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Will Boris Herrmann’s bold breakaway move pay off?

Yacht Racing Podcast

It’s a strategy that has got everyone talking. Can Boris Herrmann sail right round the top of the recourse – skirting a huge area of high pressure – and still beat Charlie Dalin and everyone else to the south of him?

The only German skipper in the IMOCA fleet on board Malizia-SeaExplorer, in the second edition of the New York Vendée-Les Sables d’Olonne race, has chosen a lone path after both he and Dalin broke free of the chasing pack at the weekend.

This morning – approaching the end of the fifth day at sea – Dalin on MACIF-Santé Prévoyance was still leading, with an advantage of 232 nautical miles over Herrmann with 1,380 miles still to go to the finish. Dalin was also moving faster at 18 knots compared to Herrmann’s 12, but that could change as the Frenchman encounters light winds and headwinds, while Herrmann gradually sails into reaching and then downwind conditions.

It’s a big gamble which relies on Malizia-Seaexplorer’s speed off the wind and this morning the routing is suggesting it may just work, though Herrmann could still be undone by light winds over the west of Ireland that could block his route to the finish.

Speaking to the Class overnight, the charming German sailor was enjoying his second consecutive highly competitive performance after finishing a close second to Yoann Richomme’s Paprec Arkéa in The Transat CIC. He spoke about leading, which he did for much of the early part of this race, admitting that in both races he was building “good confidence” for the Vendée Globe.

“I’m feeling very good – leading hasn’t happened to me so often,” he said, as Malizia-SeaExplorer continued heading north, with a separation on the most southerly boat in the race – Thomas Ruyant’s 10th-placed Vulnerable – of nearly 1,000 miles. “Actually it’s rare, except legs three and five in The Ocean Race and a couple of other moments in The Ocean Race. So it’s the first IMOCA race with a strong position up front.”

He and his team seem to have made a step this season from top-five, to contending for the win and the podium places. We asked him why this is so. “I think the work we have done pans out for this,” he explained. “I think there has been a gradual change, if at all. We were already very good last year. Obviously we are getting better, and we are getting to know the boat better and making it reliable.”

“The new foils are also a fraction better and we have made some modifications to the boat which has made it lighter, better and stronger and the sails are better too,” he added.

And then the question of his strategy. Herrmann knows he is committed and it will either pay off in glory or he could lose out big time with such a large separation to the rest of the fleet. “The strategy from here?” he asked. “Well, I can’t hide the fact that I am going north. I think from where I am at the moment, it is the best choice, the best option. It’s unclear whether it works or pans out. There is not much to say. I obviously studied it a lot and considered a lot of different options, especially during the last 12 hours, so yeah, (north) is where I’m going.”

Like everyone else in this unusual race, which has seen the majority of skippers trapped in light and changeable winds trying to get across a weather front, Herrmann is not relying too much on what his weather forecasts are telling him.

He noted that strong winds are not forecasted right now. But he is ready for anything. “Who knows? That can still come. It’s not really forecasted at the moment, but I don’t trust the long term outlook and we still have a good week at sea which is a really, really long time – longer than we expected.”

Image © Charlie Dalin

Behind Herrmann and Dalin are two groups splitting the remainder of the 29-strong fleet in half. To the north is a loose echelon led by the young British sailor James Harayda on Gentoo Sailing Team in fifth place. To the south – about 360 miles south-southwest – is a second group led by Richomme in third place with Sam Davies, in fourth position on Initiatives-Coeur, just four miles behind him.

While the northerly group is still trying to cross the same weather front that has plagued them all race, and faces the prospect of headwinds and calms, the more southerly fleet look to have better prospects heading south of the Azores islands, currently just under 600 miles east of them.

But that group, which also includes Sébastien Simon (Groupe Dubreuil) in sixth place, Jérémie Beyou (Charal) in seventh, Clarrise Crémer (L’Occitane en Provence) in eighth and Sam Goodchild (Vulnerable) in ninth, too will face an uncertain and tricky passage to the west, with areas of calms but long phases going downwind too.

All in all, it’s a fascinating contest that could see Herrmann secure his first solo victory in the IMOCA Class, though Dalin may well have something to say about that before they reach Les Sables d’Olonne.

Story by Ed Gorman

Main image © Boris Herrmann / Malizia-SeaExplorer