Just four days in to the race, competitors in the Transat Jacques Vabre are facing 40 knots plus winds and big seas off the coast of west Africa.

Since passing Cape Finisterre deteriorating weather and sea conditions have led to many gear breakages and retirements. But while some are suffering, others are revelling in it with the monohulls reaching average speeds of over 20 knots.

The British contingent are really setting the pace. Despite sailing a boat that’s not, on paper, the fastest in the Open 50 fleet, Alex Bennett and Paul Larsen aboard One Dream One Mission are leading the Open 50 monohull fleet with a 75-mile lead over Saving (Le Youdec/Bacave). ‘We are now at the start of another day of the full on roller coaster ride we’ve had since entering the Bay of Biscay,’ said Bennett this morning, ‘our boatspeed is continually in the 18-20 knot range. However, the next 24hours are going to be very interesting, with big tactical decisions to be made as we approach to weakening depression. Do we head west to bypass it, or east, or go straight through it? It could be a chance for the monohulls at the rear of the fleet to gain some miles.’

Mike Golding and Marcus Hutchinson aboard Ecover are also setting the pace in the Open 60 monohull fleet having snatched the lead on Tuesday from initial race leaders Sill Plein Fruit (Jourdain/Le Cleac’h). And not surprisingly Ellen MacArthur and Alain Gautier are climbing their way to the top of the Multihull Open 60 fleet. They are now lying in second place overall.

Breakages aboard Sergio Tacchini in the Multihull fleet have forced Karine Fauconnier and Franck Proffit to retire. Having been caught in a 40 knot gust while furling the gennaker, the boat luffed violently. The bowsprit cracked, hit Karine on the head, holed the bow and ripped part of the gennaker. Franck managed to push the bowsprit back so the boat could continue sailing downwind but then the gennaker unfurled at the top and the boat took off on a surf before stopping dead as the bows planted straight into the wave in front and in doing so broke all the battens in the main.

Proffit, winner of the last Transat Jacques Vabre, did not hide the disappointment of having to retire: “We were convinced our westerly position was paying, and thought we had to hang in for just 12 more hours before escaping these terrible conditions! But we have to use our heads here and even if we could have made a stop at Lisbon it would have risked this new boat being more damaged than it already is. Also we have had to cut the lazy jack to get the main down and the gooseneck has broken.”

Loic Pochet and Patrick Tabarly are the first to abandon the race in the Open 60 Monohull fleet when their boat, La Rage de Vivre, fell victim to a broken rudder. Pochet said: “I was helming in 30 knots of wind, with genoa and one reef on port tack. I felt a great shock through the boat, no idea what we must have hit but the starboard rudder just disintegrated.”

Temenos (Wavre/Paret), currently down to 10th position at 1800hrs FT polling, exploded her gennaker during last night and Wavre says it is totally irreparable. As the duo were bringing down the shreds, the boat bore away suddenly on a surf and the main sail hit the backstay, breaking the battens in the process. The seas and wind are too big for them to safely carry out batten changes so they are sailing under genoa, staysail and main with three reefs.

SME-Negoceane (ex-Gartmore), skippered by Spaniard Javier Sanso paired with Eric Dumont, stopped dead in the water during an 18 knot surf, to find that a whale had got itself stuck between the two rudders! Thankfully, Sanso reported no damage, which must have been a relief as he was on board when the rudder broke during the last leg of the EDS Atlantic Challenge. The ‘green speed-machine’ is currently in eighth position, 131 miles behind the leading boat, Ecover.

Sixth placed Sollac Atlantique, skippered by two expert Figar