Vendee Globe: First in, first out of the Doldrums

Banque Populaire piling on the miles again as Golding takes a westerly option

Tuesday November 20th 2012, Author: James Boyd, Location: none selected

Over the last 24 hours, the leaders in the Vendee Globe have been tackling the Doldrums, their boat speed having plummeted as the solo skippers deal with squalls and lulls for which the ITCZ is renowned. Between the first two scheds this morning, Banque Populaire has made her escape as those behind are now wallowing...

We have also witnessed the race's fifth retirement, not wholly unexpected, by Jeremie Beyou on Maitre Coq, following the breakage of the end of his yacht's titanium keel ram.

To date one quarter of the fleet has pulled out, three through technical failure and two following collisions with fishing boats. One theory for the former is perhaps the lack of racing the IMOCA 60s have done this year prior to the start of the Vendee Globe.

Image above courtesy of Expedition with GRIB files from Predictwind

Positions at 0800 UTC

Pos Skipper Boat Lat Long Spd Crs VMG Spd Dist DTF DTL
          1hr aver     24 hours av      
 1 Armel Le Cléac'h Banque Pop 04°01.52'N 27°50.63'W 9.6 202° 5.5 8.2 197.4 21229.7 0
 2 François Gabart MACIF 05°01.41'N 26°50.11'W 1.7 178° 1.6 6.2 147.7 21254.9 25.2
 3 Alex Thomson Hugo Boss 05°01.34'N 26°55.03'W 5.2 212° 3.2 8.4 200.6 21256.6 26.9
 4 Vincent  Riou PRB 05°03.26'N 26°56.62'W 6.5 180° 6 7.9 190.7 21259 29.2
 5 Bernard Stamm Cheminees 05°04.30'N 27°00.81'W 6.3 168° 6.3 6.9 165.5 21261.5 31.7
 6 Jean-Pierre Dick Virbac 05°03.45'N 27°12.07'W 7.9 158° 7.9 6.4 154.8 21265 35.2
 7 Mike  Golding Gamesa 06°54.07'N 27°55.65'W 11 212° 6.5 13.8 330.2 21383.7 154
 8 Jean Le Cam SynerCiel 07°15.60'N 27°33.27'W 9.2 217° 5.2 13.3 318.3 21395.7 166
 9 Dominique Wavre Mirabaud 07°13.45'N 27°42.43'W 10.8 216° 6.1 13.1 314 21396.8 167.1
 10 Arnaud  Boissières Akena Verandas 09°40.74'N 26°53.68'W 13.8 193° 12.7 13.2 316.1 21525.8 296
 11 Bertrand De Broc Votre nom 13°49.51'N 27°24.48'W 13.3 184° 12.9 13.1 315.5 21775.9 546.1
 12 Tanguy  Delamotte Initiatives Coeur 15°46.18'N 26°13.90'W 12.6 175° 12.6 11.5 277.1 21883.1 653.3
 13 Javier Sanso Acciona 16°32.14'N 25°51.96'W 10 194° 9.5 11 263 21927.6 697.8
 14 Alessandro Di Benedetto Team Plastique 21°51.02'N 25°41.18'W 12 207° 10.6 9.3 222.2 22245.7 1016
 15 Zbigniew Gutowski  Energa 32°02.02'N 20°51.05'W 10.2 86° -1.9 9.3 222.8 22870.5 1640.7

The boat speed numbers above, for the leaders, tells it all this morning with Banque Populaire back up to 9.6 knots while those behind are still in the thick of the Doldrums, their progress something of a lottery as they negotiate their way from cloud to cloud. In fact these numbers are wholly different to those of the 0400 sched when PRB and Virbac Paprec 3 were making better progress than the race leader, with Hugo Boss fastest of all, at 16 knots. 

Banque Populaire skipper Armel Le Cleac'h has done well to stop those behind closing in on hiim any more and over the next couple of scheds today we can expected to see the race leader pour on the miles. In fact the numbers above are misleading - while the DTL figure shows Banque Populaire just 25 miles ahead of second placed Francois Gabart on MACIF, in fact these numbers are based the shortest route around the world and on a more realistic course, to a mark we've designated off Brazil for example, Banque Populaire is in fact more like 68 miles ahead...

