As the Vendée Globe reaches its final phase, can Alex Thomson find an overtaking lane to become the first ever non-French winner?
After over 23,000 miles of racing, the two leaders of the Vendée Globe solo round the world race are today just over 100 miles apart. Armel Le Cléac’h has led from Alex Thomson since the Pacific, but could Thomson possibly overtake him and become the first ever non-French winner of this famous race?
The two leaders have emerged from a ridge of high pressure. In its patchy winds, Alex Thomson has made big gains. He has reduced his deficit of over 240 miles less than a week ago to a margin that leaves everything to be played for. Now they are sailing at speeds of over 20 knots, that 100-mile gap is a matter of hours.
The winner is expected to arrive at the finish in Les Sables d’Olonne on Thursday or early Friday. If the weather files are correct and nothing goes amiss, the two may still be as little as two hours apart.
We look as if we are in for the most dramatic finale this great solo race has ever seen, with the added zest of some national rivalry: French hero v British maverick.
Armel Le Cléach is taking a route that covers Alex Thomson. They are both sailing in south-easterly winds on starboard tack, so Thomson is able to use his intact foil.
So it is at this point we are going to see the full capabilities of foil-borne sailing. This is the time for Thomson to put his foot to the floor. If Hugo Boss is faster in some conditions, he must now make that count.
Thomson cannot hold back. He has spent the last 13 years of his life racing for a win in the Vendée Globe; a chance like this might not come again. It is time to try something.
To win, Thomson must sail 4 to 5% faster. And to do that, he is going to have to (to use an expression from French) ‘spit his guts’.
Pushing really hard comes with risks. The round the world race is 93 per cent complete and both boats are tired. It’s easy to skim over this point, but the 23,000 miles raced is equivalent to more than seven transatlantic races and at least 20 racing seasons for a club or regatta sailor.
Fatigue is factor in every area and, as Alex Thomson pointed out before the start, these are prototype yachts with 20,000 custom parts.
Luck comes into this. But as you watch each poll, consider that in driving each other on, both skippers are displaying the highest seamanship, a hard-earned, finely calibrated and intuitive feeling for what their boats can take.
For the next two to three days, the two rivals will be on starboard tack in strong winds. Then it looks likely that they will have to negotiate an area of lighter winds in Biscay before tacking over onto port for the last stage to the finish. Thomson will lose any advantage he has once on that tack.
Finally, there is landfall itself, always one of the trickiest parts of any ocean race. With land effects superimposed on the weather and fishing boats and shipping around the last hours will require heightened vigilance.
Besides the vagaries of local weather, the smallest error or breakage could mean the end of the match.
Thomson’s team is emphasising his chances. Le Cléac’h may be the one getting cold sweats.
“He’s the guy with all the pressure on him. He’s been 2nd twice, it’s a big budget team, the French are expecting him to win, he was the pre-race favourite,” says Stewart Hosford, CEO of Alex Thomson Racing.
“Alex has none of that pressure; he has nothing to lose.
“With a lot of starboard now, reaching and running, Armel is going to feel a mortal fear of coming 2nd again.”
This could be as close a finish to the race as we have seen for many editions and a fascinating battle between two very different personalities, The Jackal and The Boss.
See this explanation of how Hugo Boss’s foils work >