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Ocean Elements 2018

Boiling down the miles in the Golden Globe Race 2018

by David Schmidt 15 Jan 20:00 GMT January 15, 2019
Mark Slats has closed the gap on Race leader Jean-Luc Van Den Heede to within 49 miles in terms of distance to finish - Golden Globe Race © Christophe Favreau / PPL / GGR

While I've been fortunate to cover many sailboat races in my time as a sailing journalist, I've never seen a race like the Golden Globe Race 2018. Not only are all participants required to use sextants and era-specific vessels (read: full keels), but (as of this writing) just five out of the original 18 starting skippers are still sailing for the Les Sables-d'Olonne, France finishing line, which is an attrition rate of 72.22 percent. Moreover, the GGR 2018 has seen dramatic instances of human drama, of sailors stepping up way beyond their comfort zones, of personal misfortune and tribulation, and of bloody good seamanship.

But most importantly, the GGR 2018 has also proven itself to be a highly competitive and engaging sailboat race, which has seen the largest lead (some 2,000 nautical miles) that I've ever heard of in an offshore race get progressively whittled down as race leader Jean-Luc Van Den Heede (FRA; 73) nurses the damaged rig and battles light airs aboard Matmut, his Rustler 36 masthead sloop, and second-placed Mark Slats (NED; 41), sailing aboard The Ohpen Maverick, another Rustler 36 masthead sloop, constantly applies pressure from astern.

As of this writing, Slats has reduced Van Den Heede's lead to just 56 nautical miles, with 1,683 miles separating Matmut's bow from the finishing line.

Impressively, Slats has erased some 205 miles of Van Den Heede's lead in the past 48 hours.

Given that both sailors are currently (again, as of this writing) looking at "blistering" uphill speeds of 4.9 knots, this leaves a lot of time to contemplate one's final strategy and tactics as the finishing line slowly hoves into view.

Impressively, Slats has been posting big-mile days relative to Van Den Heede's much more modest daily mileage runs, which is almost certainly evidence that Slats can press his rig and sails much harder than Van Den Heede, who is likely spending considerable portions of his waking hours thinking of ways of ensuring that his stick stays vertical, at least until he crosses the finishing line.

So while Van Den Heede still enjoys what would be considered an enviable - if not unassailable - lead in any other race, the simple fact remains that this metric will boil down fast if Slats is able to sail almost twice the mileage per 24 hours that his rival is posting.

Couple this with a remaining runway of some 1,683 nautical miles, and the race quickly starts feeling like an algebra assignment, but from my desk as a longtime sailing journalist, it's also one of the absolute most unique races that I have ever had the pleasure of covering.

And while picking favorites is a journalism no-no, let's allow ourselves a small moment to consider the fact that both Slats and Van Den Heede have sailed brilliant races and have passed some significant tests of seamanship in order to be weeks ahead of the reference time posted by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in the original Golden Globe Race of 1968.

Moreover, both sailors have also demonstrated significant levels of gumption, self-confidence and self-reliance in order to find themselves within just over 100 nautical miles of each other after some 26,270 nautical miles of sailing.

There's no dismissing the fact that Van Den Heede's rig damage, which he sustained during a November 1, 2018 knock down in a violent Southern Ocean storm, definitely slowed the highly experienced Frenchman down, but there's also no dismissing the kind of internal fire that someone has to possess to stage a 2,000 nautical mile comeback, which has played out over a series of months, not minutes or hours.

Fortunately for us sailors living through another cold and dark North American winter, the next week and a half to two weeks will provide plenty of opportunity to hit refresh on the GGR 2018 leaderboard page. But if there's one thing that I have learned after more than 196 days of covering this race, it's to expect the unexpected, mixed in with plenty of adventure, skill, preparation and perhaps a pinch of luck.

May the four winds blow you safely home.

David Schmidt
Sail-World.com North American Editor

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