This route calculation also affects the theoretical position of the other leaders who are now all roughly at the same latitude (5°N) but are separated laterally by around 22 miles with Virbac Paprec 3 furthest west and MACIF holding the east. So by our reckoning Jean-Pierre Dick on Virbac Paprec 3 is currently second with Hugo Boss third (as in the official ranking - good work Alex), MACIF fourth, PRB fifth and Cheminees Poujoulat sixth, but all five boats separated by just 2 miles in terms of distance to our virtual mark.

Le Cleac'h reported that the Doldrums had initially not looked very wide but it had drifted south slightly with him and he had several encounters with the familiar giant cumulonimbus clouds the area is famous for.

"I think I'm good: I exited the Doldrums last night. I'm now sailing in a southeasterly of 10-16 knots under a lot of cloud cover still. I went into the Doldrums yesterday before daybreak. I found a large cloud mass in front of me with lots of lightning everywhere. In the Doldrums yesterday there was lots of rain, highly developed cumulonimbus clouds, calms and squalls. It was not easy: the breeze turned in all directions eventually upwind and finally I had to tack to extricate myself."

But by the time Banque Populaire reached 6°N, the sky began to clear and the southeasterly trade winds filled in with the blue and white IMOCA 60 upwind on port tack, escaping to the southwest.

Le Cleac'h continued: "In a few hours it should be a little easier when the wind backs into the east. It is very hot and each manoeuvre was really challenging in the Doldrums. I rested last night because I was tired after dealing with the clouds, so I'm taking lots of naps during the day. Today I'll start looking at St Helena high and do some cleaning."

The trio behind the front pack, are taking a different route through the Doldrums, further to the west (Gamesa's track is some 77 miles west of the median for the frontrunners). Mike Golding has pulled out a 12 mile lead over Jean le Cam on Synerciel, but importantly they have both taken a giant chunk out of the frontrunners' advantage over the last 24 hours, the distance between sixth and seventh down from 232 miles to 120 at the latest sched.

This morning Golding described his situation: "I’m upwind in quite a lot of wind right now. I came in with quite lot of wind on the Code Zero last night and had to get rid of that, so really now I am just waiting to see if I stop. At the moment there is a lot of lightning and rain and some big nasty clouds around, but so far, so good. It would be nice if we can keep some of these miles we have gained. It would be nice if we could keep all of them!

"The weather info you get here is a pretty good representation of what it’s like. The files tend to overestimate the strength of the breeze, and the angles tend to be a little rotated, but this is the acid test of how to model this area. The changes are small and subtle and if you can zoom in and see the subtle differences between wind and no wind then that is great. But it is a very dynamic area. The model I am looking at now is probably old now but then I have committed to my strategy and if I suddenly need to be sideways 50 miles I cannot just do that! But I am not too worried.

"Yesterday on the approach there was a lot of cloud. There are such a variety of different sizes and types of cloud, some very high level and some low and you learn their characteristics. You track them on the radar. The big ones can bring wind ahead of them and then nothing in their wake, and that calm can last for hours. They track with the gradient wind and so you generally try to avoid the biggest ones, but if one is coming at you and has your name on it you cannot avoid it.

"Last night we had a big cloud and I had the Code Zero up but had to get rid of it because the cloud brought with it a lot of wind, and there was a lot of lightning and heavy rain, lightning everywhere. It is hot and humid, though in fact I have just put some warm clothes on because there is a wind chill as we are going upwind and it's wet.

"So now I am looking for some steady upwind in a SE’ly wind which would signify we are starting to get out, but you don’t hold your breath. The Doldrums move north and south and at the moment they are static in the north but first they will expand a bit, so I am hoping we get south before that happens."

Unfortunately the satellite wind radar images aren't giving us any help in seeing where the Doldrums is likely to end for Golding and the two boats following him.


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