Morning after the night before
There was a certain ‘morning after the night before’ mood evident among the Barcelona World Race skippers today.
It was not just the bleary eyed tiredness - the inevitable product of more than 48 hours of intense on-the-edge racing in very difficult, unstable conditions and very big confused seas which had prevailed in very different sections of the fleet, but there was also a very obvious measure of relief: satisfaction to have their campaigns still firmly intact, competitive and on course which was immediately apparent.
When the going gets really tough - proper boat breaking conditions - it becomes prudent to back off, to reduce sail and slow down. But when there is a boat alongside you which you have been duelling with, trading blows over previous days, brinksmanship finally gives way to prudence.
And so it was today that both of the co-skippers of third placed Groupe Bel and Estrella Damm, Kito de Pavant and Pepe Ribes, confirmed that the time came almost simultaneously last night when their sparring had to stop and boat and self-preservation took over.
De Pavant, who along with gentle giant co-skipper Seb Audigane, is living this race by the maxim ‘sail safe, sail fast’ on their Groupe Bel, earlier described the conditions prior to easing off as ‘madness’.
It was not so much the wind-strength but the confused cross seas which were launched their IMOCA Open 60 into huge voids or into the back of big waves, which required them to regulate their pace, sailing for several hours with just a double reefed mainsail. He confirmed that Audigane suffered some bruising when he was thrown across the boat like a rag doll.
“The two days that we just had were really difficult. Reaching with the wind at 100 degrees and wind between 25 and 35 knots with impressive boat speeds. We slowed down a little, with a good part of the night only under main with two reefs. We lost some miles but the sea was chaotic, but we prefer to stay in one piece in the Indian Ocean. We were glad to be close with Estrella Damm. It was normal not too push too much. Ahead of 90° of the wind we were going too fast, we said to slow, it was just not good. We stuck the nose into some big waves, with some big frights. So we chose to lift the foot off the pedal a little, perhaps not even for the boat which can maybe take more, but more for us. It was incredibly loud inside the boat. Now it has quietened a bit, we have more sail up again and are making 15-20 knots as the puffs come through.
"The decks have been well washed these last few days, the boat is very clean. Seb tries to find the right settings and gears, not always easy.
"It did not feel a very natural step at first, but now it is quite pleasant to sail round the world with two, to be able to rest or to boost the morale. But we speak a lot about our experiences at sea, and we have a course which is quite a bit further north than we would expect to follow. The gates are very, very north of the 42nd parallel. Normally you’d be downwind in the south, and we are awaiting that, but the conditions in the Indian have not been good. There will be some debate about this before the next Vendée Globe for sure."
Ribes, co-skipper of Estrella Damm, said: “ In the last 48 hours we had to back off because the seas were confused and we did not want to break the boat, so we were happy to see they were losing a bit. So it showed us they were backing of a bit, at the same time as we were. But now at the moment we have good conditions, so we have been able to speed up a little and get away from them again.”
1800 miles or so behind, on Hugo Boss in tenth place, Andy Meiklejohn and Wouter Verbraak were smiling too, this morning appreciating the sudden appeal of a seascape painted in featureless flat grey hues, reaching along today at workmanlike speeds on nearly flat seas.
The conditions this morning had abated as the duo worked SE and were not so much typical of the Indian Ocean, more reminiscent of Verbraak’s native North Sea. But the Dutch co-skipper recalled vividly that only hours earlier, last night they had been relying on simple first principles, sailing the massively powerful IMOCA Open 60 by feel, as if blindfolded in the empty darkness which they found themselves in. It was, they said, physically the toughest hours of their race so far: “We had very difficult sea conditions which meant we could not sail as close to the wind as we would have like to, and so the in the end (getting to the waypoint) was quite tight and we had to tack again. But we got a nice little shift coming in which helped us. Just the sea was really in a bad direction for us and not very kind for the boat. The end goal was just really keeping the boat in one piece.
"We had some good rest, some good food and caught up on a few jobs, baling the boat and doing all the structural checks, and had some sleep as well. But there is plenty more if that to come.
"We have had a few tough moments, but physically and actually sailing the boat that was actually pretty tough. Every time when the pilot can’t steer the boat we have to drive by hand for hour after hour. And with seas of three to four metres you jump off the waves in seconds. The big challenge is to have anything to steer off. You can only see the four displays on the mast. Maybe a star here or there, but otherwise it is pitch black, back to dinghy sailing days, sailing by feel blindfold. And we do a pretty good job swapping between helmsmen. After one hour you are cracked, knackered and need to sleep."
So respite is widely welcomed almost all the way through the Barcelona World Race fleet today, even if they are essentially racing in at least three different weather systems, from Jean Pierre Dick and Loïck Peyron at the front of the fleet, with a stable lead of 419 miles over Mapfre, making a steady 16 knots, back to the scrapping back-markers We Are Water and FMC.
Xabi Fernandez reported: “Here we are, as I read on the website yesterday, pushing and pushing. Honestly we are going really fast but we are in an area in the low that is not very comfortable of sailing. Lots of changes in direction and intensity and is difficult to do 5 hours concentrating only on making the boat run. But oh well, as I said, we are doing well. Behind us Estrella is the one approaching the best. Yesterday they managed to cut a lot of distance but we hope that in the next few hours we can even gain or stabilize the difference. Besides that everything is going well onboard, very humid but at least we are having days of sailing 450 miles and is unbelievable! We are eating the Indian Ocean reaching at full speed!!! Iker and I, we are perfect so we’ll keep pushing hard and watching out for changes in the following hours”
The Spanish duos passed the Cape of Good Hope longitude this morning at only half an hour separating them. The two teams may be nearly an ocean behind Virbac-Paprec 3, but their race is every bit as intense as the leaders! Ironically FMC became the first boat of the race so far to have emerged from Ghost Mode having gained places on the leader board.
Juan Merediz and Fran Palacio emerged from Cape Town this afternoon, getting their race back on track on Central Lechera Asturiana. They arrived for their technical pit stop this morning at 0115 GMT last night and were back out on the race track this evening, the race’s youngest co-skipper Palacio and its only true remaining amateur, lawyer Merediz resolute and ready to fight on with a deficit of around 185 miles to 11th placed We Are Water.