They may have gently eased into the IMOCA Ocean Masters Transat St Barth-Port la Forêt, wafted along by balmy trade winds after leaving the Caribbean just over a week ago, but now competitors are feeling the full force of the North Atlantic at its mid-winter meanest.
Since last week, the forecast has warned that today (Monday) a giant, intense depression would ‘bomb’ the IMOCA 60s around the Azores as it followed a parabolic course east before turning northeast towards Ireland. But more worrying was the prediction the depression’s centre plummeting to 950mB, similar to that found in a Category 3 hurricane.
Anticipating this, most boats have headed south since last week, with Fabrice Amedeo on Newrest – Matmut, at one point yesterday having strayed 460 miles from the great circle (the shortest route from St Barts to Port la Forêt).
Fortunately while they haven’t seen hurricane force conditions, even the boats at the back of the fleet, after fleeing south still experienced ‘strong gale’ force winds over the weekend.
On O Canada, skipper Eric Holden saw 45 knots, which was more than was forecast. “My barometer was reading 10mb lower than the model and falling rapidly, so it’s not surprising there was some increased weather with that.”
The conditions have taken their toll on the fleet. While lying in third on Friday, Morgan Lagravière on Safran took a dramatic gybe south to get away from the anticipated gale and on Sunday reported that the attachment of the hydraulic ram to the top of Safran’s canting keel had broken. Fortunately he had been able to lock the free-swinging keel in place , but the boat, which is usually Nicolas Boidevezi’s adopteunskipper.net (the latest Safran is currently having modification work carried out to her), being now unable to cant her keel, will continue the race underpowered.
The two most recent victims of the conditions have been Thomas Ruyant’s Le Souffle du Nord and Fabrice Amedeo’s Newrest–Matmut. This morning, Ruyant announced that the forward bearing of his boat’s canting keel was showing movement, which had become ‘excessive’ in the stronger conditions. He had managed to stabilise it but is now looking at his options – whether to put into the Azores some 400 miles further down the race track or to continue. Nearby him, on Newrest – Matmut (formerly Loick Peyron’s Gitana 80), Fabrice Amedeo was facing a similar decision after two thirds of his boat’s starboard rudder disintegrated overnight.
On O Canada, Eric Holden has been struggling with his autopilot. This caused the boat to gybe accidently while under full main and A5 in 20-25 knots of wind. In turn the gybe blew up the pilot motor and Holden has since swapped to his back-up, but this is untested.
At this half way stage, Holden continues ‘softly softly’. “With it being so important to our campaign to finish this race and qualify for the Vendee Globe, plus my lack of confidence in the one remaining pilot, I am not willing to push the boat 100%. But it is difficult to find the right balance as I obviously want to go faster.” He is expecting a speedier second half of the race, downwind in 25-40 knot to blast O Canada towards Brittany.
On board Currency House Kilcullen, Ireland’s Enda O’Coineen has done well to catch up with the fleet after starting late and this morning was 38 miles behind O Canada. Currency House Kilcullen has had issues. O’Coineen reported last night: “It’s been another very tough day - I am exhausted having spent some hours on deck sorting out the J2, the main working headsail: It’s stuck up there flapping itself to bits, partially unfurled. Speed has slowed considerably and I am more in a survival mode.”
Meanwhile the heinous conditions this afternoon are bludgeoning the front of the fleet. As the depression rolled across the western Azores islands at lunchtime today, Paul Meilhat on second placed SMA was just 100 miles southeast of the depression’s centre. “I have 55 knots, the sea is massive and we’re steaming along at 30 knots,” Meilhat reported – quite an experience for his first solo IMOCA 60 race.
Romping ahead of the fleet, now some 200 miles past the Azores, conditions so far have panned out well for Sébastien Josse on Edmond de Rothschild. After managing to sail a direct course, the race only’s new generation IMOCA 60 had pulled out a lead of 380 miles yesterday afternoon. However this has since dropped back to 250 and Josse is set to experience the severe conditions tonight when the forecast indicates Edmond de Rothschild will see up to 50 knots and 8m waves as the front passes over.