Safety briefing confirms Vendee Globe course

For the twenty skippers in the fifth edition of the Vendée Globe, attendance at the Safety Briefing on Monday morning was compulsory.

Denis Horeau, the Race Director, and Sylvie Viant, the President of the Race Committee, presented the official course of this fifth edition. There will be one 400-mile wide passage mark in the Southern Ocean comprising five gates which will be situated west/east, making the total theoretical distance 23,700 nautical miles (43,892 km). Already in existence under a different format in 2000, a system of gates has been put in place for the course of the Vendée Globe 2004, to prevent the shortest possible loop of the Antarctic continent and thus hopefully avoid the risk of encountering icebergs and growlers. Horeau commented: “The gate, located around 700 miles south-west of Cape Town, was added to take the latest position of the ice floe into account. The first gate is located before the entry into the Indian Ocean, at 44° south, prior to the rounding of the longitude off South Africa.

“After that, we have a passage point which remains unchanged. It is still symbolised by the Australian, Heard Island 53° south which competitors are obliged to pass to the north of. The skippers can then pass south of the Kerguelen islands which are just 230 miles away.”

From Heard Island the boats have to cover around 1,200 miles to reach the western extremity of the second gate. “A significant modification has been made there,” added Horeau. “During a previous briefing held on 22 October, we established a single gate off Australia, at 53° south and 132° east and 140° east. The MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre) in Canberra, Australia, with whom we are in close contact, did however, ask us to place two gates in a radius of 1,000 miles of the two military bases, where the Orion PC3 and Hercules planes can take off from. With this action zone they are able to fly over the emergency zone for three hours. Beyond 1,500 miles, the MRCC made it very clear that they wouldn’t take off.

Gates 2 (47° south and around the longitude of Cape Leeuwin) and 3 (52° south and around the longitude of Tasmania) will force the competitors to sail parallel to the Australian coast. Once gate 3 is passed, the skippers will make their entry into the Pacific, bound for gate 4. Horeau continued: “Here there is still a need to watch out for ice but the skippers are sailing in the widest maritime desert in the world. Between gate 4 and 5, both located at 55° south, there is just 1,200 miles. Diving south between these gates would serve no purpose other than in exceptional weather conditions.”

After rounding gate 5, the objective and Everest of the Vendée Globe will then be but 1,800 miles, before reaching Cape Horn at 57° latitude south. “However we have erased two passage points which were principally destined to bring the boats together so as to really gauge their positions. In this way the passage at the Canary Islands is totally clear and the gate forcing the yachts to pass close to Cape Horn has also been erased,” concludes Horeau. Obviously this does affect the distance of the course and interestingly in the last edition, Michel Desjoyeaux looped the planet in a total of 26,704 miles, rather than the 23,700 miles of this particular edition.

René Boulaire, in charge of monitoring the positions of the fleet is capable of tracing the path of a yacht. If he so wishes, he can have the permanent GPS positions of all the competitors, and thus also serves as a safety support during the passage of the gates. “The idea of a gate is simple. The boat just has to be positioned once to the north of the gate to have respected the ruling. It has 400 miles longitude to perform this particular man?uvre.” This leaves plenty of room to play with whatever weather options are in force. “Of course, it does block their progress, but there is no miracle solution? .”

“Nobody wants to see a recurrence of what happened in 1996,” (capsize and rescue of Thierry Dubois, Tony Bullimore and Raphaël Dinelli) warns Sylvie Viant. “Gates or no gates though, in the Pacific, the boats are too far from the coast for a shore-based rescue. The competitors will once again have to count on each other in the event of major problems.”

With just five days until kick off of this arduous course the British contingents are analysing their particular standing in this epic race. A calm Mike Golding reckons to be in good shape and, aside from missing his family, he is very keen to head out to sea.

“For the French to say that Ecover is widely considered to be the most beautiful boat of the fleet is a very nice compliment, more to my team than myself. We’ve been able to combine everything we’ve learnt throughout the past years and put it all into this one boat. If I had a magic wand and I could change something I really don’t know what it would be.

“I know that there are other teams that are good, which also have a good preparation. The two new Lombards (Roland Jourdain (Sill et Véolia), Jean Le Cam (Bonduelle)) are very beautiful boats and we each made our choices some time ago now. There’s no point reviewing that. We’re here and I feel pretty comfortable with what we’ve done.

It’s nice to have four really, really strong Anglo-Saxon boats here. There are other really good ones but I only really know the ones that are based in the UK. The nice thing about the four of us is that we’re all well-prepared, all the boats are competitive, all the sailors are high calibre. There’s no-one here just to make up the numbers.”

Evidence of this comes in Alex Thomson’s campaign on Hugo Boss. For him the Vendée Globe is as much about mind and body preparation as it is boat preparation. During the race, Alex Thomson will only get around 3-4 hours sleep in 24 hours making the negative psychological and physical effects of sleep deprivation a real danger.

To prepare himself, Alex has for a month now been working on sleep training techniques, otherwise known to medics as ‘Polyphasic sleep strategies’. The training allows sleep to be reduced with no adverse affects to performance. The process involves taking regular short naps (20-30 minutes every 4 hours). REM (deep sleep) is the essential part of sleep that the body needs for body and mind recuperation, normally not achieved until 60 minutes of sleep. By forcing Alex to wake up after just 20-30 minutes the body is starved of REM, when this continues his body adapts and after around 21 days as soon as the nap starts REM will occur.

Conrad Humphreys aboard Hellomoto, Golding’s former boat, considers that both mind and boat are prepared for action and he’s one of the few skippers who just wants to use the remaining time before the start to enjoy the ambiance around the pontoons and bars. “Self belief is everything. I’ve never felt more in phase. This will all be over before you know it and I just want to make the most of every moment.”

Throughout the rest of a very thoroughly prepared fleet, there are just a few little jobs on certain boats. On VMI, skipper Sébastien Josse has just embarked a spinnaker known as a Code 5, the only sail missing from his sail wardrobe. This asymmetrical spinnaker from North Sails will be used in a breeze of over 20 knots. He’s hoping to test the sails offshore later this week. American Bruce Schwab (Ocean Planet) on the other hand is still without a mainsail or solar panels.

On Dominic Wavre’s boat, the spreader damaged onboard Temenos during one of its sea trials off Les Sables-d´Olonne has been repaired. “We have had to wait for the conditions to calm a little nonetheless, as the strong winds that have been sweeping the zone over the past week have not made conditions very easy.” Temenos is also set to carry out last sea trials before Thursday, the deadline set by the Race Management except for very particular circumstances.

A quick look at the forecast for the start is rather optimistic. A fine zone of high pressure centred over the Irish Sea should not only provide sunny skies for the whole weekend, but also a light north-easterly wind synonymous with flat seas in stark contrast to conditions four years ago.