On the sixth day of racing in the Route du Rhum, British skipper Alex Thomson is still leading the fleet of IMOCAs. In the trade winds, he is being chased by three skippers, Paul Meilhat, Vincent Riou and Yann Eliès. It looks like being a fascinating battle right up to the finish in Pointe-à-Pitre. For the moment, there are still 2000 miles left to sail and we may not have heard the last from Boris Herrmann, who chose a northerly option. Further back, a contest between three skippers sailing Finot-Conq designed baots from the 2008 generation is equally exciting with a possible top five place for Stéphane Le Diraison, Alan Roura or Damien Seguin... Today, it’s twice winner of the Vendée Globe, Michel Desjoyeaux, who gives us his expert analysis of the Route du Rhum in the IMOCA class.
“At the start, there was a choice that was not easy to make between an option close to the Great Circle route in strong winds and heavy seas or a longer route offering greater certainty about the pace it would be able to keep up. Alex Thomson went for the first option and was successful. At one point, his lead became considerable when we looked at the theoretical route planners without taking into account the sea state. But in practice, when Alex was in the north in heavier seas, he didn’t manage to keep up the pace indicated on the route planner. That was when we saw that the southerly option was a wise one.
“It’s going to be hard to catch Alex Thomson”
However, Alex coped very well and was a bit lucky when passing through the ridge of high pressure, which enabled him to position himself in front of Paul Meilhat, Vincent Riou and Yann Eliès. I think that Alex is the one who is really on the attack in the trade winds. He is pushing hard. Now that he is in front he wants to increase his lead. I sometimes ask myself how he manages to speed along like that. He is managing to keep up high speeds without losing in terms of VMG (Velocity Made Good, the compromise between bearing and speed),which is astonishing, as his boat is a bit heavier than the others. It’s going to be hard to catch him. Before the start he talked about the Bretons being the best in the world and is probably determined to try to do better than them… If the trade winds aren’t too strong, we’ll be seeing a race where speed is everything between the first three (Thomson, Meilhat, Riou). Yann Eliès is a bit further back and it will probably be difficult for him to catch up in conditions where his boat does not have a greater potential than the others.
“I think that PRB has a problem on the starboard tack”
I think that PRB has a problem on the starboard tack, maybe a damaged foil or maybe it cannot be pushed out. Or maybe Vincent cannot adjust it as he would like. It could also be a problem with the keel. In several phases, Vincent was unable to keep up the pace on the starboard tack racing against Paul, in conditions where he didn’t need to ease off on the gas. I would not be surprised at the finish in Guadeloupe to discover that something is wrong aboard PRB. When that happens, there are two schools of thought in terms of communication. There is the school of thought we saw with Ellen MacArthur, who only talked when something was broken and never when she was carrying out repairs. Then, there is the school of thought that prefers to be more discreet and even keep everything hidden. I know something about that way of doing things, as you may have seen…
“A faultless performance from Paul Meilhat”
Paul Meilhat is having a fantastic crossing. I haven’t seen him make any mistakes. In strong winds, he coped with the conditions and kept up the pace. As far as I know, he doesn’t have any major problems, maybe a few minor worries like everyone, but nothing serious. Physically, he is far from being exhausted and remains clear-headed, which is very promising for what lies ahead. It was important to reach this point in the race while remaining in relatively good shape, as you have to spend a lot of time at the helm in the trade winds, which are far from offering smooth sailing and require a careful approach. For Paul, this Route du Rhum offers a great opportunity to show what he can do and to show off his skill, especially as he is getting to the end of his contract with SMA, and this may encourage a sponsor to look more closely at him.
“We need to keep an eye on Boris Herrmann”
There is still a great deal of uncertainty about Boris Herrmann up north, who defiantly remains close to the Great Circle route. If he manages to get across the ridge of high pressure which is blocking his path, he may well upset things for the four racing in the south. It would be very surprising, as his option is not what we usually see, but why not? We need to keep an eye on him. For Alex, Paul, Vincent and Yann, there is little they can do before Boris gets down with them sometime on Sunday night.
“Crossing the Atlantic has not become a routine trip”
Further back, Stéphane Le Diraison, Alan Roura and Damien Seguin are suffering more with the ridge of high pressure, which is tending to move down with them. They are doing what they can and having a fine race. Alan got off to a very good start early in the race. Since he has been downwind in light winds, he is probably suffering more with his foils. Stéphane has done well to look after the gear in the strong winds. What an incredible performance from Damien! Holding on in such nasty conditions where really you need two hands to hold on tight, when you only have one, is incredible. Well done! We knew that he was someone who shows determination and is full of energy. Arnaud Boissières is doing what we have come to expect from him. He isn’t really going on the attack much, but he is still sailing. It’s going to be tough to catch the three ahead of him. But as Morgan Lagravière said yesterday, it’s already an achievement to be out there sailing still. They should enjoy themselves. People tend to think that crossing the Atlantic has become routine, but it is still far from that.
I should add that so far there have only been three boats retiring in the IMOCA class (Sam Davies, Louis Burton and Yannick Bestaven), and probably a fourth shortly with Isabelle Joschke, who dismasted. That’s a very reasonable figure out of the twenty boats at the start. Five competitors are due to set sail again shortly after their pit stops. We sailors always show determination.”