After just three weeks the fleet has been scattered. What hopes now for 'the Britpack'?
A mood of despondency seemed to have stricken Mike Golding last week. Usually eloquent, his monosyllabic answers on the morning chat show had to be warmed into life by interviewers. Inert and powerless in the expanding St Helena High, Golding could do absolutely nothing while his two rivals Vincent Riou and Jean Le Cam marched away. His ambition of winning the Vendee Globe, eight years in the making, was painfully haemorrhaging with every sched.
Now things are looking better. Golding’s jailbreak happened this weekend, at last allowing him to halt the ruinous damage. Today he is some 600 miles behind the leader, Vicent Riou on PRB, and he says that closing the distance “is do-able”.
For the other gangmembers of the ‘Britpack’, however, the outlook is gloomier. Alex Thomson, on Hugo Boss, also broke free over the weekend, but is another 270 miles behind Golding. Nick Moloney and Conrad Humphreys are in the transition zone, but they are already 1,000 and 1,100 miles respectively behind the leader. The park-up in the St Helena High may prove to be the pivotal point of this race and sadly for the skippers longest detained here, such as Moloney and Humphreys, winning now has to be counted a fairly distant prospect.
“The margins are going to become huge,” is Golding’s comment. “I don’t know what’s going to happen behind me, but some of these guys may disappear completely. There is going to be a very big split, a very big extension.”
Golding’s immediate task is to hang on to the coat-tails of the leaders. He foresees a possibility of having to hammer to windward on the back of the low pressure system that is currently freighting his rivals ahead. He knows that thereafter he will fall off the back of this low and the distance between them may extend yet again. What happens after that is the big question. There is a lot of wind coming, 50-55 knots according to the latest forecasts, and avoiding damage is vital. Golding’s boat preparation and his unrivalled experience of the Southern Ocean are massive assets; this is his sixth time here.
The next few weeks in the south are going to be interesting. Thanks to the downwind start and light winds up to this point, all 20 yachts may still be racing by the Cape of Good Hope, and in Vendée Globe history this would be a first. In previous races, more than half of all starters failed to finish. The conditions in the last week have given skippers plenty of time to check over their boats and prepare for the drubbing to come so, as a fleet, they should be entering this territory in better shape than any before.
Yet the chances are that everyone is going to have to cope with some gear damage, and it will stop some skippers racing competitively. The lasting effect of that massive St Helena High is that the fleet will be spread over an undesirably large area – across two or perhaps three separate weather systems. For some, that’s going to make the Southern Ocean an awfully lonely place.