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For IMOCA skippers the New York Vendée-Les Sables d’Olonne is as much about instinct as routing

Yacht Racing Podcast

After four days at sea in a challenging transatlantic weather pattern, the New York Vendée-Les Sables d’Olonne is proving a highly absorbing contest, as the IMOCA skippers try to make sense of unpredictable weather.

The race has been dominated by a slow-moving front which is travelling east at the same pace as the fleet. The two leading boats – Charlie Dalin’s MACIF Santé Prévoyance and Boris Herrmann’s Malizia SeaExplorer – managed to make enough headway to the east at the weekend, to get ahead of the front.

Sailing in completely different weather to the boats behind them, they have a lead over the chasing pack of around 300 nautical miles. They are now about 230 nautical miles apart, with second-placed Hermann the most northerly of the two and just 16 miles behind Dalin in terms of distance to the finish which is still over 1,600 miles away.

The rest of the 28-strong fleet has been trapped behind the front and is being spear-headed by a big group of boats led by Britain’s Sam Goodchild (Vulnerable) and Jérémie Beyou of France (Charal). They are pursuing a southerly option towards the Azores which is taking them a long way south of both Dalin and Herrmann.

In all the messages coming back from these skippers, we are hearing from sailors who are having to work hard on multiple manoeuvres and are struggling to find a weather strategy with routings constantly changing and, worse, big discrepancies between forecasts and actual conditions.

The young French star Violette Dorange on board Devenir has been having a great race and is currently well ahead of the next daggerboard boat in the rankings – Eric Bellion’s Stand As One – and seems to have enjoyed the unpredictability of this challenge.

“The first group (Dalin and Herrmann) managed to pass the front and I’m really between the two groups of the fleet now,” Dorange said. “We still have several days before we get through. With each new file the routings are different. Today it’s giving me a southern route whereas yesterday I was heading towards Greenland. It’s very uncertain so you also have to rely on your instinct and the reality of what’s happening at sea.”

Indeed this is as much about modern navigation and routing software as old fashioned seamanship, something Dorange seems to have acquired despite her relative youth at just 23 years of age.

Among her rivals and nine places behind her is Louis Burton who has been grappling with all the same uncertainties. “The problem is that since the start, the forecasts have been inaccurate, even in the short term,” reported the Bureau Vallée skipper. “So we are waiting for wind angles, systems and so on and there are significant discrepancies. There are places where there is supposed to be wind, but there aren’t any; places where there is supposed to be no wind, but there is…so it creates opportunities but also a lot of setbacks.”

Burton also reported that he hit a metal object in the sea on the way to the start of the race and had a lot of work to do to repair things on board. It has not been an easy four days for him and he says he has no idea when he will reach the finish, given the uncertainties of the weather picture, which includes the prospect of many miles upwind for most of the fleet.

“I’m projecting three days ahead. I know the systems will be there because we can roughly see where the anticyclones and depressions are. We know we have to manage the transitions, but we don’t know if the transitions we are waiting for in 12 hours will come in 12, two or 24 hours. So it’s difficult to plan for the long term, given that we will probably have to take a middle route close to an anticyclonic border, with not much wind,” said Burton.

Among the female skippers, Justine Mettraux of Switzerland (Teamwork-Team Snef) is in fifth place ahead of Britain’s Pip Hare (Medallia) in ninth, while France’s Clarisse Crémer on L’Occitane En Provence is 12th, just one place behind Dorange. Crémer joked that she has been “chasing the same weather front for ever.”

She had a nasty fright early in the race when her auto-piliots dropped out leaving the boat in danger without warning. “It was really not a nice moment,” she told the Class. “I still don’t know what happened, especially as it affected both pilots. It was a bit stressful and risky. Every time there is a moment when I think it is happening again, it causes a high moment of stress in my heart. I have to live with it and it’s not easy. I wish we had understood what happened…”

Crémer is sailing a confidence-building race. Her auto-pilot issue apart, this voyage is so far proving a happy experience for her after her delayed finish to The Transat CIC, following serious structural damage to her boat which was repaired in the Azores.

“I am not really trying to make my mark on this race – my focus is really to finish the race, that’s the main goal,” she said in a noisy audio file from on board. “I want to sail as well as I can, but I am trying to keep it safe. I am really happy with the start of the race…and it’s especially nice to have boats around you to sail with – so much nicer than being by yourself.”

For Crémer, as with all the skippers in the race, this is the last big challenge before the Vendée Globe, should she qualify. She said her focus has been so much on this transatlantic, and three that preceded it, that she can hardly think about the round-the-world race right now.

Story by Ed Gorman

Main image © Boris Herrmann / Team Malizia