Alex Thomson closes in on Vendee Globe leaders

The duel between Vincent Riou and Armel Le Cléac'h at the head of the Vendée Globe fleet has swung in favour of the foiling Banque Populaire VIII skipper Le Cléac'h as the NE Trade Winds strengthened this afternoon 280 miles SW of the Canary Islands, but the leading pair might well be looking in the rear-view mirror, fearing the black missile that is Alex Thomson's Hugo Boss.

After a strategic error lost him miles, Thomson has been quickest since last night, clawing back 20 miles on the lead duo and getting himself back into the match, lying third this Friday afternoon.

The foiling v non foiling debate is only partially answered at the moment. Five of the top seven IMOCAs are new generation foiling boats, but Vincent Riou on PRB still holds on to second place on the conventionally configured PRB. But this afternoon he has seen Le Cléach ease away metre by metre, doubling his margin between 1100hrs and 1400hrs TU today, to be nearly eight miles ahead. More importantly, when this morning they were racing side by side – albeit with a lateral separation of eight miles – Le Cléac'h has Riou directly astern now. Le Cléac'h, Vendée Globe bridesmaid twice in a row, second to Michel Desjoyeaux in 2008-9 and second by only three hours to François Gabart in 2012-13, has the 2004-5 race winner where he wants him as they accelerate progressively. Thomson is still some 40 miles behind, leading a lateral line-up of five drag racing IMOCAs.

The next 24-36 hours may not be a simple, straightforward pedal to the metal speed race. Embedded in the trade winds is a wide area of thunderclouds which are expected to make for hard work, big changes in wind direction and pressure, almost to the latitude of the Cape Verde Islands.

Even so the small differences in sail design choices, use and trimming could make the difference as well as the foil package. Riou, for one – as is an essential part of the psychological game early in the solo round the world race – stonewalled enigmatically when asked what sails he was using:

Vendée Globe LIVE: “What sails do you have up?”

Vincent ‘The Terrible': ‘The ones that are needed.'

Riou continued: “The conditions are as expected. I'm close to the boat's polars. (NDLR constantly updated computed target speeds) What counts is the average speed. I can see that Armel must be busy at the helm, when he accelerates. The foilers can be faster at times, but I'm working on my average speed. I'm trying to work on finding the best route and we must remember that there is a long way to go. For me succeeding in the Vendée Globe is a matter of managing the boat and looking after yourself. Before the Doldrums, we have other things to worry about, but it looks like continuing to be fast.”

Thomson's design choices – boat and aero package – are his own and those of his team. He is much less influenced by the French norms. His boat is narrowest with the widest foils, is reported to ‘fly' earlier and sustain flying speeds for longer. Rather than the French North Sails and Incidences Voiles sail lofts that the French teams use, Thomson works with Doyle Sails. Over the 24 hours to 1400hrs this afternoon he covered the greatest distance, 427.4 nautical miles, Riou second fastest just slightly less at 425.6.

The Magnificent Seven are riding well clear of the boats behind, a fifty miles gap opened to eighth placed Yann Eliès who is twenty miles ahead of a closely matched group of older generation boats. This pace should continue at least until they get to SW of the Cape Verde Islands at 6°N. Currently 1700 miles from the Equator, they should be crossing into the Southern Hemisphere after nine days, as the Doldrums are looking very kind for them this year.

Quéguiner-Leucémie Espoir,skippered by Yann Eliès is in a different weather situation, as the trade winds are favouring the leaders. The third group led by Bertrand de Broc (MASCF) is still struggling in lighter winds between Madeira and the Canaries. Already some 300 miles behind, the Famous Five are going to find it hard to get back up there before the Southern Ocean.

A few independent thinkers have chosen to go their own way. In particular, the Irishman who approached the coast of Morocco to find stronger trade winds. Enda O'Coineen (Kilcullen Voyager-Team Ireland) passed between Africa and Fuerteventura at lunchtime. Speaking to Vendée Live this afternoon, O'Coineen joked: “We have had a nice scenic tour of the Canary Islands and the coast of Africa. I have a house in Lanzarote so I thought I would go and have a look at it. (laughs) I was a little bit behind and wanted to try to pick up the NE'ly trades at the same time or before everybody else. I think I have caught up a bit. But it is hard to know. I had 25-26kts of breeze and so it was a bit of a rough night. The A3 became unfurled and I had a problem sorting that out. And then I broke a reefing line. So I have had a few issues. Other than that it is all good.”

Other international skippers have been doing their own thing. Pieter Heerema (No Way Back) was tempted to take a radical routing option for a while but has spent the day digging back to the west, while the Japanese skipper Kojiro Shiraishi (Spirit of Yukoh),19th, and the Hungarian Nandor Fa (Spirit of Hungary), 22nd, accompanied by Romain Attanasio (Famille Mary-Étamine du Lys), 20th, went between Madeira and the Canaries. In 17th Conrad Colman (Foresight Natural Energy) ended up closer to Madeira than he had hoped to be, reporting at midday: “The local effects of the island really slowed me down. I had been trying to pass over the top of Madeira and really got stuck there. I got sucked in by the shifting winds but I managed to escape in good form and actually had a really nice wind shift and acceleration when I left the south coast of Madeira. I had a good shot of Funchal last night. I cruised in past the airport, it was dramatic, but my favourite thing was seeing it drop behind me on the horizon behind me.”

Eric Bellion (Comme Un Seul Homme) in 27th seemed to be having a little crisis of confidence, not uncommon early in a first Vendée Globe. Speaking to Vendée Live he admitted he had moments wondering why he was doing this. “I feel like I have a Moto GP bike and am driving it like a moped,” he said. It was also a day on which some minor domestic issues emerged. Kito de Pavant admitted he picked up the wrong wash bag and has no earplugs and just one razor to get him round the world. Alan Roura lost his bucket and – he says – now has just one for his washing and toileting needs – and Enda O'Coineen not only burned his dinner while attending to a sail problem on deck but had a small fire on Kilcullen Voyager Team Ireland.

– Vendee Globe Media 

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