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Retour à La Base - Contemplating the big downwind phase

by Retour à La Base 2 Dec 2023 16:41 GMT 2 December 2023
Super close racing between Paprec Arkea and Holcim PRB © Team Paprec Arkea

'The holiday is over' warned Kiwi Conrad Colman this morning, contemplating how hard the next week is going to be for the 31 strong Retour à La Base fleet of IMOCAs which, today, continue to climb north towards an impending rendezvous with the first Atlantic low pressure system which will catapult them east, downwind at high speeds towards Europe.

And while the pack leader remains Jéremie Beyou (Charal) who has continued to maintain a steady cushion of around 17 miles - or an hour at current tight reaching speeds - there are just three to six miles between second placed Brit Sam Goochild (FOR THE PLANET) and fifth positioned Yoann Richomme (Paprec Arkéa).

(ed note: Seb Simon (Groupe Dubreuil) continues to hold 3rd or 4th but has had locator beacon problems on the tracker)

The next few hours for the leaders will very much be about holding the routine and maximising rest, setting up as much as possible for the coming days.

Jack Bouttell, the Brit-Aussie who has just won The Ocean Race and sailed as co-skipper with Sam Davies on the Transat Jacques Vabre Normandie Le Havre race observes, "The breeze has been pretty unstable. People have good modes at times and struggle at other times. I think the real challenge is in a couple of days when they start going downwind in the strong breeze. Right now everyone is trying to find their angles and sail the fleet. It will be a different story downwind when we will see different boat and foil concepts coming into their own.....or not."

Looking to whether there will be different strategies on the first low, Bouttell adds, "I think the front pack will see how close they are together and right now play themselves. There might be a bit of option for the guys behind. We don't really know exactly what sail choice people have made for the way back, if someone took a spinnaker or a big downwind sail versus some smaller ones, I think everyone will stay in the same area roughly but to try and be in a nice place to set up for the downwind. But this is going to be interesting because it will be the first big downwind sailing they have done and it will be a good insight into the south for the Vendée Globe."

Germany's Boris Herrmann (Malizia-SeaExplorer) is eighth, less than two miles ahead of Briton Sam Davies (Initiatives Coeur) with Clarisse Crémer (L'Occtane en Provence) not far behind in 10th.

Crèmer has lost a little ground to small problems, she had a reefing line snap and also her front compartment partly filled with water, as she reported, "In addition to it no longer doing its job it completely blocked the entire mainsail and I had no other choice but to reduce sail further. I was down to J3 and 2 reefs, not enough sail and having spent a lot of energy doing all this. I will go back up to the J2 shortly after and above all will spend the rest of the night not sleeping because I know myself I am too slow. I'm really going to have to learn to let go! And then this morning it was work, work, work: shortening of the reefs, unblocking all that, starting again with a full mainsail and rolling it up again. And then the boat continues to have little surprises in store for me and now my front compartment is filled with water following a ballast malfunction. And so after a dip in the swimming pool, I can finally get back to my sailing life."

In second Sam Goodchild is in good spirits on his first solo outing on his IMOCA, "The good news is that the temperature has dropped, we lost 5-6 degrees in the last few hours and that makes life on board a bit easier. We are coming into the transition zone, probably overnight tonight, and so it is not looking too complicated to get through, just the choice of picking the right moment to change sails and find the way to get north into the new wind, but not getting too far north to be lined up for the strong wind and strong sea state coming in, so looking to not be too greedy and look for too much wind too early. So it is about finding the right balance between wind and sea state, so it is going to start getting light this evening and tomorrow morning we should be into the westerlies, all good on board. Solo has been good so far as there has been no sail changes since leaving Martinique, so it has been a good way to get into it, with a long straight leg, forcing myself to find sail settings which are allround - to allow me to go to sleep - and just trying to find the right balance, I have had some good rest so not too tired."

The straight line speed test has been good for Japanese skipper Kojiro Shiraishi (DMG MORI Global One) who is holding nicely in 12th place.

Koji reported this morning, "The boat is going well. The boat condition is really good. The change to bigger foils and the bow remodel is working well, lucky we're in conditions where we can show the full potential of the refitted boat. Last night, the sea state wasn't too good so I reefed and was sailing J3 1reef. I will soon have the J2 up again. The shore team did a good job preparing the boat. But as usual I'm feeling seasick and I'm not 100% of my abilities but I'll do my best to keep pushing hard."

Meteo outlook from Christian Dumard

"The competitors will continue to head north in order to go around the anticyclone," explains Dumard, the race meteorologist. "They will then get to the edge of the first depression and be lifted and lifted as they get to the north side of the high pressure and then during the day of the 4th (Monday) they get into the first of the Low pressures."

Dumard explains that it will be up to the skippers where they want to set their level, but notably tha as the second depression comes through it will be the sea state which will be up to 5m which will cause the biggest problem.

Marking his 40th birthday today, his fifth at sea, Conrad Colman NZL (Mail Boxes ETC) highlighted how hard this race is going to get within the next few days.

"The holiday is over as we have gone from sailing upwind with blue skies and 20-22kts of wind yesterday to now, just before sunrise, it does not feel like a squall - just a very dense band of wind, up to 33kts - so reef down and furled J2 and set the J3 and it has really sunk in that this is going to be a tough race. As I said before my turning sheave box blew up on the J2 and J3 sheets and now I have this complicated system where I have rerouted them around the roof, that was a bit janky so I transferred to the Code 0 sheets and that just means so, so much work. I'll see how it goes. That takes a lot of energy I think it might be tough to remain competitive because each manoeuvre just takes so much more work. That's a disappointment. But happy birthday to me! The sun set on my youth last night and now I am into 'old man' mode. It is my fifth birthday at sea. I remember in 2014 when Charles Caudrelier turned 40 he had just been named skipper of the Dongfeng team, and I thought 'when I turn 40 I'd like to have an ocean racing programme' and here I am."

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