But so too British skipper Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss, Sébastien Josse on Edmond de Rothschild, Jean Pierre Dick on StMichel-Virbac and Jéremie Beyou on Maître CoQ have the capability and the hardware that it takes to win. Starting his fourth Vendée Globe, Alex Thomson has never been better equipped to win. “I think this time represents Alex’s best chance of winning. He has the boat and the experience. With these foiling boats it will take a skipper of particular ability to drive hard and I think Alex, for one, has that,” commented Mike Golding, three times Vendée Globe skipper with his 2004-5 third place as his high water mark.
Thomson’s boat is considered the most extreme of the latest generation boats. Although his foil package has not reached the development level he had wanted to be at, he believes he has a good balance between tested reliability and speed potential. But, having trained in splendid isolation as the lone Brit in the race, he has no recent benchmarks against the best of the French, nor do they have against him. He lead the summer’s New York Vendée race. “The New York Vendee was our only chance to measure ourselves against the others.” Thomson said today. “It showed us we had the speed but we had a reliability problem which we have now solved. I feel confident in the speed but we train in England only and then in Portugal in August in good winds. Often we would like to train with the French guys and see where we are and how they compare. And I am sure they would like to know how fast we are, what our strengths and weaknesses are. We will just have to wait and see.”
“Our foil systems are very different to the other boats. On our foils the shaft is doing the work (lifting the hull) and on the others the tip is doing the work. And so we expect to see some differences between the foiling boats and at times that difference can be significant. It will be very interesting to see our strengths and weaknesses.”
Thomson revealed that he has a watch which gives him an electric shock to ensure he wakes from his sleep periods. His particular worry is straying into the forbidden ice exclusion zone and being penalised. “The difference in having this exclusion zone is that this will force us to sail VMG down the line. And so the difficulty for us is the possibility of crossing the exclusion line, they have already told us the penalties. The penalties are big. You must exit at that point or west of it. It is something that I know all the skippers are very nervous about. It is very easy when you sail close to the line and for example when you are tired and you maybe don’t wake up, then that is why I have a watch that when I set the alarm gives me an electric shock to combat the possibility of over-sleeping.”
The 24,020 NMs race is more often than not a rich get richer race. The expectation is that the foilers will leap away from Sunday’s start on the heels of a forecast for weather that could not be better. A fast passage to the Equator for the foilers, routing suggests 6 to 7 days on the current weather models. Theirs should be a drag race, but just as with foil borne racing inshore, any breakaway at the front of the foiling ‘peloton’ can quickly see a big gap open, and perhaps become decisive.
There are around ten skippers who might make it on to the podium. The reality of not having to go out into the teeth of a Bay of Biscay storm, instead getting a relatively straightforward passage to Finisterre and into the Portuguese trade winds – the favourable scenario painted by the current weather outlook – should at least reduce the number of early failures caused by the fierce weather.
Of the first timers both rookies Paul Meilhat on SMA and Morgan Lagravière on Safran had their setbacks in their preparation but both have since regained their confidence since. A talented youngster Lagravière has been helped by Roland Jourdain and is definitely one to watch. Jérémie Beyou is the only sailor to have fitted foils to an older generation IMOCA. A fierce competitor, he hopes this will allow him to be up there with the frontrunners.
Vincent Riou (PRB):
“People keep talking about my victory in 2004-2005, but with each Vendée Globe the counter is reset. It’s different each time and has nothing to do with the previous one. Even the best skippers remain humble and say that their main goal is to finish.”
Jean-Pierre Dick (StMichel-Virbac):
“Out of the 29, around half of the fleet stands out from the other half. There are around ten very competitive projects, who are difficult to beat. With so much competition, it’s going to be interesting. I think the fleet will be tightly bunched with the leaders all close together, if there isn’t too much serious damage.”
Yann Eliès (Quéguiner-Leucémie Espoir):
“The foilers may make their getaway, leaving us just the crumbs. I’m getting ready for that in my head. I am ailing for the podium, with the aim of finishing one minute before the boat in fourth place.”
Jean Le Cam (Finistère Mer Vent):
“I’m up in the top 10 or 12 on paper. There waere likely to be five out in front, so I could make it to 6th or 7th. However, this line up is nothing like the one we saw in 2008, when there were 19 new boats. This time, there are 7 or 8 boats capable of winning and no more.”
Kojiro Shiraishi (Spirit of Yukoh):
“I’m aiming for the top. There are a lot of boats from the same generation as mine, launched in 2007.It’s going to be a race within the race, so I can’t wait to get out there. Jean Le Cam and Tanguy de Lamotte are going to my serious rivals.”
Didac Costa (One Planet One Ocean):
“My goal is to finish. What’s interesting this year is the number of boats. With 29 IMOCAs, there are going to be races within the race, which is very motivating? I’ll be sailing against boats from the same generation as mine.”
