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8th Vendée Globe - Day 63: Leaders back to the Northern Hemisphere

by Andi Robertson 7 Jan 2017 21:07 GMT 7 January 2017

British solo sailor Alex Thomson was today looking for the slightest opportunity to pounce on Vendée Globe leader Armel Le Cléac'h as he prepared to continue their unrelenting duel in the northern hemisphere. Frontrunner Le Cléac'h crossed the Equator today at 0023 UTC, marking the start of his ascent through the North Atlantic towards the finish line of the solo non stop round the world race in Les Sables d'Olonne, France. But hot in pursuit was Thomson's Hugo Boss, just 118 miles adrift at the 1400 UTC position update and 20 miles shy of the Equator.

The pair, who have been locked in battle for much of the race's 63 days so far, are still on record-breaking pace some four days ahead of the time set by 2012-13 winner François Gabart. There was little time for celebrating however - both skippers are now immersed in the Doldrums, a notorious band of constantly-moving low pressure, renowned for its ability to snare sailors. While Le Cléac'h's lead is relatively comfortable is does not mean the pressure is off the 39-year-old Breton – he must forge a lone path through the Doldrums at the head of the fleet. Thomson, on the other hand, has the benefit of being able to assess his rival's route and adjust his own accordingly to avoid potential pitfalls. If Le Cléac'h stumbles and is held up, even for just a moment, it could provide the opportunity Thomson needs to threaten his counterpart's lead.

Speaking on the Vendee Live show today Thomson said, with just 3,000nm left to sail, he was not prepared to let Le Cléac'h slip away. "Is there a possibility to catch up? Maybe," he said. "We'll just have to wait and see what happens. The weather isn't entirely clear and when things are constantly changing then there's an opportunity. I've been working hard trying to find those opportunities. I feel exhausted you just become used to being tired, it becomes normal. The Doldrums is just another part of that. I'm still very motivated and pushing for the win. It'd be great to be fighting for first place right up to the finish line, and I'll be trying my hardest that's for sure."

Jean-Pierre Dick was today up into fourth place, leapfrogging Yann Eliès and Jean Le Cam thanks to slightly stronger winds on the western edge of the St Helena High. Meanwhile Bureau Vallée's Louis Burton was still battling a 35-knot Argentinean depression but his 16 knots of boat speed made him the day's fastest skipper.

After fixing a broken rudder on his yacht La Fabrique, Swiss skipper Alan Roura said he was focused on overtaking 12th-placed Fabrice Amedeo before reaching Cape Horn some 2,000nm away. "I was really tired with all the stuff I had to fix but now I'm really happy, I'm 2,000 miles from the Horn, I'm back and I'm stronger than ever" said Roura, who at 23 years old is the youngest skipper in the fleet. "I want to reach it in less than eight days. The plan is to catch up with the others - I want to be ahead of Fabrice at Cape Horn. The fight is still going, there is a long way still to go in the race, and I'm really happy to be here."

One place behind in 14th, some 6,000nm off the pacesetters, American skipper Rich Wilson revealed he had enjoyed his best sleep in weeks thanks to a pair of noise cancelling headphones that drown out the sound of the outside world. "I got very tired of the wind howling through the rigging, reminding me how inhospitable it is outside", the Great American IV skipper told Vendée Globe HQ today. "I had read after the New York to Vendée Race that Jérémie Beyou had used noise cancelling headphones to try to get some peace and quiet. I bought some, and tried them last night for the first time. "Often on the boat you are alerted to things going wrong by different sounds so you don't want your ears covered up but I just had to do something to escape the weather. I listened to the chants of Benedictine monks – it was peaceful inside the headphones and howling outside. I slept very well indeed! I'll use them again but they're not for every day."

There was good news too for Sébastien Destremau as he set off from his anchorage in Port Esperance, Tasmania, after fixing a broken spreader. TechnoFirst FaceOcean skipper Destremau, bringing up the rear of the fleet in 18th place, has more than 4,000nm to sail to Cape Horn. But Stanislas Devorsine, master of French supply ship L'Astrolabe, reported Destremau to be in good spirits as they passed him en route south to the Antarctic.


