Vincent Riou (PRB) has taken the lead, from Jean Le Cam (Bonduelle) in the Vendee Globe

Vincent Riou (PRB) has taken the lead, from Jean Le Cam (Bonduelle) in the Vendee Globe.

The leaders are virtually all on a heading of 200°, currently sailing upwind trying to cut through from the south-easterlies north of a high pressure zone. They are close to the eastern end of an anticyclone and the goal in the next 12 hours is to pass to the southern edge and into the south-westerly winds, which will take them towards the next passage mark below South Africa down in the southern ocean.

Emphasis lies on making the right moves at the right time, multiplying the sail changes and studying the weather situation in depth. Wind holes, sudden gusts, gains and losses in the east as well as the west, have made the overnight sailing more than a little tricky, Mike Golding (Ecover) admitting to “babysitting the automatic pilot”. Sharp minds are needed for the next 24 hours, even if the bodies are tired.

On a very similar course to Jean Le Cam, a spritely-sounding Vincent Riou (PRB) was particularly impressed with his boat’s performance in the close-hauled conditions in today’s radio chat session. And rightly so, since he has benefited from excellent conditions locally to pass Le Cam in the past 4 hours, after the latter has been leading for the past 11 days. “We haven’t had any real upwind before. The sail changes and trimming are a little laborious but it’s not wearing physically. PRB is naturally fast in such a situation. I think we’ll be free of the high pressure in around 24 hours but we’re not going to hit the express way immediately. Instead we’ll have medium winds for the next 24 to 36 hours, so our performance in the day ahead is going to be vital.”

“In principal, I’m sailing in warm, southerly winds, said a cagey leader (in this mornings radio chat session) Jean Le Cam. We’re in the process of passing a ridge of high pressure and it’s not going to be easy to get through it but I feel good after 4 hours of sleep. The key moves at the moment are to carry out manoeuvres at the right moment, spending some time on the helm, lots of time on the weather, and being attentive. With 300 square metres of sail area we can get through this stuff alright. What is the most amazing thing about this current sailing is the phenomenal rise in temperature as we negotiate this high.”

After making up 25.4 miles in the past 11 hours, Roland Jourdain is still holding onto third, although he has had very little sleep in the past 48 hours, afraid the frontrunners would “hotfoot it out of here”. Physically tired he said of the current conditions: “It’s testing and I can’t wait until we’re gliding along again.” Still managing to tail Jourdain, 59.8 miles in his wake, Sébastien Josse (VMI) is having a blinder of race, holding on grimly to the leaders, while English sailor Mike Golding (Ecover) has a rather tenuous, but nevertheless apparent link with this top group after a difficult night. He has made good progress in the past 4 hours though reducing his deficit to 175.4 miles. “Once we were going we had 16 to 17 knots but we kept hitting the occasional wind hole, the pilot was struggling to take control so I spent the night babysitting the pilot, right now I would rather be further east as it looks better over there.”

Heading what must now be described as the second group, Alex Thomson (Hugo Boss) remains the only one to have made a “daring” gybe south south-west to try and track down this new breeze before the others. Though he is clearly suffering the option right now with a deficit of nearly 400 miles, he may well come off better in around 72 hours once he’s negotiated the high and reached the south-westerlies. Just 6 miles behind him now, Jean Pierre Dick (Virbac Paprec) has decided to hedge his bets and take an option between Thomson’s extreme westerly and the more easterly option taken by the leaders.

With the two high pressure systems set to join up and consolidate to the south-west of the boats, there is likely to be more breeze to the west eventually which would clearly not be such good news for the likes of Conrad Humphreys (Hellomoto) and Marc Thiercelin (Pro-Form) the furthest east. These skippers may well rack up a hefty deficit on the leaders as they are close to the centre of the anticyclone. Conrad’s strategy meantime is to sail the best angle he can using his genoa headsail, between the course and 190 degrees. “Not too much agonising to do, we have to get south, it’ll be light winds for everyone but at least it’s on the nose so I can use the Code sails and keep the boat moving along – I’m still to decide whether there is a gain to be made cutting a bit off the corner…”

In this seemingly more profitable course to the west, Nick Moloney (Skandia) is optimistic. “For now it could be a long way west to get around the high pressure, but it will move progressively east and there is the possibility that we’ll be able to pass on the back end of it as it moves east.”

Completing this second group American Bruce Schwab (Ocean Planet) summed up his race so far: “chasing, chasing, always chasing”. A similar scenario for the last group comprising Raphael Dinelli, Anne Liardet, Benoît Parnaudeau and Karen Leibovici who are now south of Recife, off Aracaju; Liardet more offshore than Leibovici. Behind them, in 20th position, Austrian Norbert Sedlacek (Brother) was the last to cross over into the southern hemisphere last night.