That Was The Week That Was
WEEK 1. After seven days of racing, the 32 solo skippers still at sea are spread out in at least four groups. While Britiish sailor, Alex Thomson and Breton, Jean Le Cam are leading the fleet this weekend, like their rivals, they have had to deal with three low-pressure systems since leaving the Bay of Biscay, including one tropical storm. The race has got off to a slow start, but the route ahead looks very favourable.
After a start that was postponed until 1420hrs UTC (instead of 1302hrs) because of the thick fog, the start was fairly fast, even if instead of heading directly for Cape Finisterre, most of the fleet headed off due West. While the distance covered was the same as in 2016, sailing conditions in the Bay of Biscay were much better four years ago. Armel Le Cléac’h was able to head directly for the tip of NW Spain. But in this ninth Vendée Globe, on the second day they had to deal with the first front with the wind swinging around from the S to SW to the W.
A lot of hard work in the first few days
Several reports of damage came in winds exceeding forty knots at times and with 4m high cross seas. Fabrice Amedeo (Newrest-Art & Fenêtres) went back to Les Sables d’Olonne to repair his hook and a damaged halyard and his restart two and a half days after the starting gun was not favourable. When Sunday’s leader (15th Nov) was on his way to the Cape Verde Islands, the boat at the rear was only just down to the latitude of Lisbon, or more than 1000 miles from the frontrunner. Then, it was Armel Tripon (L’Occitane en Provence) who turned around before changing his mind, believing he could carry out repairs without stopping off Spain. Since then, the ‘scow’ has been stuck in light airs to the north of the tropical low, Thêta, along with Sébastien Destremau (Merci) and Clément Giraud (Compagnie du Lit / Jiliti). It is going to be hard for them to get away from there, as the weather system is giving way to an area of persistent calms set to last until Wednesday morning off the Canaries. To summarise, the tracker after a week of racing is clear: it is better to be ahead in conditions that favour the leaders and especially the foilers…
The Doldrums shrink and lows develop off Brazil
After the first Spanish low, they had to deal with a transition zone, then a small low-pressure system before reaching the tropical storm, Theta, down below the Azores. Boats without foils like Yes We Cam! and OMIA-Water Family managed to advance southwards, while the favourites sailed between the islands. Some played it safe by going to the west, while others headed straight into the nasty weather. The seas were fairly heavy preventing them from flying. In the end, the leaders sailed close to the centre of the tropical low as it moved gradually eastwards, while some of the foilers like Apivia, LinkedOut and PRB played it cautiously off to the west and those chasing them like MACSF, DMG Mori Global One or further back, Medallia and One Planet-One Ocean, had the opportunity of taking a short cut through sailing fewer miles. While gaps are not definitive on this eighth day of racing, things could be very different by the next obstacle – the Doldrums. It is true that the ITCZ (Inter-tropical convergence zone) marking the transition between the trade winds in the Northern Hempishere and those in the Southern Hemisphere is not very active and is rather compact at the moment. What is the cause of that? The trade winds (North and South) tend to be from the East rather than the NE above the Equator and SE’ly below the Equator. This should see the leaders with foils continuing to sail some way off the Cape Verde Islands avoiding the wind shadow generated by the huge volcanic peaks on the islands (especially Santo Antão, with the Topo da Coroa culminating at 1979 m).
Various routes to achieve the same goal
The three low-pressure systems in the North Atlantic showed that a boat without foils does not follow the same trajectory as one with. Firstly, because these appendages allow boats to accelerate in medium conditions with the wind on the beam (80° to 120° from the real wind), on relatively smooth seas. Then, because the fastest are the newer boats and the goal is above all to finish the race and therefore it is vital to look after your equipment without getting left behind. Finally, because the boats do not all have the same sets of sails. Some are able to sail smoothly downwind (the non foilers under spinnaker) while others prefer going on the attack with tighter angles (foilers under gennaker or FRO). The leading foilers (HUGO BOSS, PRB, LinkedOut, Apivia, Initiatives-Cœur) are likely to trace a curve sailing away from the Cape Verde Islands to get back to 25° W to pass through the Doldrums (instead of 28°30 W in 2016) with speeds above 20 knots. Meanwhile, the non-foilers (Yes We Cam!, OMIA-Water Family, Groupe Apicil) will sail more directly at around fifteen knots. In the end, the gaps are likely to be fairly small as the first ten boats enter the Doldrums, but wide in comparison to the second group, with more than 400 miles between them in the next three days… We shall be watching, but for now the weather patterns in the South Atlantic seem very favourable for the leaders with the St. Helena high slipping down under South Africa and a series of Brazilian lows speeding towards the Forties. The first to cross the Equator will be sailing far away from the coast of Brazil and will rapidly pick up a northerly air stream allowing them to reach the longitude of the Cape of Good Hope very quickly. Armel Le Cléac’h, who holds the best time for sailing solo around the world on a monohull (74d 03hrs 35mins 46s), was more than 500 miles ahead of Jean Le Cam and Alex Thomson (today’s leader) at this point in the race. However, he could lose that advantage before the Indian Ocean. It is true that the first stage of this ninth Vendée Globe has been slower than the previous two editions, but things are likely to accelerate in the coming days.