British skipper Alex Thomson hosted a friendly, informal media breakfast this morning. He was on typically ebullient form, immaculately attired of course. He considers a course record is likely, the time to the Equator may be as little as six days – a record in itself. He revealed that one of his biggest worries is straying into the ice exclusion zone, not because of any threat of ice, but because of the swingeing penalties. Initially any skipper who sails into this exclusion zone must return and exit at, or west of the entry point, and then the penalty can be from 24 hours to disqualification. Thomson revealed he has an alarm watch which delivers an electric shock to his wrist to ensure he wakes on time and does not stray into the exclusion zone.
ALEX ON :
First days strategy
“Don’t break it. We will have to get used to the conditions pretty quickly. But the goal is to try not to be a hero in the first days, tor try not to smash her up, watch out for the fishing boats, for the traffic.”
Finding the max, the red line?
“In some ways with the foilers the red line just comes up to you, you are not looking for it. And when you are on the foil you are often on smaller sails anyway. In many ways then it is more obvious when to reduce sail – but in fact you go faster!”
Expectations and boat for boat strategy, different with the foilers?
“We don’t know much about strategy boat on boat. We don’t know what the others (foilers) will be like. We saw a bit in the New York – Vendee but in fact we have improved the boat immensely since then.”
Noise and stress, dealing with the additional noise?
“You get used to the noise. The stress you get used to. I have a (blue) rugby helmet.”
“It is hard to see speeds to the Equator being less than 20kts. If we can finish we will be in with a great chance of a record. We have to finish. With this forecast six or seven days to the Equator, then potentially the race record can be broken. The boats are fast enough if there is enough reaching and downwind I’d expect us to break the 78 days. “
More fun foiling?
“Now you are surfing at over 30kts then it is much more fun. You feel the back of the boat touching down every few seconds. The boats are a real pleasure to sail. If the boats were a bit dull, a bit boring. Twenty to thirty knots is a big difference.”
What will start day be like?
“I always feel emotional and nervous at the start. There are half a million people shouting your name as you go down the canal. That is emotional. “
Biggest anxieties, worries?
“I feel most anxious about the start, the isolation in the Southern Ocean creates an anxiety in itself, and then the worst big can be near the finish. The biggest, windiest part of the race was the last two days. Then there are fishing boats and traffic to the finish.”
You are anxious until you reach the finishing line.
“The movement is all over the place. It is unpredictable, the foil lifts the boat and then you don’t really know what is going to happen, does it accelerate, does it come back down, you hold on and stop yourself from getting injured. “
Speed match, strengths and weaknesses?
“The New York Vendée was our only chance to measure ourselves against the others. It showed us we had the speed but we had a reliability problem which we have now solved. I feel confident in the speed but we train in England only and then in Portugal in August in good winds. Often we would like to train with the French guys and see where we are and how they compare. And I am sure they would like to know how fast we are, what our strengths and weaknesses are. We will just have to wait and see. Our foil systems are very different to the other boats. On our foils the shaft is doing the work (lifting the hull) and on the others the tip is doing the work. And so we expect to see some differences between the foiling boats and at times that difference can be significant. It will be very interesting to see our strengths and weaknesses.”
The lone ranger?
“I think it is a shame Britain does not have as many teams as in 2008-9. My job is to win and then for sure next time we will have many more British teams. There is the talent in Britain.”
Ice zone, a real worry?
“The difference between gates and having this exclusion zone is that this will force us to sail VMG down the line. And so the difficulty for us is the possibility of crossing the exclusion line, they have already told us the penalties. The penalties are big. You must exit at that point or west of it. It is something that I know all the skippers are very nervous about. It is very easy when you sail close to the line and for example when you are tired and you maybe don’t wake up, then that is why I have a watch that when I set the alarm gives me an electric shock to combat the possibility of over-sleeping.”
FLYING SOUTH FAST. THE RICH GET RICHER
The latest forecast is for a few squalls, cloudy skies and a 10-15 knot NNW’ly for the 29 solo sailors starting the 8th Vendée Globe on Sunday at 1202hrs UTC. The IMOCAs will quickly be heading towards the SW pushed along by a 15-20 knot northerly until they round Cape Finisterre. The first foilers should be in that area on Monday morning. “It’s not as worrying as when a front passes over. You can feel that on the pontoons, where the atmosphere is not as stressed. It’s going to be fast and very intense, particularly with all the shipping and fishing boats and around Cape Finisterre, where there are often objects floating around,” said Jérémie Beyou (Maître CoQ).
Alex Thomson, the British skipper of Hugo Boss commented this morning: « They are saying North, North Westerlies. It not clear how much wind there will be at the start. Then it looks straight line to Finisterre. And then if we can straight line to get under the Azores High is not really fully confirmed yet. For us, the foilers, it could not be better. If I could as for the weather this is what I would ask for.”
The wind will strengthen as they make their way down the coast of Portugal, with some gybes required. In short, we can look forward to a quick start, but one that is going to be very technical. “Those who have done a lot of training will be up there at the front. There will be an advantage for the foilers. But we’re going to have to wait and see whether people get 100% out of their boats or not.” There will be a ridge of high pressure developing between Gibraltar and the Canaries around midday on the 8th November, which could shut the door on those who are left behind. From the outset, the skippers will want to put their foot down to get away from this area of light winds associated with the high.