Route du Rhum. Things Improving But More Bad Weather to Come

Francis Joyon’s IDEC Sport.
Pic by Jean Marie Liot

by Richard Crockett

On day 3, with such a big fleet now spread over a large area of ocean, skippers in the solo transatlantic Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe are beginning to experience wide variations in weather conditions after three very challenging days at sea.

There are few exceptions to this, and our very own lone sailor Donald Alexander has succumbed to the frenzied conditions as his boat is damaged and he is heading to port.

Since my report last evening, additional info has come in from Donald who reports as follows:

“I noticed a crack in my main bulkhead/frame this morning and hoped it was superficial, just the gel coat maybe. But it’s all the way through and obviously from the pounding last night. Pics I sent ashore ended up with the boat’s designer in France, Marc Lombard. He advised that these are repairs that can only be done ashore.

“Paul Peggs and I discussed bolting the plywood hatch covers for storage compartments, but Marc says they will not strong enough.

“So I’m heading for La Coruna in Spain. I’m heartbroken, but all is not lost as I can rejoin the race.

“In some ways, from a safety point of view, it’s a good thing because there is still a long way to go and the tough conditions were beginning to show as the window in the staysail blew out and its leech is coming apart. The masthead unit which provides critical input to autopilot, like wind speed and direction, seems to have become disconnected. I’m confident I could nurse the staysail and I have a back up masthead unit. The irony is that I have been sailing quite cautiously and was very surprised that I was lying 19th when I hit these snags.

Donald Alexander.
pic by Alexis Courcoux

“Anyway I’m now headed for La Coruna. I am sailing off the wind so I am a bit more chilled. I’m going to cook up a delicious vegan freeze dried meal, yum, and maybe get some sleep. I hope to be back on the course on Sunday when there’s a weather window.”

Back with the fleet, there are still around 35 boats taking refuge on the French or Spanish coasts, while out on the racecourse the leaders in the two fastest multihull fleets – the ULTIMES and Multi50s – and in the IMOCAs are starting to see easier conditions after the pasting everyone got on Tuesday.

But the weather picture looks very difficult for later in the week for the slower monohulls, especially the Class40s, which will be bashing into another full gale by late on Thursday. Those already exhausted skippers will be in tough racing conditions throughout the weekend before things ease down early in the week.

The question for many of the sailors who are currently in port remains when do they risk venturing out into the Bay of Biscay again as this second major weather system comes down the track? Some of them may well not reappear until late on Saturday or early Sunday, and they will be delighted that the Race Director has extended the deadline for finishers in Pointe-à-Pitre by five days until December 7.

On the racecourse the battle at the front of the ULTIMES continues to be an absorbing affair between pace-setter François Gabart on ‘MACIF’ and Francis Joyon still on his tail in ‘IDEC Sport’.

Gabart has revealed that he has incurred some damage to his mainsail battens, but otherwise his passage into the northeast trade winds is unhindered and he should be into them by tomorrow.

In the IMOCA fleet the longtime leader Alex Thomson on ‘Hugo Boss’ is still making his more northerly and westerly option pay, with a margin of around 70 miles over Paul Meilhat on ‘SMA’ who has now overtaken Vincent Riou on ‘PRB’ to hold second place after a remarkable few days of tenacious racing from the ‘SMA’ skipper.

Thomson looks as though he will hold onto stronger breeze for longer than those to the south of him and he could emerge with a useful lead once the top three boats settle into downwind conditions. Thomson has seen gusts of 50 knots and had some minor gear failure – he broke a lazy jack in his sail management system – but his main concern is that he doesn’t get trapped in light airs on his way past the Azores.

“The game is to get south, to the high pressure and the trade winds and the first person to do so will make the gain,” he said. “There is no doubt about that. There is a very strong possibility that all of us, or me, or the guys behind, are going to get stuck in the big ridge of high pressure, so that is a big thing at the moment – get south and try and pass the ridge.”

There were 12 IMOCAS on the racecourse today while in the smaller Class 40s there were 35 out on the race track. The lead is still being held by Frenchman Yoann Richomme on ‘Veedol AIC’, but there is an interesting north-south split in the top bunch with Richomme nearly 170 miles north-northwest of fifth-placed Kito de Pavant on ‘Made in Midi’.

Britain’s Phil Sharp in third place on ‘IMERYS CLEAN ENERGY’ says the next few days are going to be challenging. “It was a tough night,” he said, reflecting on his second night at sea. “It was quite windy, there was quite a lot of swell and the boat was slamming pretty violently, so it was difficult to keep pushing the boat and it was difficult to try and find a compromise between safety and speed.

“My gut feeling is to get south,” he added. “Not just because it is warmer and sunnier and really nice, but because I don’t think it is going to work up north and it is looking like anti-cyclonic conditions will resume so yes, that is why I am going south.”

Sidney Gavignet on board Cafe Joyeux.
Pic by Alexis Courcoux