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Arkéa Ultim Challenge - Brest day 34: It's the big south, it hurts, it's violent and it is non-stop

by Arkea Ultim Challenge - Brest 9 Feb 21:40 GMT 9 February 2024

Every Friday it's time for the routers to look back and to look forwards, to review the week just passed and what's ahead.

For the race leader Charles Caudrelie Cape Horn is history. But for Armel Le Cléac'h and Thomas Coville it is their final hurdle in the south and it is upcoming this weekend. Erwan Israël (Edmond de Rothschild), Nicolas Lunven (Banque Populaire) and Philippe Legros (Sodebo) take up the story.

For a start, how's life on land?

Philippe Legros (Sodebo Ultim 3): "Actually it's tough. We're live with the boat 24hrs a day, all the time. And that is very demanding. We work at the pace of the boat, so there's no routine. The moments when you sleep are never the same, especially since there is a rule, true on any boat: trouble always happens at night and on weekends.

Nicolas Lunven (Maxi Banque Populaire XI): "We're doing well! It's for sure less tiring than being in Armel's shoes, there are only two of us with Marcel (van Triest), but we're not too tired. We're working on rounding Cape Horn, which helps us understand why there's no time for tiredness, we're spending time looking at it.

Erwan Israël (Edmond de Rothschild): "Our initial schedule took a hit with the required pause in the Pacific and then round the Falkland Islands. We know it's going to be a long race. When you think back to the passage down the Atlantic on the way down, you think that feels like a very long time ago. As we're in the lead, the elements are favourable, it's going well, and then we're doing some watches and rotas. We're warm with a nice warm, dry space, we're a long way removed from experiencing what Charles is going through.

"But the pace is intense because there are two of us following the boat, with one off watch. Sports? There is a bicycle. I'm more of a running person, but with the weather and the fatigue, I haven't done any sport for two weeks. The recovery is going to be difficult! Only Julien (Villion) has gone out winging twice.

So, Cape Horn, a source of satisfaction or a worry?

Erwan Israël: "We would have been worried if we hadn't stopped when we did. We had the choice to continue fighting, but that would have been pointless. As we decided to hold on for a bit with a break of 36 hours, in the end, we placed ourselves in optimal conditions, at the back of the depression we wanted to avoid and at the front of another. It was stress-free. We were super happy to get past the Horn with Charles, who couldn't wait to finish the Pacific. From a weather point of view, it's more complicated after the Horn than in the Pacific. And so for us, it's much more challenging and therefore satisfying.

Nicolas Lunven: "It will be a relief for Armel to leave the south, but the passage itself is quite narrow between the ice zone and the Cape.

Philippe Legros: "Thomas? He's okay, there are ups and downs, depending on the amount of sleep and the degree of stress on board. It's quite related, when there's sun, it all gets better too. There is inevitably a burning desire to get out of this zone, there is wear and tear in the south. The exit door is the big moment of the thing, there is stress until the exit door is passed. ???A look back at the past week

Nicolas Lunven: "Crossing the Pacific went quite well for Armel, with the transition between the Indian and the Pacific via the passage north of New Zealand. The idea was to avoid an area with several low-pressure centres that had very strong winds and very rough seas. Then, the Pacific really went quite smoothly with good sailing conditions. We looked for the best compromise without too much wind or sea, but without extending the route too much. Sodebo seems to be on Armel's route, more or less, with the same ambition. There are no technical problems on board, which is great. It all about Cape Horn.

"How much did it cost you to pass through the north of New Zealand? That's hard to answer. We can quantify a certain loss if we use what the routing software might say which just matches wind conditions against the potential of the boat. Even if you can tinker with the data by instilling the state of the sea, the current, there are a large number of parameters that as a tool it does not take into account: the sailor's fatigue, his stress, the potential degradation of the boat. So it is theoretical. Passing below New Zealand it might have taken us eight days to reach Cape Horn. Passing north of NZ will have taken nine days days.

"But what would have been the potential for recovery if the storm created a problem? What technical problems might he have encountered? Could he have fixed it right away, when sometimes an unresolved small problem leads to more crucial big ones? We preferred to continue without stopping, with a boat in perfect working order and a sailor in great shape - he's really good, Armel, is right there with us. We discussed it as a team, we made decisions as sailors. The boats are magnificent, the skippers are very high-level guys, but you can't just send them off to do anything the routing says.

