Sunday, January 04, 2009

Vendée Globe: Desjoyeaux about to round Cape Horn; only 14 left in the race

[Source: Vendée Globe] After 56 days of racing, the leading skipper in the race is getting ready to round Cape Horn tonight — that tiny island off the tip of the South American continent marking the way into the Atlantic. Michel Desjoyeaux, leading the Vendée Globe on Foncia, will be rounding the Cape of Deliverance — so called as it marks the end of several weeks of tough sailing in the Southern Ocean – in just a few hours, at the end of an adrenaline-packed week. Between last Sunday and today’s 10h rankings, in exactly a week of sailing, the Farr-designed boat covered 2,775 miles towards the finish, clocking up almost 400 miles a day at an average speed close to 16.5 knots. Never has a Vendée Globe boat been so quick for so long.

Desjoyeaux rules supreme

There are three possible reasons to explain this performance: a track that is almost perfectly direct (the final gate was passed on Wednesday by the white boat), strong downwind sailing conditions, and of course the skill of the skipper. Let's not forget that Michel was at one point 650 nautical miles behind the race leader after his forced return to Les Sables, which meant that one by one he picked off all his rivals and he has now held the lead for 20 days without relinquishing it.

Video highlights from day 56 of the Vendée Globe. 4 January 2009. Video copyright Vendée Globe

Only Roland Jourdain has managed to slide along in the wake of the Desjoyeaux locomotive. The skipper of Veolia Environnement has stuck with him from one Sunday to the next with the gap between the two frontrunners remaining fairly insignificant (around 60 miles or so). The third man in the getaway group, alias Jean Le Cam, has proved unable to keep up the pace. Clearly tired and wishing to preserve his boat and equipment, the skipper of VM Matériaux let ‘Bilou’ accelerate away, and Le Cam is now 471 miles from the leader. The other two in the group of five making up the leading pack have also lost ground to the two frontrunners, a little more than Le Cam.

We can keep talking about history and how Ellen made it back in 2001… and how Riou and Golding caught the leader in the South Atlantic in 2005… We can keep telling ourselves that the long climb back up the Atlantic to Les Sables (a third of the total route!) is full of hurdles, but there is a reality to be faced: Vincent Riou (PRB) and Armel Le Cléac’h (Brit Air), this morning sailing more than 700 miles from Desjoyeaux, should start to worry. During the week, the two front-runners have reaped the benefits of their crazy pace. To prove just how very quick it has been in the far south, we can see that Desjoyeaux was as fast as Le Cam (first around the Horn on Bonduelle in 2005) in spite of the 1,160 extra nautical miles required to pass the gates. In other words, a gain of more than three days — simply amazing!

Only 14 left in the race

The sad litany continues, as the number still in the race falls again. Thirty set out from Les Sables and now only 14 are left racing, while those at the rear have still not completed half the race. More than 50% have retired - the figures speak for themselves. Not in terms of the percentage of retirements, which is still lower than in the 1996/97 race, but the sheer number of boats that have been forced out: 16, the same number that took part in the 1989, 1992 and 1996 races…

Since last week, when we lost Sébastien Josse, who was a serious contender for victory, and the Canadian Derek Hatfield, the race has seen two further retirements. Jean-Pierre Dick (Paprec-Virbac 2) was one of the leading lights in the race and was even at the front until his steering was damaged by a collision with an object. He lost a lot of time recovering the use of his damaged rudder. On Wednesday, while the blue boat was back sailing at normal speed, Jean-Pierre suffered the loss of his other rudder. The skipper was forced to admit defeat. This morning the British sailor Jonny Malbon (Artemis) threw in the towel. Having suffered various problems, it was the delamination of his mainsail that was to deal him the fatal blow. He is now heading for New Zealand. Not one particular storm, but a series of gales in the Indian and (for the frontrunners) the Pacific, associated with dangerous seas — or sometimes pure bad luck, that have been the major cause of boats dropping out of the race.



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