It was the kind of situation that makes race commentators salivate. And a week later, the pay-offs have been harsh, with two sailors pulled off a stricken boat (BT - Sébastien Josse/Jean Francois Curzon) in the North Atlantic, and with several others limping from damage.
The start last Sunday saw a weather map with a series of brutal low pressure systems traversing the Atlantic, but much further south than would be normal for this time of year. And all of them targeted the straight-line route to Costa Rica. We can split the fleet into three groups, according to their reaction to this problem:
1876 (Yves Parlier/Pachi Rivero) and Hugo Boss (Alex Thomson/Ross Daniel).
These two took the most northerly route, closest to the track of the low pressure systems. In theory, it was the fastest way to the Caribbean, but with lots of risk of damage in some pretty horrendous conditions. Alex Thomson has some prior for taking chances, and I vividly remember watching Yves Parlier pour it on in the Southern Ocean in the 2000-01 Vendee Globe, until finally, his rig came down. So, no real surprise seeing either of these boats take this option.
Walking the Line
Safran (Marc Guillemot/Charles Caudrelier Benac), Mike Golding Yacht Racing (Mike Golding/Javier Sanso), Groupe Belle (Kito de Pavant/Francois Gabart), Veolia Environement (Roland Jourdain/Jean-Luc Nelias), Aviva (Dee Caffari/Brian Thompson) and BT (Sébastien Josse/Jean Francois Curzon).
The largest group chose an option that also took them close to the low pressure systems, but attempted to dodge the very worst of the conditions – threading the needle between safe and fast.
Foncia (Michel Desjoyeaux/Jeremie Beyou), Akena Verandas (Arnaud Boissieres/Vincent Riou), Artemis Ocean Racing (Sam Davies/Sidney Gavignet) and W Hotels (Alex Pella/Pepe Ribes).
W Hotels were only just part of this group, after taking a while to make their minds up. The rest of this final bunch headed south early and hard, taking the long way around while endeavouring to stay away from the low pressure systems, and minimise the risk of damage.
The fleet have been re-converging quickly over the past 24 hours, and this is a reasonable moment to analyse how these choices played out. First, let’s look at the damage reports. I should add that this is just the stuff I’ve seen in the news, some issues might not have been reported, and others I might have missed…
The northern pair took a hammering, with 1876 doing six knots on the morning of the 16th November, after a long period of damage control. Hugo Boss escaped the storm in reasonable shape, but then had the misfortune of hitting something in the water - so at the time of writing, Thomson and Daniel had also slowed down to figure out their choices. Let’s call this a 50% attrition rate.
The middle group faired better, BT’s demise was spectacular, but Veolia Environnement also had to pit-stop in the Azores to make repairs - so that’s 33% of the group losing serious time to damage.
Meanwhile in the south, the only boat that I’ve seen report significant repair work has been Artemis – which sets the damage rate at just 25%.
It’s an old and very tired adage, but for all that, ‘to finish first, first you have to finish’ is still true. More of the southern group came out of the storm in good shape for the rest of the race, than did those to the north. But those who went down the middle and did survive in good shape saved a lot of miles, and now the top three from this bunch have a solid lead over the rest of the fleet – Safran, Mike Golding Yacht Racing, and Groupe Belle.
It’s a tough tactical decision – if you go north you are playing roulette with your race. The latest studies on rogue waves show how random and frequent these phenomena are – stick yourself and your boat in a place where these things can pop up, and you are throwing dice on the outcome. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, it’s game over.
But the statistical element of this also makes it a tough choice to go south. If a large enough number of boats take the riskier northern option, it’s extremely unlikely that they will all suffer race-ending damage. It was inevitable that the last men and women standing in the north would be leading, with a week or so of racing left for those in the south to play catch-up.
The most interesting aspect of this (for me, anyway) is that Michel Desjoyeaux chose to go south. The two-time Vendee Globe winner is probably the leading offshore racer of his generation. And I think the critical point to take away from this is that he chose to concede the lead, while retaining as much control as he could over the outcome of his race.
And what I’ll be watching for as we go into the second week is how much Mich Desj and his partner, Jeremie Beyou, can make up of the 300 mile deficit that Foncia has allowed Safran to establish. I still wouldn’t put it past them to make it onto the podium.
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Mark Chisnell ©