As sailors, we never like to get hit hard from the outset of a race with such tough conditions. Unfortunately, this leads to a sort of natural selection. We know that in this type of transatlantic race, a lot is decided in the first three days of racing, as that is when the major strategic options are taken.
The first hurdle was dealing with a trough extending from an area of low pressure 24 hours after the start. Those who kept going straight ahead made it through, like Vincent (Riou), Paul Meilhat and Alan Roura. Those who changed tack lost some ground, like Yann Eliès, Boris Herrmann and Sam Davies. With his option outside of the Ushant Traffic Separation Scheme, Alex Thomson was already way out west and suffered less in this complex weather system.
Alex Thomson going wherever the will takes him and is going all out with his options
Alex Thomson’s position now seems to be very interesting. He sought out the wind shift. That doesn’t surprise me. Alex sails like that wherever the will takes him and goes all out with his options. I find it very interesting to watch such strategies as they appeal to me. In a transatlantic race, you can benefit a lot by making gains westward early in the race. They are easy miles after that. One degree of longitude at the latitude of Ushant is equivalent to 40 miles. The same degree of longitude at the latitude of the Cape Verde Islands represents 50 miles…
The key for Alex in the next 24 hours will involve stepping up the pace in cross seas behind the front. If he manages that, I can imagine that in two days from now he will be around forty miles ahead, lined up in front of the two chasing boats skippered by Vincent Riou and Paul Meilhat, who both went for a more southerly option. The three leaders should in fact start to come together on Wednesday evening or Thursday morning. We’ll then see which of them between Alex on the one hand and Vincent and Paul had the best strategy.
With each wave, we feel for the boat
Conditions are currently tricky for the IMOCAs. The wind can be dealt with fairly well, but the manoeuvres to reduce the sail are complicated, even if experienced sailors know how to deal with that. It is really the sea state that is the hardest thing to cope with. Behind the front, the seas are boiling. The seas are boat-breaking and all over the place.
With Boris Herrmann, I faced similar conditions last year in the Transat Jacques Vabre. You’re slamming with each wave and it’s very wet. You get the impression that the boat is going to split in half and you really feel for her… When that happens, you need to turn off your brain and go for it.
What really matters is managing to continue to have a more or less normal life aboard, eating, taking some naps, listening to what the boat is telling you. That is what the sailors are currently going through. They all have their foot on the brake and the foils are certainly retracted.
Favourable weather conditions for the three leaders
During the evening, the swell will build again, reaching seven or eight metres, but it will be more regular. Conditions should allow high speed sailing. From the middle of the night and especially tomorrow morning, the wind should start to ease, but the seas will remain heavy. The three frontrunners should be getting away from the low-pressure system and entering an area of high pressure.
The situation appears to be very favourable for the three leaders. A ridge of high pressure is currently building. They are likely just about to make it through with a bit of wind. This ridge of high pressure will be much harder to cross for those chasing them. The frontrunners should extend their lead with the gaps widening.
I’m also keeping an eye on what is happening behind them. I’m pleasantly surprised by Alan Roura, who is having a great race with an older IMOCA. I’m also closely watching my old friend, Boris Herrmann, who found it hard to get across the trough, but he seems to be sailing quite fast. He will soon be able to make the most of more favourable conditions for his foiler.
I was very saddened to hear about Isabelle Joschke dismasting. I have seen that Romain too is turning back. Like everyone, I would have loved to have seen Charal go all the way. But I’m not really surprised as that IMOCA was only recently launched. Ocean racing is a mechanical sport and the boats require a lot of adjustments. However, I remain convinced that having launched his boat a year before all the other new IMOCAs, Jérémie Beyou will in the end have a huge advantage in terms of reliability.