SAILING – VENDEE GLOBE 2016 – START
Armel Le Cléac’h and Alex Thomson today passed the magical mid-way point of the Vendée Globe solo round the world race when, in theory, their distance to the finish line back in Les Sables d’Olonne is less than the distance they have already sailed. That psychological point where every mile feels like it is taking you closer to the finish line rather than away from the start line has been reached.
In practice, Armel Le Cléac’h led across the midpoint of the course around 1000hrs UTC this morning, passing from the Indian Ocean into the Pacific, at the longitude 146 deg 55’ E as specified by the International Hydrographic Office, at 1245hrs UTC. Thomson breached the midpoint at 1500hrs UTC.
The Banque Populaire skipper’s time to the gateway to the Pacific is still more than five and a half days faster than in 2012 when he crossed 6.3 miles behind François Gabart.
But the half way mark, and the Pacific, is bringing the leading duo their most brutal period of the race so far. A very slow moving deep low is effectively barring their route across the first miles of the Pacific, which is not living up to its name, nor its reputation. When they spoke in turn today to Vendée LIVE hosted at Race HQ in Paris both Thomson and Le Cléac’h said the next 36 hours are about boat and skipper preservation.
Spanish ocean racer Guillermo Altadill knows Thomson well. He finished second as co-skipper beside the British racer in the 2011 Transat Jacques Vabre and was co-skipper when the duo had to be helicopter rescued from the Atlantic, when the boat Thomson is racing now capsized in late October last year. The duo were joined in a live link today, with Altadill in Sydney as Thomson sails past that longitude. Altadill, who admits he is addicted to the tracker, watching every four hours, warned: “This one is a pretty nasty low, very elongated from north to south. This is a time to survive.”
Thomson assured his hard driving, uncompromising Catalan former partner in crime: “For sure. It’s time to look after the boat. I have between two and three reefs, the J3, no foils. I will just try and go as gently as possible. But you know these boats, they don’t want to slow down, no matter how much or little sail you have up. To be honest I don’t really look where Armel is. There is nothing I can do about him. He is where he is. For now I just worry about myself and try and keep the boat in one piece. I try to go as fast as I can but go reasonably and try not to break anything. The boat is slamming and it is very difficult to walk around the boat, it is very stressful. It is good to be half-way, I have about another 36 hours of this. The wind should continue to increase. There is no way to avoid it. All I can do is slow down if it starts to get too bad. It is slamming. But we have to cross this low. Normally the low crosses us. This low is going to stop and we are going to cross back into the northerlies again. I am not sure how that is going to work out.”
In third place Paul Meilhat crossed the longitude of Cape Leeuwin at 0940hrs this morning, some 2 days, 20 hours and 10 minutes behind the leader, his compatriot Armel Le Cléac’h. Meilhat is the best of the 14 rookies. Sailing the former MACIF which won the last edition of the race, Meilhat is two days and 13 hours ahead of the pace of Gabart in December 2012. Sailing the conventionally configured, non-foiling SMA, he clearly is from the same gene pool as Gabart, still holding at bay the foil borne Jérémie Beyou (Maitre CoQ) and in fact was fastest in the fleet over the 24 hours to 1400hrs UTC, making 483 nautical miles in 24 hours, 43 more than Beyou.
Eric Bellion, the skipper of 16th placed Comme Un Seul Homme, admitted today there were many brutally frustrating moments during his 12-hour rudder repair, when he was sure that his Vendée Globe was over for him. “Many, many times I thought it was over for me. I could not get rid of the old rudder. It was impossible. It was stuck in the hole. In the end I cut the rudder in half. It was a big risk. And then when I cut it, it was possible to get rid of the piece at deck level. I started work at about 4.30 and knew I only had eleven hours before the next big depression arrived. I started when the sun started to rise. It wasn’t easy and I struggled to remove the rudder. I’m so pleased to have done it now, as I wasn’t feeling very confident about it.”
At the same time Conrad Colman (Foresight Natural Energy) has been in full MacGyver mode, fighting to stay on top of the small breakages which would otherwise threaten his race. He has had to reconfigure his autopilots, spent 90 minutes at the top of his mast hand sewing the head of his Solent jib and has been sorting issues with his battery system caused by his fire. All the time he has been pressed south on to the ice exclusion zone. “It is a bit of a fight on actually. I am dealing with lots of small technical problems at the same time and also trying to stay with Stéphane and Nandor. I am having to reconfigure the pilot because a few elements have broken. I am repairing the battery management system which was damaged and on top of that I spent an hour and half at the top of the mast putting the sails back together so there is no chance of me getting lonely or bored. I was sewing the sails back together while they were working.”