Elaine Bunting reviews the first week of the solo round the world race, and analyses what lies ahead

Nearly a week after the start of the Vendée Globe solo round the world race and a wild few opening days of big seas and forced retirements the fleet is settling down into a shape that could easily determine the eventual outcome.

The pulverising weather in the Bay of Biscay in the first and second days of the race claimed nine victims. The first to return for repairs was Dominique Wavre with charging problems. Then race favourite Michel Desjoyeaux (Foncia) returned with leaking ballast tanks, and is now chasing some 400 miles behind the leaders

It was a heartbreaking first day for Bernard Stamm, who had set out on his third attempt to win the Vendée Globe only to hit a 80m tanker and damage his bowsprit and mast. He has set off again, but a podium place is almost impossible for him.

There were three dismastings: Kito de Pavant (Groupe Bel), Yannick Bestaven (Aquarelle) and Marc Theircelin (DCNS). All three retired.

Former Canadian Mountie Derek Hatfield sufferered a broken wind generator, leaving him with longer term charging problems and he had to return and restart.

Alex Thomson’s Hugo Boss was badly damaged again, this time possibly from landing on floating debris in that gale, and he is out.

The severity of the conditions caused the deck of Jean-Baptiste Dejeanty’s Maisonneuve to crack; he described a gunshot crack at the keel as the boat landed on two waves bow and stern and effectively broke her back.

But how could so many boats that are designed and built to withstand the Southern Ocean succumb to a gale in Biscay? There are a number of factors. It is rarely wind that is the problem with these tough boats; it is seastate. They are designed for speed on downwind angles and with their flat forward sections they are a deafening and punishingly hard ride upwind. The boats were also at their heaviest, with 200-300kg of food and spares and thus very loaded.

The seas that heaped up on the Continental Shelf ahead of the cold front of a depression were huge. The average wave height was 8-9m, and many were much bigger. Sam Davies (Roxy) described them simply as ‘ginormous’

Dee Caffari (Aviva) reported at 48 knots of wind at one point and Mike Golding (Ecover) saw 53 knots. There was a nasty cross sea in shifty conditions and as the wind veered on the cold front they were beating west to reach.

In poor visibility, it was not only Bernard Stamm who had a close shave with a ship that had not seen him. Sam Davies and Dee Caffari both reported having to crash tack to avoid a ship, leaving them laid over with ballast on the wrong side and the very hard job of lugging hundreds of kilos of sails and gear from the low side to the new high side in huge seas.

A week into the race, as they head south of the Canaries and into the north-east tradewinds that all-too-hard balance of good seamanship and hard driving is paying off for the leaders. At the head of the fleet, Loick Peyron (Gitana Eighty) made the best-timed tack on the cold front in Biscay and, apart from a few broaches since as he pushed hard off the Portuguese coast, has not really put a foot wrong.

Fighting it out in lead pack are Seb Josse (BT) and Jean-Pierre Dick (Paprec-Virbac). They have been consistently at the head of the fleet since the start, with previous winner Vicent Riou (PRB) never far away.

A second pack has loosely formed behind, and this includes the top British skippers Mike Golding (Ecover), Brian Thompson (Bahrain Team Pindar), Dee Caffari and Sam Davies. Of these, Dee Caffari has probably surprised most.

Dee had a superb start to the race and has been consistently on the pace, matching the speed of the highly experienced Golding in an almost exact sistership. The fabled might of Brian Thompson’s Pindar, however, has yet to be seen in action. This is the boat the top skippers believe is the fastest IMOCA 60.

Further back, one has to take note of Steve White in Toe in the Water. His boat is old and tired – it was Josh Hall’s Gartmore in the 2000 race and is a fixed keel boat now so outdated it could nearly be another class. White has struggled terribly with money. So far he has sailed an outstanding race, well ahead of rivals in newer boats, and grappled successfully with problems that included a small fire on board when the exhaust hose on his engine came off.

White has been well ahead of Jonny Malbon in his new Artemis. What to say about Malbon?

This is not shaping up to be a good race for him. Clearly, Malbon has been struggling to get to grips with the boat, which he has had little chance to sail after the boat’s very late launch and measurement problems. But his regular loss of miles to Steve White between position polls also begs the question whether this much-vaunted, highly expensive new rocket ship is anything of the sort.

Artemis is already more than 300 miles behind the leaders and Malbon has been fighting it out with Raphael Dinelli, whose ancient Nandor Fa design is a bit of an anachronism in this fleet.

The week ahead: Breaking through the Doldrums

As they reach the north-east Trades, the skippers are starting a series of moves that will line them up for their crossing point in the Doldrums. They say these boats are so quick that they no longer stop here and instead punch straight through. That’s true, but only if you get the routeing just right.

We are going to see a compression and extension of the fleet this week. The leaders will slow as they hit lighter winds, but those who read the weather right (Loick Peyron, Seb Josse and Vincent Riou are masters of this) will pick up the south-east trades first and extend away.

Then the second stage of the race is on to be first round the St Helena High to 40°S and pick up that first Southern Ocean depression and get carried ahead of the second pack. The British skippers, most of them in the second pack, need to make sure they don’t lose more miles going through the Doldrums or they will never get back among them.