Day 65: Critical 12 hours for Vendée Globe leaders, says Walker

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The next 12 hours could prove crucial to the outcome of the 2016-17 Vendée Globe, according to British sailing star Ian Walker. Walker, the reigning champion of the Volvo Ocean Race, has been glued to his computer following the exploits of fellow countryman Alex Thomson, currently locked in an epic battle for first place with Frenchman Armel Le Cléac'h.

As the solo non-stop round the world race enters its final 3,000 nautical miles Le Cléac'h's Banque Populaire VIII leads Thomson's Hugo Boss by just 88 miles. After slowing to just two knots yesterday in the depths of the Doldrums, Le Cléac'h was this afternoon back up to speed making 14 knots just prior to the 1400 UTC position report. The Breton skipper lost more than 100 miles to Thomson in the Doldrums, allowing the Brit to get to within 50 miles of his position, but this afternoon he had started to pull away again with Thomson only making nine knots.

With the pair apparently breaking free of the grasp of the Doldrums today, Walker, who was recently made an MBE for services to sailing, said what happens in the coming few hours could prove critical in the sprint to the finish in Les Sables d'Olonne, France. “Alex has had a great few days, there's no denying that,” Walker told the Vendée Globe Live show today. “He's had a much better passage through the Doldrums and if he can stay within 100 miles of Armel then he's within half a day's sailing, and there's still a long way to go. The next six or twelve hours is quite important because if Alex isn't quite out of the Doldrums and Armel is able to double his lead, and it was just a stretching of the elastic that we've just seen, then that won't be good news for Alex. But while Alex will make a few losses now I don't think he should haemorrhage too many miles before they're back on an even keel.”

While admitting Le Cléac'h is the favourite to win, Walker said there were plenty of variables which could effect the overall outcome of this eighth edition of the Vendée Globe. The double Olympic silver medallist added: “What we don't know is what state both their boats are in – do they have all their sails still available, what damage do they have? It looks like Alex will be on starboard tack for most of the trip home and we saw earlier in the race he had excellent boat speed against the other competitors, but we don't know how much Armel has been holding back. What we do know is that we've got a fantastic race on our hands.” For his part Thomson appeared upbeat today after latching on to an unforeseen but welcome breeze. “There's been some wind that wasn't expected and I'm currently going quite fast although I'm on port tack,” he reported. “Hopefully this breeze will last for a while but there's definitely going to be a slow down before we get the north-easterly breeze after the Doldrums. It's not all plain sailing at the moment.”

French sailor Jérémie Beyou became the third skipper to feel the effects of the Doldrums, slowing to just a few knots this morning. “A few hours ago I was completely stopped,” he said. “I thought the Doldrums would be kinder to me.” By the 1400 UTC ranking the skipper of Maître CoQ was travelling at 13 knots, firmly focused on reducing the deficit to the leaders further. “Ahead of me there's a gap of 500 miles and behind me a gap of 800 miles, so I prefer to watch what's happening in front of me,” he added.

Fourteenth-placed American sailor Rich Wilson, having caught up more than 100 miles on the three skippers immediately in front of him by riding an easterly-moving depression, said his immediate aim was to get to the Atlantic as quickly as possible. “I was lucky, as sometimes us sailors get,” he said. “I was at the front of a depression while the group just ahead were stuck in a high without any wind. I've been able to close up to Alan Roura. My fondest hope right now is that the fog would clear so I could see where Alan is. We're only about five or six miles apart but I don't see him on the AIS and that makes me a bit nervous. The chatter among the group down here on email is 'let's get to Cape Horn as fast as we can and get out of the Southern Ocean.”

Tune into the Vendee Live show at 1200 UTC tomorrow at www.vendeeglobe.org/en/ where Will Carson will be joined by 2008 Vendee Globe competitor Jonny Malbon.

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