It is day 50 of the Vendée Globe round-the-world, non-stop, single-handed yacht race. At the moment Armel Le Cléac’h is in the lead with François Gabart roughly 2 nm behind him. However these two are continuously swapping the lead back and forth. Jean-Pierre Dick is in third (~375nm behind the leader), Alex Thomson is in fourth (~900nm behind the leader), and Jean Le Cam is fifth (~1906nm behind the race leader). The fleet is scattered across the South Pacific Ocean, with only one skipper (Alessandro Di Benedetto) still in the Indian Ocean. Everyone is past Cape Leeuwin and heading for Cape Horn.
For several days Jean-Pierre Dick was unable to use two of his headsails (staysail and gennaker), because the hook for holding the top of the sails was broken. He found an optimal weather window, ran downwind and depowered his boat to 10 knots, then climbed up his mast and spent two hours aloft fixing the problem. He described it as “quite perilous, you’re shaken right and left, I wasn’t very confident”.
The conditions are noisy, wet, boats crashing on waves. Jean Le Cam is thrown from his navigation chair, his stuffed animals are ok. His rule: “I always sleep with my legs to the front of the boat, it’s a basic rule when sailing.” Jean-Pierre Dick says that the waves are “amazing in the Southern Seas, even when there is no wind, the swell remains.”
Two captains experienced accidental gybes with their boats ending up on their sides: Alex Thomson on Wednesday December 19 and Mike Golding on Friday December 21. Alex says it was really rough and bumpy with confused waves when it happened. Mike believes his autopilot just got overloaded with big waves.
Javier Sansó has a really nice solar array on his ACCIONA 100% EcoPowered boat. The solar panels have been working great even in cloudy conditions. “I have not used hydrogenerators in the southern hemisphere yet. I am keeping them as back[ups], they work perfectly, but I have not used them since the Equator.”
It has been a different story for other racers! On Saturday December 22 Bernard Stamm diverted from the race to repair his hydrogenerators. He found shelter in the Auckland Islands. It was his last chance to find a protected spot. Ahead of him across the Pacific it is 4,000 miles to Cape Horn. His fuel reserves are low and he needs something to charge his batteries. Power is needed for the auto pilot, radar, communications, weather forecasts and routing. Race officials allowed Bernard to break the seal on his engine and motor into a safe anchorage. Then Bernard’s anchor would not hold, and he had to moor to a Russian Science Vessel, “Professor Khromov”. To top it all off, a storm moving in on Monday forced the skipper to sail further north to New Zealand to find a safer anchorage and continue his repairs. He dropped anchor on Wednesday in Kaikai Bay, just to the north of Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island. Friday morning he was finally ready to leave and he lifted anchor to rejoin the race.
On Thursday December 27 Javier Sansó had to climb up his mast to the first reef in order to repair a mainsail car. He reports that a previous piece (changed in the Canaries) was faulty. His repair went well but unfortunately he lost time and got out of sync with the racing.
Interesting tidbit: Sleep management is crucial in a long distance solo race. It’s important not to get too exhausted and to be able to wake up quickly in an urgent situation. Sailors in the Vendée Globe call it the “red zone”: a period of unexpected, deep, sustained sleep. Solo racers rely on their experience and knowledge of their own bodies to avoid the plunge into the red zone.