Solo skipper and weather analyst Will Harris – a member of the Alicante-based Race Experts team working on the last Volvo Ocean Race – takes a look at how the turbulent opening 48-hours of the Route du Rhum has played out and what might lie ahead for the singlehanded fleet over the coming days.
It has been a hectic first 48 Hours for the 120+ strong fleet of the Route de Rhum. Several intense depressions have bought both frustrating becalming moments and intense winds. With a confused sea state in these changing wind directions, we have seen a number of casualties in the various fleets including two of the six Ultims – Seb Josse on Gitana and Thomas Coville on Sodebo – both suffering race-ending damage to their boats.
Meanwhile some big splits have already opened up in several fleets as the solo skippers put their individual strategies into play.
The most fascinating and daring move we saw in the first 48 hours was Alex Thompson on Hugo Boss risking it all and opting to go north of the DST Ushant exclusion zone, while the rest of the IMOCA 60 fleet stuck together and passed to the south of it.
The frontal system in the Bay of Biscay orientated in a North-South direction saw a complete reversal in wind direction either side of it, the boats managing to cross the front first picking up the new 30 knot NNE wind while those further behind struggled in lighter SE wind as well as a confused sea state further slowing progress.
Alex’s move of passing to the north meant he could sail a faster angle along the top of France, out the English Channel and get further west. He reached the transition zone into the new wind around 0400 UTC Monday morning and was sailing fast again to the SW by 0500 UTC. The rest of the fleet, passing south of Ushant did not make the transition until 0800UTC on Monday morning and those few extra hours of lighter wind has cost them miles to Alex.
Since the low pressure dominating the Bay of Biscay remained in a similar position through Monday, the story has been similar for the Class 40 fleet with those staying further north such as Louis Duc Carac, Yoann Richomme Veedol and Maxime Sorel V and B looking the strongest going into Tuesday.
The story amongst the majority of the fleet today is dealing with and surviving the approaching depression and long occluded front associated with it. This depression is centred just to the west of Ireland and the front extends right down to SW Portugal leaving no escape from the 30+ knot SW winds and 5 metre sea state that began hitting the IMOCA 60 and Class 40 fleet this morning. There have already been a few reports of damage including Britain’s Sam Goodchild Netflix dismasting while lying eighth in the Class 40 fleet and Isabelle Joschke on Monin experiencing the same thing the IMOCA 60s.
Over the coming 48 – 72 hours the Jet Stream remains in an exceptionally strong state across the North Atlantic keeping the depression in the same position to the west of Ireland for several days. This will mean the strong W-SW winds and big sea state the fleet currently have will remain which they will have to fight upwind into.
But it will also mean there is an interesting tactical call to make. The stationary phase of this depression means the Azores high is also quite immobile and extends right the way across the Atlantic at about 35N. The typical route to get south of the Azores high and into the NE trade winds is therefore much more challenging as a wall of very light winds in the Azores high blocks the path. It is not until Saturday that this situation changes and the Azores high recedes back to the west.
The remaining Ultim’s in the fleet have already made the dive south of the Azores and are heading for the trade winds. But we may see some of the IMOCA 60 and Class 40 fleet take a more northerly route around the Azores High. They will have to face upwind conditions, big seas and strong winds but will avoid crossing the large area of light wind to the south.
In the various classes, Alex Thompson is working hard to keep his separation from the rest of the fleet and lining himself up for another northerly split. His closest competitors are Vincent Riou PRB and Paul Meilhat SMA who are some 220 nautical miles from his position and already looking to make the dive south.
Further back the majority of the Class 40 fleet is on a NW course sailing the most direct route through the approaching front so that is passes over them as quickly as possible. Then the wind will shift round to a much more favourable NW direction and they will then have to decide when to also dive south.
Some 400 miles ahead of any other class three Ultims remain battling it out for the lead, Francois Gabart Macif with the edge just ahead of Frances Joyon IDEC the only non-foiler of the trio. 200 nm to the north Armel le Cléac’h Banque Populaire has made a big comeback after being forced to pull in for repairs a few hours after the start on Sunday. Having now passed to the west of the front, he has a good chance of making further gains on the two in front with a better wind direction from the NW.
With the strong winds and big seas over the next few days it is very likely we will see more boats being forced to turn back with the testing conditions. Expect to see some interesting tactical calls and splits too.