?Erwan Israël: "A week ago, we were slowing down. It's not easy to tell the sailor that he has to slow down. We held back as late as possible, which also allowed us to wait in less wind and less sea. But this was a time when we took the trouble to call Charles, rather than messaging. We needed to explain things to him. He took it very well because he didn't really want to go into that stuff. The idea relaxed him, you could feel him smiling. It was good for him mentally not to go and face that and to take the opportunity to rest up and fix stuff. He also knew that he had been "so lucky" with the weather compared to Armel and Thomas, and he thought it was almost like fair play (to have to slow down). And we'd been focused on the choice for a few days. We took it before we knew that Thomas Coville was going to make a stopover, even though we suspected that there was a problem on board.

"If there would have been another boat, we would have agreed to slow down together. We decided to sail behind the depression which otherwise could have made us prisoners in the eye of the storm. It was a violent, we didn't want it to run over us. Charles resumed his course with a lot of sea and wind, but in safe conditions. That was reassuring for us. Our game plan throughout the end of the Pacific was timing in relation to the two lows with the need to find the right compromise in speed.

?Philippe Legros: "It's the south, it hurts, it's violent, with little or no respite. When Thomas set off from Hobart, he took advantage of a micro-window that he had to take advantage of, otherwise he would be out of the race. Everyone got back into the swing of things very quickly, with strong winds on the agenda, with a little anxiety about the viability of the repairs which were carried out. We managed to avoid the worst bit of the weather window, which was at the southern tip of New Zealand. In the Pacific, unlike the Indian, we managed to be more in control of our routes, by being more in front of the depressions than behind them. It's still on the limit, but in the end, Thomas was able to hold tighter and faster trajectories, in winds of 25-30 knots and heavy seas. In the long run, it wears out the guy and the equipment.

??"And the boat, when it has everything working, is fine. Everyone has their little worries, I don't know who is 100% - do we even need it anyway??In these seas, any breakage can be dramatic. The speeds were stable, hanging on to the pace of the Maxi Banque Populaire XI, but those 400 miles behind made life a little more difficult for Thomas than for Armel. You're quite a bit better off when you're 200 miles ahead of the front than 50."

What's next?

Philippe Legros: "We have a trajectory that, in theory, is beautiful and efficient, but which will see us with a long starboard that will take us down to the Horn. There will be 25 to 30 knots, and 4 to 5 meters of sea. The approach must be careful, as Thomas is sailing in a dangerous areas. You have to combine efficiency with good navigation: when you get close to land that is when this gets complicated.

"For Cape Horn, the window, which was nice once upon a time, is getting tougher. We'll have to aim for a mouse hole with serious geographical constraints: the passage area is very narrow. East of Cape Horn, it's still a very complex area. There are monstrous local effects on phenomena that have not been affected by land for thousands of kilometers, there's the influence of very high mountains, sea ice, very big temperature contrasts. And on top of that the weather information for the area is more fragmented. It's not a mythical cape for nothing. The routing team will be quite relieved when this is behind us. There's racing, yes, but safety is the first criterion in these areas.

"If we manage to stay within shooting range in identical weather systems, the trip up the Atlantic will be good sport. It's always easier to manoeuvre in 20 degrees degree water and 20 knots of wind. Taking a risk in these waters is something you can do without something being broken and you can be recovered. There will be some strategic risks to play as long as there are opportunities."

Erwan Israël: "The end of the Pacific has been very slow, the South Atlantic looks very average, but what matters is the position of the others. Charles passes the high pressure system that is leaving Argentina. His passage of the Falklands was more complex, the depression reactivated as it passed the Andes Mountains, and with the ice to the east, we could not pass. As a result, we had to slow down again on Wednesday to let the depression pass. It's a classic little inshore route, and we're going to be upwind as far as Cabo Frio, Brazil and close to the coast because there are depressions offshore. Maybe he'll have 25-30 knots in Cabo Frio with the local effects, but the Ultims go very well upwind and it shudders almost less than downwind. There will be upwind winds between 10 and 25 knots, then Recife. We could be at the equator on February 15-16."

Nicolas Lunven: "There is a problem of ice, detected above the exclusion zone, plus weather which is more akin to the big south. We have to juggle with all that. You will have to pass through a narrow area with the Andes mountain range which is compressing. So when the weather in this area is bad, the weather is very bad. You have to find the right answers, there's no drama. The boat is in good condition, the skipper is in great shape at the moment. He can see the end of the south, the passage of the Cape will probably take place on Sunday morning, but the approach is not easy. And after that, it won't be any easier. When you go to those areas, it's not a walk in the park."

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