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IMOCA skippers struggle to deal with an ‘upside down’ weather scenario

Yacht Racing Podcast

With just under a third of the 3,100 nautical miles race completed since last Wednesday’s start the 28 solo skippers racing on the second edition of the New York Vendée – Les Sables d’Olonne solo Transatlantic race are having to deal with high levels of frustration as they try to wrestle themselves free of unusually complicated and confusing weather scenario.

Part of the cause is the effect of the intermittent influence of the warm water flowing in the Gulf Stream that heats the air and disrupts the wind flow, but there is also an element of positive current moving eastwards with them which when the boats are slowed can diminish  the driving flow over the yachts’ sails.

To add to all of that, the fleet has had to negotiate a ‘thalweg’ – a low pressure trough – which has contributed to the confusion in the wind patterns as it tracks eastwards too.

Up ahead the normal persistent weather features out in the Atlantic are reversed – with the low which would normally be over Ireland located down at the Azores and the north Atlantic’s usual Azore’s anticyclone switched to the north.

“I have never seen anything like it. The world is upside down. I am tearing my hear out,” said the usually mild mannered Charlie Dalin one of the fleet’s best weather strategists, who is in second place this morning on MACIF Santé et Prévoyance. Dalin is two miles behind the race leader – Germany’s Boris Hermmann who continues to benefit from his most northerly positioning.


Briton Pip Hare on Medallia, in eighth this morning, summarised her situation:

“The weather is so challenging out here, so odd. I think mother nature is telling mankind ‘you can have all the supercomputers in the world but sometimes you won’t figure me out’ as there has not been any GRIB files which match any of the conditions I have had recently. So it is back to basics, looking at synoptic charts, at satellite imagery, making a rationale – where do I want to go? How am I going to get there? How am I going to cross these features? How do I tell where the features are if the GRIB files are not telling me the information.

“So it is back to old school navigation. And ahead it is not going to be downwind. There is a low pressure and a high pressure and they have basically swapped places, they did not like their positions in life. There is a low pressure at the Azores and a high pressure off Ireland which is bulging out all the way across the Atlantic. There is no route round the top of the high and so the only option I see is to go between the low and the high.

“That depends on how stationary the high is and how active the low becomes. But nothing is moving hugely and so I think I just need to take it on feature by feature. The main goal right now is to keep the boat moving as best I can.”

But things could be worse. Spare a thought for French skipper Manu Cousin whose Coup de Pouce was struck by lightning in the small hours, seemingly killing the wind instruments which feed data to his autopilots and forcing him to put his race on hold in meantime.

Up front it is gradually improving for the leaders with the top 12 boats now spread over 200 miles north-south in line with the weather system, Herrmann in the far north, Sam Davies (Initiatives Coeur) in the far south, with this top group setting a good pace with speeds in the mid to high teens.

“It’s a bit complex,” Dalin reported this morning. “The weather doesn’t correspond to anything. From one file to another it everything changes. Systems are not where they are supposed to be. I’ve never seen such weather. Crossing this sort of thalweg (low pressure ridge) has been so complicated. I should have tried to get across sooner.

“I think I went a little too far north. A few seconds ago I had 12 knots and now it has gone up up to 20. Suddenly, I was at 10 knots and now I’m going at 27. It’s a mess. have often been side by side with Nico (Lunven) lately. It was nice to race like that. The route is still long to get to Les Sables and it looks complicated. It’s not easy to know what we’re going to go through and how we’re going to get on in the short or long term.

“What’s next? Normally – I say normally because you never know – we have 24 hours of quite strong winds. Up to 35 knots. Behind that it should ease a little. We are still in the Gulf Stream so it is warm and the sea is not great. It’s really chaos out here on the Atlantic. We said normally that we were going to go upwind on The Transat CIC and downwind in conditions like the Vendée Globe on the way back. Nope. We set out to sail upwind to the finish in this New York Vendée. The world is upside down.”


British based Hare is on buoyant form, motivated and loving being in among what she calls ‘the big dogs’ of the IMOCA fleet.

”It is all flipping awesome out here,” she reports. “I have finally jumped on to the back of this front and got some breeze. It is so nice now to sail the boat fast. These boats are so unreal, just unreal, they feel so natural when they go fast. I love it. I am pretty excited to be with the pack I am with. There are some ‘big dogs’ out here around me, and I am the oldest boat at this end of the fleet at the moment and so right now I am really pleased. I think that is a testament to the work my team have done.

“I have a great new mainsail which fits the new mast rake and that is making a difference. And I have been working quite hard on it, just trying to re-understand the boat, what makes it go fast, how it all fits together and works, testing different settings. This race I wanted to be in the top 10 because I have be knocking on the door for a while now. But I am aware it is a relatively short race and the top ten is going to be pretty crowded.”


“We are still in a trying situation for everyone,” commented Greg Boyer-Gibaud, Assistant Race Director. “A situation that is not in phase with models and weather forecasts. We can see it clearly in the videos, everyone’s faces are stressed and lined. For the majority of competitors, the front remains complicated to reach. They must carry out a series of maneuvers and be constantly trimming and changing things because in the area the wind goes from 5 to 25 knots. There are local storms and sometimes even waterspouts. This requires great vigilance,”

“Two groups are very distinct even if Benjamin Dutreux (GUYOT environment – ​​Water Family) and Louis Burton (Bureau Vallée) are a bit of a link between the two. The first still has a few hours to go before returning to more stable conditions. The second is not going to be out of the woods soon,”

And in the second pack James Harayda is continuing to have a good race so far on his Gentoo Sailing Team. Fighting on the lower rungs of the ladder to Vendée Globe selection after missing last season due to technical problems with his boat, Harayda is again giving a good account of himself – despite racing on a meagre budget.

Fifteenth in the 28 boat fleet, James reported during the night:

“I was stuck in a hole for a couple of hours. I don’t think I have been more frustrated on this boat. It was not like just calm and you are still sliding along in flat water at three knots in the right direction. I had leftover sloppy seas, waves coming in all directions at two metres. I think I did two 360s. The sails were flapping like mad. It was a nightmare. But I am now moving along now at 12knots which is good. I still have about 40 miles on Conrad and these guys which I suppose is good but it is nowhere near what I had on them before….We are still ahead. I am going to check the latest pos report and see where Violette is, I am hoping she has followed me and gybed north again.

“So far I have managed to keep between boats behind me and the next feature coming in to try and make gains where I can. It has been so difficult with the forecasts not lining up. This, right now, is the first time in probably a day and a half that I have had a forecast which seems right. At least the wind is coming from the right side of the boat which it was not yesterday. Today I have done new routings which are very different from the ones yesterday.

I will try to get north – lucky north. My biggest fear yesterday was Violette (Dorange, the French sailor who was his close rival all the way on the outward race) popping back up on the AIS, I just could not have dealt with that. I just kept pushing the boat in the right direction. I am looking after myself a lot better and trying to manage myself, sleeping better. And these races are great to be out racing against other boats, you learn all the time by trying things, learning to make the boat go faster, check the gains and losses all the time on the pos reports, but also at the same time you stick to what you know. That has been really good. “

“I am just trying not to think about the whole qualification thing. It makes me very frustrated when I think about it but we are doing everything we can to be on the start line. A little bit more money and I think we should be there.”

Main image: View from onboard Scott Sawyer’s Be Water Positive