The door leading to a fast passage south slammed firmly shut on the Vendée Globe fleet today severing the top seven boats from the rest. While the frontrunners continued to rack up the miles in perfect conditions, blasting towards the Cape of Good Hope at speeds of more than 20 knots, life was about to become miserable for those hoping they could stay in touch.
As forecast, the St Helena High has engulfed the chasing pack in light, changeable winds, condemning those caught in it to days of frustration and slow progress in the mid South Atlantic. The breakaway group, still with British skipper Alex Thomson at its head, continues to forge ahead and is due to reach the Cape of Good Hope, the next waypoint on the solo round the world race and the gateway to the Southern Ocean, by Friday. But the 21 sailors behind the lucky seven must now resign themselves to spending more than three days extra getting to the milestone some 2,000nm away. By the time they reach the southern tip of South Africa they will be more than 2,000nm behind the leaders.
Leading the charge for the ninth consecutive day, Thomson is still registering speeds of more than 20 knots from his yacht Hugo Boss despite losing one of its two foils in an apparent collision two days ago. Even more impressive is that, after initially losing around 50nm to closest rivals Armel Le Cléac’h and Sebastien Josse, over the past 24 hours he has added around three miles to his lead to take it to 85nm. Edmond de Rothschild skipper Seb Josse today gave the Brit credit for keeping the fleet at bay, but hinted that Thomson’s time at the front could be limited. “Alex is resisting well, keeping up high speeds at these angles,” he said. “He has plenty of wind. But we need to take care of the foils like we take care of the boat. If we’re doing twenty knots we’re happy, so why push it? We have seen that the boat can reach peak speeds of 25 knots, but now is not the time for that.”
From his position in ninth, French skipper Jean Le Cam echoed Josse’s thoughts on Thomson’s prospects. He said: “I saw that Hugo Boss had broken a foil. It’s obvious that the time will come when he has to pay the price for that. So there are six of them contending for victory a fortnight after the start. Statistically, it has to be one of them.” Le Cam has problems of his own. Now more than 1,000nm off the pace he is among the majority of the fleet facing days of torment trying to pick their way south through a series of high pressure systems. Their only hope lies in a depression forming in the south west that could bring them more stable winds in a few days’ time. The consequences are all too clear for the Finistere Mer Vent skipper. “The gap between the leader and the tail end is crazy,” he added. “We’re going to be 2,000 miles behind by the time we reach the south. For those behind us, it’s going to be horrible.”
Unfortunately for American sailor Rich Wilson, the oldest skipper in the race at 66 years old, he is one of those behind Le Cam. “Those seven boats on the other side of what’s going to be a massively confusing weather situation for us,” the 20th placed skipper of Great American IV said. “There’s really no telling what’s going to be happen. It’s going to be a toss of the dice whether one can get to the south east.”
Despite being almost 2,300nm adrift in 25th place, nothing could dampen Irish skipper Enda O’Coineen’s mood after he crossed the Equator into the Southern Hemisphere at 1933UTC last night. The 61-year-old reported hearing a loud pop coming from the deck of Kilcullen Voyager Team Ireland – but it turned out only to be the noise from the champagne bottle he had opened to toast King Neptune. France’s Sébastien Destremau and Spain’s Didac Costa are now the only two skippers still in the Northern Hemisphere.