Alex Thomson is getting ready for a 36-hour slog upwind into a Force 10 in the Vendée Globe
A frustrating 24 hours for Alex. He warned us in the morning that he though he was likely to slow down, and his distance run for the day certainly reflected that he was dead right! He covered the most miles in 24 hours earlier on this week, but in the last 24 hours, he covered the least.
The winds increased steadily throughout yesterday, from 15 knots when we spoke to him in the morning, up to 30 knots by the evening, up to 35 knots overnight, and now at 40 knots with gusts of 45 knots. This is now Force 8, gusting 9, and is set to increase to a Force 10 during the course of today.
He is now heading upwind (SSE) on port tack and anticipates the conditions staying like this for the next 36 hours. With some expletives deleted (please use your imagination to add back in), Alex described the conditions as: “Freezing, uncomfortable, not good for the boat. We’re slamming every wave.” The low is deepening by the minute, and his barometer is dropping through the floor.
He has already put a second reef in the main, and as we spoke, was filling himself with a hot freeze dried meal in preparation for changing from the staysail to the ORC (a smaller headsail). Although it’s difficult even to boil a kettle in these conditions, it is essential that Alex eats enough to keep his energy up for the jobs that he will have to complete in freezing conditions on deck. “I’ll have to put a third reef in later today,” he added. “I need to look after the boat and the sails in these hideous conditions.”
Something that will make his life even more difficult today is having to head for a waypoint that is meant to make this a safer race, by preventing the yachts heading too far south. The waypoint is placed at 44S, 14E and is designed to avoid the racers encountering problems with ice. So Alex is obliged to tack to stay to the north of it, but this will actually add danger for Alex as not only will he be forced to tack the boat in Force 10 or 11 winds, but also this course will take him closer to the centre of the low that is bringing these strong winds. Alex sees the manoeuvre and the ensuing course as dangerous to both himself and the boat.
The weather situation has changed a few times in the last couple of days. The low that Alex is in now has always been coming, but behind it he anticipated a secondary low that is now not going to materialise. He had a choice of going NE or SSE when this low hit him. Going NE would eventually get him onto the north side of this low putting him in a strong NW airflow while he could stay on the system.
However, once off it, the ever-present St Helena high is expected to ridge SE, giving a southerly airflow north of 40S. This will make it very difficult to get south, which is the main objective. Going SSE means beating for a couple of days but, with the breeze forecast to go S then SW, sailing towards the shift is a shrewd move even though it may seem a little odd.
Hopefully the result will be that Alex will end up on the right side of the course when the wind shifts and will have made good progress south while the following pack will get caught somewhere off the South African coast with a very long beat in very light winds to get south themselves. Alex will have 24-36 hrs of 40-50 knots headwinds, so preservation of himself and the boat will be critical.