Sill Plein Fruit has consolidated her lead but the high pressure ridge could change things over the next 24 hours

The Sword of Damocles is hanging over the heads of the crews in the Regata Rubicon fleet in the form of an spiney ridge of high pressure. To the west the boats are trying to reap the benefits of the low pressure system coming in, and to the east they are looking at what breeze will come in from behind, hoping that the ridge won’t entrap them. In everyone’s minds is the same thought – that the next 24 hours will be the most decisive.

At 1300hrs yesterday, Sill Plein Fruit had consolidated her pole position, which the team had fought for relentlessly overnight, but at the price of gaining on the direct route as they make a play for their southerly option. The spinnaker has been hoisted and ‘Bilou’ and his merry men in red are progressing down the Portuguese coast at around six knots, followed by Italian Simone Bianchetti and his boys in blue on Tiscali Global Challenge just 38.9 miles behind. They are equally fighting off the international crew under Ellen MacArthur’s helm racing Kingfisher, who are jockeying for second place under half a mile behind at the latest position report for 1700hrs French time.

The boat speed for the leading yacht Sill Plein Fruit varies depending on the puffs of wind, and the team on board are playing the spinnaker to death. “It’s bizarre to watch someone actually permanently trimming the spi when I have got so used to solo sailing, and I am getting nostalgic remembering the regatta’s of my younger years!” Bilou amused. However, even if moral is high when the spi is up, Bilou admitted the fact that the high pressure ridge could entrap them. A ridge which can only be likened to the ‘Sword Of Damocles’, which if it slides under the force of the low pressure system from the Atlantic will surely trap Sill & Tiscali with fickle winds. Just how long will they be sailing downwind for? Doubt is heavy on the minds of these teams, and Laurent Cordelle on Tiscali is still unsure himself. If yesterday he thought the option to stick east was the better way to pass, since this morning, he’ll have been eating his words! “It looks like the expected north-easterly breeze didn’t show up to the meeting, the weather hasn’t stopped evolving, and we are having to analyse what’s on the models and what’s really happening out there. Three determining factors: strategy (evolution of the weather systems), managing the boat, so the team trimming and optimising non-stop, and thirdly the tactics in order to hold our position of attack or defence against our comrades on the water.”

Ellen MacArthur and her team, including Brit Jonny Melbon and Australian Andrew ‘Hendo’ Henderson, are finding out the best compromise between heading and speed as they pursue the middle road: “It’s tough, because the forecast is not corresponding to what we have out here. But that’s sailing, you’re always learning!” She reiterated the response of the other teams, in saying that the next 24 hours will be the most crucial and whether in the west or east or centre of the direct route, anything could happen.

Behind the yellow and blue boat, Temenos, skippered by Swiss Vendée Globe veteran Dominique Wavre, is trailing by 30 miles just to the east: “We’re tacking along the Portuguese coast. The wind is light, spending most of the time at the chart table on strategy, the weather models aren’t very conclusive. Total concentration up on deck….” This brief message conveys the utter tension which has kept these crews alert and awake for the last 48 hours.

On the other hand one team who are discovering Open 60 sailing with the youngest skipper in the fleet, Antoine Koch, on L’Heautontimoroumenos, the ex-FILA, are sounding like they are having fun at least: “We’re all overjoyed to have changed into our shorts at last! Conditions are good, would be perfect if we could send up a spinnaker, and we’re sailing along at eight knots.” They have found themselves at the end of the day just 20 miles behind and to the east again of Temenos in fifth position.

Last but not least, Virbac, ex-PRB Vendée Globe winner, skippered by Jean-Pierre Dick, and Bobst Group – Armor Lux are the two boats to have gone way out west. It is certainly not the best option on paper because it is longer in relation to the direct route, but Swiss skipper Bernard Stamm and his crew, which includes Mini Transat winner Seb Magnen, were averaging better speeds compared to the leaders. This tactic could bear fruit according to the reactions from Roland Jourdain and other skippers, so the question is do they have the time to come back into the match from a 100 mile deficit despite taking the longer route?