Alex Thomson (Hugo Boss): "I imagine over the next few days that Armel will slow down and I'll catch up a bit, then he'll get out of the Doldrums and extend away a little bit. I don't expect there to be any miraculous change but there is always an element of luck. I had a very good crossing of the Doldrums going the other way, so hopefully I won't be in too much pain this time. The Equator crossing means nothing to me – passing the Doldrums is the milestone here. The situation looking forward appears quite complex going into the north Atlantic but the models are at least in agreement about how it's going to pan out. it just depends on where the high pressure is going to be centred as we approach it. Everyone thinks when the wind is light it's not as tough but it's the opposite – you have to work much harder. There's definitely some hard work over the next two days to get through this area."

Rich Wilson (Great American IV): "A front came through and we had to tack in order to gybe. The boat was almost lying on one side, it was blowing 35 knots and the seas were violent, 20ft to 25ft high. It's dangerous, and if you miss a handhold or you don't brace yourself with your foot you could seriously injure yourself. I was trying to do the manoeuvres while sitting on the floor of the cockpit because I was afraid that if a wave hit the boat I could get thrown right over the side. I've been talking with Alan Roura and Eric Bellion a lot, and also with Fabrice Amadeo, Romain Attanasio and Arnaud Boissieres. Everyone is encouraging each other, which is really nice. There's a real community in support of each other. There are a lot of future friendships that will come from this race."

Yann Eliès, Quéguiner-Leucémie Espoir: "It's true that Jean Le Cam has been close for several thousand miles. Over the past 48 hours, I have found it hard to be as fast as him. I can see him to leeward. Unfortunately we can't chat on the VHF, as his radio isn't working. Our boats have similar performance levels. I think we'll be crossing the Equator together. I hope we can narrow the gap to the leaders and that they may get held up in the Doldrums, while we cantinue through smoothly. I think Jean-Pierre (Dick) will do better than us. He should leave the trade winds behind before us. Jean and I have the experience of the Figaro class. Sometimes we rely on what we feel, while with Jean-Pierre that is less the case. He is more rational and scientific in his approach."

Romain Attanasio, Famille Mary-Etamine du Lys: "It's quite windy here and I'm doing 23 knots. I lost a week with my rudder problems. I am trying to catch Didac. I want to go home, so I'm trying to sail quickly, but I'm taking each stretch as it comes. The next target is Cape Horn. I saw a little bit of sunshine, when I was checking everything. That has done me good, because I've been missing that. Down here it's cold and grey. I wish we were in the calm seas in the Atlantic, where you get to enjoy the sunshine, as if you were out cruising."

Double Vendée Globe winner Michel Desjoyeaux bets on Britain Alex Thomson to win! (from Alex Thomson Racing)

Today at 17:12 UTC British sailor Alex Thomson reached the Equator in the Vendée Globe in 62 days 05h 10min and just 16h 49min behind French rival Armel Le Cléac'h. With 87% of the race complete, Thomson crossed the last major milestone as he races towards the finish line in Les Sable d'Olonne, France, determined to continue to close the gap to the leader.

The distance between Thomson and leader Le Cléac'h has closed as they have entered the Doldrums, an area of low pressure renowned for its calm winds. Thomson has closed the gap by 95 nautical miles in the last 24hours in the hunt for first place.

The Vendée Globe, a single handed, non-stop, round the world race, with no outside assistance has only ever been won by a Frenchman. Historically the race has had a 50% attrition race, and in this edition, currently eleven of the twenty-nine skippers have retired from the race due to damage to their vessels.

Thomson, the only British entrant in this race is determined to be the first Brit to win the Vendée Globe. With the finish line becoming closer every day, Thomson has just over 3000nm to the finish which should see his arrival in Les Sables d'Olonne in around two weeks' time.

Michel Desjoyeaux tells Philippe Elies reporting for Le Telegramme, "If I was to put money on it... I'd put a ticket on Alex Thomson!"