Who is Armel le Cléac’h’? The French solo is leading the Vendée Globe fleet home on its final ocean section. We take a look at the Banque Populaire VIII skipper setting out to avenge two runner-up finishes in the race
Nicknamed ‘the Jackal’ for his ruthless ability to hunt down any opposition, Armel le Cléac’h is one of France’s most impressive offshore sailing talents. The 39-year-old has an incredible record in the Vendée Globe, having finished second in the 2008-09 edition on his first attempt, and came home second again in the last race, just three hours and 17 minutes behind winner Francois Gabart.
Analytical, supremely competitive and professional, le Cléac’h is an adversary to be feared. He started his sailing career in Optimist dinghies, moving to the doublehanded 420 before stepping up to keelboats and offshore racing.
Following the well-trodden path of many successful French short-handed sailors, he announced his arrival on the solo scene in his first Solitaire du Figaro in 2000 by taking the prestigious ‘bizuth’ prize for top placed first-timer. He went on to win the Figaro three years later, and again in 2010. He also twice won the Transat AG2R (2004 and 2010).
After a spell in the ORMA trimaran fleet, he moved into the IMOCA 60 class in 2006, then sponsored by BritAir, and rapidly became one of the most serious competitors on the circuit. He was IMOCA champion in 2008, and topped off two Figaro event wins in 2010 with a second in the year’s Route du Rhum in the IMOCA.
Sponsored by Banque Populaire since 2011, he scored some impressive podium results for the partnership, including 3rd in the two-handed Transat Jacques Vabre race from France to Brazil, and set a singlehanded 24-record of 673 miles in 2014, averaging 28.20 knots on Banque Populaire VII. But twice he has come home in 2nd place in the Vendée Globe – a supreme achievement for any sailor, but also a gut-wrenching disappointment for one as competitive as Le Cléac’h with a solid, well-prepared and funded campaign behind him.
His bid for the 2016 Vendée Globe got off to a strong start when he won The Transat solo race from Plymouth to New York with his 2015-launched, VPLP-Verdier-designed Banque Populaire VIII in the first test of the new generation foil-assisted IMOCA 60s. But on the return leg back to Les Sables d’Olonne from New York, he collided with what was described as a ‘large unknown fish’, breaking up one foil and causing other damage to the yacht.
Fully repaired, Banque Populaire VIII and skipper headed into this year’s Vendee Globe as favourite for many pundits. He took the lead from Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss on 3 December, 2016, and for almost a month appeared increasingly unreachable as Banque Populaire VIII extended away from Thomson’s wounded Hugo Boss, with its destroyed starboard foil.
But Thomson was not about to let Le Cléac’h get away quite so easily. As Banque Populaire began negotiating a high pressure ridge in the South Atlantic, Thomson flew around Cape Horn to reduce a deficit of over 800 miles to less than 100 over the course of a week, reducing Le Cleac’h’s theoretical advantage to just 28 miles on Friday 30 December. The hunter had become the hunted.
But as the high pressure zone extended across Thomson’s more easterly route, Le Cleac’h’s advantage expanded once again. He headed into 2017 with around a 150 mile lead – not insurmountable, but not insignificant, and a familiar scenario for Le Cleac’h.
“Four years ago, off Argentina, Francois [Gabart] had about the same lead that I have, and he managed to keep that up right the way to the finish,” Le Cleac’h commented in a special New Year’s Day broadcast for French television. “Right now, there’s only three hours separating me and Alex so I’ll hopefully be able to use my experience of that time to push harder and that will be helped by the close contact racing I’ve had of late. But Alex has that same experience of course so we both know what needs doing.”
Sailing the remotest reaches of the world’s oceans, Vendée Globe skippers have few luxuries, but secrecy is one comfort they may guard greedily. This race has been no exception, with Le Cléac’h revealing in the broadcast that he had had some repairs to make to Banque Populaire, but not what they entailed.
Observers will be watching closely for clues to any chink in Le Cléac’h’s armour as he and Thomson progress up the North Atlantic. The toll this year’s relentless pace – Le Cléac’h rounded Cape Horn after 47 days of racing, smashing the 2012-2013 record set by last race winner François Gabart by more than five days – has exacted on Banque Populaire VIII and Hugo Boss is likely to only become visible when they arrive back in Les Sables d’Olonne, currently predicted to be between 14-16 January, 2017.
This morning sees the duo beating upwind, making miles to the north and east as they chase the easterly trade winds. Both are likely to hook into the trade winds within the next 24 hours. Then it will be around 4,000 miles to the finish. Will 2017 finally be the year of the Jackal?