Nine boats, or in other words almost a third of the fleet, sustained serious damage in the storm in the Bay of Biscay soon after the start of the Vendée Globe. Suffering varying degrees of damage, the boats returned to Les Sables d’Olonne - the only pitstop allowed - to carry out repairs. Encouraged by the locals in Les Sables, helped by shore teams that were still there, they all were able to set sail again, except for four: Yannick Bestaven, Kito de Pavant, Mark Thiercelin (who put in to La Coruna), whose boats were all dismasted and Alex Thomson, whose Hugo Boss suffered a crack in the hull
The problem front
Kito de Pavant told us about the circumstances leading to his boat being dismasted. “Suddenly at around 16h, the wind suddenly veered. No time to feel relieved The jib was on the wrong side causing a change of tack with the ballast on the wrong side, everything stacked on the wrong side and the swing keel on the wrong side. Some acrobatics and Groupe Bel goes over 90° on her side. The cow was no longer laughing. No panic. I put the keel in place and get back in the race. Then, time to transfer the ballast and all the gear from the port to starboard. I’m on the right track. The wind has come around and things are looking up. We’ll be gliding along faster and faster and besides, I’m up with the leaders. The NW’ly wind gets up again, 25 knots, but with huge seas coming straight at us. I could now head directly towards the SW. A dark cloud arrives. The wind gets up. Groupe Bel accelerates. At the nav desk, talking over the electrical problems, I felt the boat ride up on a steep wave. I felt her plunge back down into the abyss. A deafening sound precedes a deathly silence. The mast had snapped in several pieces, although I don’t know what exactly happened. The adventure comes to a sudden end.” On board Aquarelle.com, slightly further back, the dismasting also occurred shortly after the violent wind shift. Yannick Bestaven : “After passing a violent front with headwinds up to 50 knots, I was sailing with three reefs in the main and the ORC jib. I thought I had made it and was quite well placed in the middle of the fleet. Everything was going well. My batteries were still fully charged thanks to the wind turbine and my hydro-generator, which in spite of the conditions supplied me with all the energy I required. The wind veered NW’ly and eased off to 20 knots. I was able to change tack with the wind on the beam to head for Cape Finisterre.
The seas were still very rough and I was letting out a reef at the foot of the mast after ploughing through two huge waves, which had swept over the deck. The boat suddenly crashed down onto the third one and the impact was violent leading to the mast to come out of its step and fall down in 3 pieces.
DCNS lost her mast at daybreak on Tuesday. We have fewer details for the time being about what exactly happened, but Marc Thiercelin, the skipper of this brand new boat, who was further down the Bay of Biscay talked of violent winds and waves in excess of six metres. Generally, the sea is in the same direction as the wind, but this time the front passed over so quickly that the boats found themselves heading into rough seas. In this case, the boats slam violently into the waves and even slowing down does not help to avoid the worst.
Maisonneuve was only sailing at 7 knots, when the hull was a victim to these pyramid shaped waves, which dropped her back into a trough. the mast withstood the shock, but the hull cracked at the bow. Jean-Baptiste Dejeanty, who has already sailed the equivalent of a round the world race on his Lavranos designed boat could not believe what had happened.
Once out of the maelstrom of the Bay of Biscay, the sheets were cracked and the speeds leapt up as they clocked up the miles in the Atlantic off Spain. Under huge spinnakers or hybrid sails, they were now really smoking. From the sky, it looks magnificent, but out on deck, it is very wet and demanding. Armel Le Cléac’h on board BritAir : “I’m remaining cautious about the sail plan. A change in downwind sails, for example, going from spinnaker to gennaker, is a manoeuvre that takes 30-45 minutes to complete and requires a lot of energy!” No room for any mistakes. Helm or autopilot?: “When BritAir is under full sail, the autopilot finds it tricky to stay on course, so I prefer to stay at the helm for as long as possible. However, under reduced sail, when the boat is on track in her point of sail, the pilot works perfectly. I leave it up to the pilot and get on with something else.”
Marc Guillemot, the skipper of Safran explained, with some pictures that his boat under mainsail and gennaker, was sailing so quickly in the trade winds that the deck was permanently under water. It’s not easy to stay at the helm for long in these conditions. He took refuge inside his boat and left the job to the autopilot, while remaining on the alert, in case he had to jump outside if the boat suddenly veered. A broach is not dramatic, but if it means going right over with the boat on her side and the sails in the water, the consequences can become very serious. The pace was being set by the frontrunners. The major difficulty was keeping up without running the risk of damage. Old hands like Peyron and Le Cam were good at this game and worked miracles with the “youngster”, Sébastien Josse hot on their heels, confirming everyone’s opinion of him. Knowing that sailing at high speed and at high risk is the key to this round the world voyage, it makes us shiver to watch them…
Loïck Peyron leading the way
“You don’t get anything, unless you work hard! The boats are noisy and demanding and I still haven’t slept since the start,” said the skipper of Gitana 80 as he passed Madeira. Since then cunning Loïck, the first to admit that Guillemot had got off to a good start in Les Sables, was the first to change tack in the Bay of Biscay and positioned himself to the east of his rivals off Spain, and has been in the lead in the rankings since then. At the 11h ranking this Sunday, a week after the start less two hours and two minutes, the Farr designed boat with the blue colours and yellow edging had sailed 1847 miles toward the finish - which is very different from the total distance sailed out on the water - averaging 11 knots, which is truly amazing, when we consider the zigzag of the first 48 hours. Very quickly, the sailors began to fix a point of entry for the Doldrums, the buffer zone separating to the north of the Equator the two sets of trade winds, with before that the passage by the Canaries and Cape Verde.
Marc Guillemot paid a high price off the Spanish islands where a long wind shadow stretched out, taking him prisoner for 12 hours.
This week’s amazing feat
It was Jean Le Cam (VM Matériaux), who achieved the greatest feat this week by working his way back and getting up with the leader after a cautious start. We can also note the excellent comeback achieved by Dominique Wavre (Temenos II), who has overtaken half of the fleet since he restarted in Les Sables. It is going to be a much tougher challenge for Michel Desjoyeaux, as he is sailing in a different weather system. The skipper of Foncia was some 500 nautical miles behind, when he set sail from Port Olona on Tuesday morning after a rapid pit stop, but has been in the red ever since. Used to being chased, one of the race favourites has become the chaser. He is going to have to get used to his new role. Bernard Stamm, the wood chopper, as he is called, also had some high ambitions, but starting out four days behind, the task borders on the impossible. Although “impossible” is never a word we can use when talking about the Vendée Globe. And that is precisely why it is such a fascinating adventure.
First Published in Men's Passion Issue #09