Pacific Ocean – After spending some of yesterday during the day and evening hove to, slowed to speeds of just two or three knots as he sought to reduce the level of danger he faces negotiating a violent storm, Yann Eliès, the fifth placed French skipper of Quéguiner-Leucemie Espoir, was today struggling to come to terms with his choices and their consequences.
The three times winner of La Solitaire du Figaro, racing his second Vendée Globe, sounded concerned at not knowing exactly what weather and seas he still has to face but so too he is ‘fed up’ that his prudent choices mean also accepting the net loss of very hard earned miles to his rivals in front of him who are not affected. Some 600 miles south east of Tasmania, Eliès has tiptoed as the low’s centre passes just to the north of him, but he is tired and stressed and has had more than 40-knot winds to deal with. And he is concerned that he will still have unruly seas of more than seven and a half metres to contend with. All the while he has been taking avoiding action, he says. He has lost another 24 hours or more than 400 miles to fourth placed Jérémie Beyou – his long time Figaro class rival. Beyou (Maître CoQ) is now 835 miles ahead when two and a half days ago that delta was 375 miles. “It’s getting me down, as it’s the second low I’ve had and the second I have had to wait for. You never know what it means for you and for the boat. We’re not in the radius of the rescue services. So yes, I’m worrying about it, it’s getting me down and I’m fed up. Each time with this stuff I lose 24 hours.”
Eliès continued: “Yesterday I waited for the centre of the low. I didn’t want to get too far east, because further east the worse the conditions. I didn’t like taking the long way around it like Jean-Pierre. We have 40-45 knot squalls. But the wind isn’t the problem, it’s the worsening sea state that worries me more. A 7 m swell… I have three reefs in and just the mainsail up. But I keep telling myself that this is the Southern Ocean, so I should be able to deal with that. The worst sea conditions are likely to be tomorrow evening. I’m trying to sail at 60-70% of the polars. I’m hitting peak speeds of 20 knots with three reefs in. I may heave to again this evening after looking at the latest forecasts. I have been going slow now for two days.”
Jean Pierre Dick (StMichel-Virbac), who is sixth, was arriving into the lee of Tasmania around 1800hrs UTC having diverted more than 500 miles north east to avoid the same storm. He will likely have to slow right down in the lee as the island is some 160 miles west to east and consequently at normal speeds he would otherwise emerge back into the depression around five or six in the morning (UTC) when there is still likely to be more than 40 knots of wind. Eliès points out that the option to go to Tasmania with Dick was not ideal: “I was too far ahead to think about going up like Jean-Pierre around Tasmania. I didn’t want to arrive off the coast of Tasmania with the island as a lee shore in 40-45 knots. I’d rather have that out at sea than near the coast. But it’s true that if you need help, it’s better fifty miles from land than 400 miles. There’s another low moving in on 16th with winds in excess of 40 knots on Saturday.”
At the front of the fleet, Alex Thomson’s deficit behind leader Armel Le Cléac’h is at just on 200 miles. The following few days are about disorderly high pressure, lighter wind areas. But Le Cléach, the Banque Populaire VIII solo skipper said today: “Conditions should start to ease tonight and especially tomorrow. It’s going to be nice to take it easy after the hellish pace we have had for several weeks. In the Southern Ocean, we were rarely down below twenty knots. It is stimulating to have someone close by. Four years ago with François (Gabart) it was different as we were alongside each other. This time, there is some separation, but it’s still very close. It’s motivating and fascinating watching each other’s strategy and routing choices.” He continued: “The past few days haven’t been easy with heavy seas and 50 knot gusts. It wasn’t comfortable on board. Eating, getting dressed and moving around. All that was difficult. A secondary low formed in front of us, so we had to deal with that, which meant going around the south in my case. Since the start of the race, we’ve had lots of complicated moments, where it was really tough. I was wondering whether it was ever going to stop. But you have to keep at it. It’s when the going gets tough that you can make all the difference.”
Between these two groups – the eternal pacemakers and the trio battling the big storm, Dick, Eliès and Jean Le Cam, Beyou and Paul Meilhat are racing fast to stay ahead of the system which the threesome are dealing with. Beyou admitted today that he is very much in conservation mode, racing at 80 per cent as he seeks to ensure he finishes, modulating his progress against Meilhat. “My race is on hold more or less since I broke my mainsail hook. My goal is to make it through the Southern Ocean without any more damage. The seas have calmed down before the big low moves in on 13th. It’s hard to find the right strategy in these conditions. The problem down here is that everything is grey, so you can’t see the squalls coming. Today is a special day, as I know that tomorrow I’m going to get a battering in the storm. I checked everything out aboard the boat. It looks like a violent phenomenon and the wind is forecast to hit me on the beam. The seas should be fine, but there are gusts in excess of 60 knots forecast. I hope that things will be less hostile afterwards. I feel very much alone since I entered the Indian Ocean.”