Vendee Globe: Sorry Armel, it's not normally like this here...
One of the most dreaded phrases in yacht racing is the mumbled apology: “It’s not normally like this here!”
It’s normally muttered by local sailors when the otherwise regular-as-clockwise weather prevailing conditions at a regatta venue fail to materialise for the week of the major championship or annual sailing week.
“We just can’t understand it,” the locals tell the visiting crews, scratching their heads and looking to the skies in puzzlement. “We never ever get such [strong winds/light winds/fog/rain/big waves/flat water/strong current/swarms of locusts, etc, etc] here.”
Some 350 miles south west of the Cape Verde Islands this morning, Vendee Globe leader Armel Le Cléac'h is unlikely to run into any locals - head-scratching or otherwise - but if he did, they would no doubt say the almost complete absence of the steady north-easterly trade winds he was expecting came as a complete and utter surprise to them too.
When you consider that Le Cléac'h has been second in the Vendee Globe on his previous two attempts and has seen the 500-nautical mile lead he held over his closest rival - Britain’s Alex Thomson - at Cape Horn reduced to under 100 nm, you could easily forgive him for getting a little testy at what the weather gods have lined up for him since he crossed the equator.
“The situation isn't very clear in comparison to the forecasts,” the weary French skipper said this morning. “For two or three days it's been hard getting north. It's been thundery weather since the Equator. The Doldrums travelled up with us with big clouds and heavy squalls.
“It hasn't been as thundery since yesterday, but is very cloudy, and we've got some more complicated patches ahead. It's different from the usual scenario and I'm at the limit of my understanding of the weather.”
The leading duo have about a week of sailing ahead of them before one of them clinches an epic victory in the 2016-17 Vendee Globe. But although Le Cléac'h is ahead right now, whether he will be still in front at the finish depends largely on what happens next with the weather.
“It's just a question of trimming depending on what the wind throws at us,” Le Cléac'h says.
“I thought I had got away from the Doldrums but that wasn't the case. It was more favourable for Alex and that's hard to take. For the moment, we're in front. We are going to have to see what happens.”
The messy weather map favours the chasing Thomson who will try to sniff out any chance to close down and even slip his black-hulled Hugo Boss yacht past Le Cléac'h’s blue one. The British skipper will want to avoid sailing on port tack after breaking his starboard foil on November 19 – 13 days into the 24,000-mile around the world race.
“It is not really clear how to find a path through the mess and in to Les Sables d'Olonne,” Thomson said a few days ago. “With these scenarios in the North Atlantic it does create some opportunities and what I need is an opportunity to close in on Armel and be able to challenge for the lead. Change is good for me.”
With around 2,500-nautical miles left to race the leading pair are expected to finish in Les Sables-d'Olonne sometime around January 18.
Barring disasters, both should finish well inside the record time of last the winner of the last race, Francois Gabart, who completed his lap of the world in a little over 78 days. Right now Le Cléac'h and Thomson are around four days ahead of Gabart's pace.