Lemonchois trailing warps to try to keep below 20 knots and Ellen and Miranda report on a thrashing in Biscay

In 3m seas and winds over 30 knots Lionel Lemonchois is having big problems slowing his trimaran. The skipper of the radical new Gitana X is running for home but is unable to reduce sail.

Yesterday evening the upper 7m of his mast broke as he was sailing upwind in 20-25 knots under reefed mainsail and trinquette. Lemonchois managed to secure the broken part to the undamaged section and turn back for France but the weather has been deteriorating and his plight has got dramatically worse.

With the halyard out of action, Lemonchois has been unable to lower the mainsail, which is hoisted to the second reef. He has been trailing warps in an attempt to keep Gitana’s speed below 20 knots. The boat is expected to make the French coast today.

All the fleet have been slamming upwind in very windy and punishing conditions overnight and during today. These are expected to last for another 24 hours, so the shakeout of the fleet is probably far from over. Bertrand de Broc made a telling revelation yesterday when he confessed the reason he’d quit was because he’d been frightened. De Broc is one of the more experienced multihull sailors. Well, exactly!

The monohull skippers have been having a hard time, too. In a stoical and matter-of-fact e-mail, Ellen MacArthur wrote last night:

‘The decision on what’s going off with the weather is a little bit unclear. We know the conditions are going to strengthen as we approach the centre of the low pressure which is over Ireland right now and we’re going to get a little less pressure as we tack away back down towards the South but whether that’s going to be today or in 48 hours time is unclear.

‘Right now, the sea is just getting bigger and bigger and just getting rougher and rougher – and although I’m on the right tack towards our destination it’s not great conditions to be sailing in.’

Another telling message came from Miranda Merron who, despite no masthead wind instruments and autopilot problems, is still doing extremely well in her ageing Open 60. She wrote:

‘Filthy Bay of Biscay conditions out here but sunshine, which is a pleasure after the rain of the first 24 hours. It is extremely bumpy and this is a French keyboard so is taking a while to type.

‘Well, it wasn’t a glamorous start, but have never manouevred the beastie alone in close proximity to others. We managed to move up the fleet by tacking on shifts all of the first night, 15 tacks I think. Had quite an exciting time in the shipping lanes in thick fog, but nowhere near as much fun as off Ushant.

‘Timed it perfectly with a front and its associated features: massive wind shifts, 10 to 30knots in 0.2 seconds, heavy rain and thick fog, and a treacherous lee shore, hemmed in on the other side by the traffic separation scheme. I am pleased to report that I can tack this boat very quickly when the tide is taking one towards the rocks while the wind has a coffee break.

‘Last night was clear, lots of stars and lots of wind, but dry at least. Lots of ships too, but having pretty much omitted to sleep or eat during the first 24 hours, I got going on those tasks last night. No incidents, though had a close look at a number of vessels.

‘This afternoon the wind vane fell off the top of the mast, so now have no idea how much breeze there is, except plenty. Poor boat is slamming badly, and keeping tea inside the mug is challenging. It didn’t take long for me to start talking to myself, and some imaginary person during the dark hours. Quite entertaining this solo stuff.’

Looking ahead, the weather could continue to produce excitement for the fleet. A high pressure dominates the Atlantic. A new area of low pressure is centred at about 1100 miles ESE of Bermuda, right in their track. This is already generating showers, thunderstorms and gales but forecasters are predicting that it has the potential to develop into a tropical storm in the next couple of days.