Elaine Bunting reviews the last week in the Vendée Globe and the groups that are clearly emerging

It has been a tense and in some cases frustrating week for the solo skippers in the Vendée Globe and a week in which experience – and inexperience – has shown vividly.

At the front, Loick Peyron has sailed a masterful race so far, apparently never putting a foot wrong. In the tradewinds he pushed Gitana Eighty very hard, and just as the aim behind him is to stick with the lead group, his has been to shake off weaker rivals so that eventually they are carved off into different weather systems.

This certainly seems to be working and now the leaders are through the Doldrums we are seeing the fleet divided into different groups. Seb Josse, Ellen MacArthur’s BT team-mate, has stuck to Peyron like glue and is living up to his billing as a race favourite. So has previous winner Vincent Riou, and the Figaro sailor that is coming to the fore as the most promising of the new arrivals is the lean and hungry-looking Armel Le Cleac’h in BritAir.

Mike Golding made an efficient Doldrums crossing too to keep with the lead pack of ten boats, which he regarded as essential for his overall prospects. The winner of the race is almost certainly going to be one of these skippers.

In the second pack are British sailors Brian Thompson and Sam Davies. Theoretically, Brian should be doing better and it’s disappointing not to see him in the lead pack, but earlier this week his big A3 spinnaker ripped and he is still working on a repair.

But the long and short of it is that, so far, he has not been quicker than Sam Davies on her older boat and, just as tellingly, Swiss sailor Dominique Wavre, highly experienced and on his third Vendée, has overhauled both despite having to restart the race with electrical problems. In effect, he’s made up 24 hours on them in the last two weeks.

The third pack is headed by Dee Caffari. She has had a mixed week after running into light winds for a while south of the Canaries. Like many first-timers, when the wind was shifty she probably did more energy-sapping gybes and sail changes than was strictly necessary, for little or no overall gain. Finding that balance is a big part of the learning curve.

Despite clawing west for her Doldrums crossing and being theoretically in striking distance of the second pack, I think she is more likely to stick with this group than get up to the next rung. But at least she is in good company with Marc Guillemot on Safran, another of the new boats. Seeing Guillemot here is a surprise.

Hard on the heels of Dee is Michel Desjoyeaux in Foncia, steadily sailing his way up to promotion. In the next week, he should move up to the second group. Again, his progress starkly highlights the marked difference in talent and experience of the top skippers as Mich Des also had to restart and has made up around two days against his nearest competitors.

Also in this third pack is Steve White, who really has been sailing a blinder. This is a slow boat by modern standards, with a lot of old equipment. Looking at his route and progress, that’s an impeccable race so far. His blogs are as interesting and readable as ever, and it was great to get an email from him earlier this week telling me he was “enjoying every minute of it.”

Jonny Malbon has not done too badly this week. Like Dee, he says he’s struggled to find a balance between driving hard and not wearing himself out with manoeuvres that aren’t beneficial. But given that his boat is almost completely new to him he’s done well to stay on the fringes of the third group. The worry for him is if he sinks back into the final pack of backmarkers.

Right now, that will be a source of anxiety. He is a little bit too far east of where he should be historically for a quick Doldrums crossing. He may get away with this but there’s nothing now to be done about it – the course was set from before the Cape Verdes. If it turns out wrong, he could lose a huge amount. In a day or two, we’ll see.

Towards the South

In the next week, the leaders will be skirting the St Helena High. There are gains and losses to be made here. The continuing worry for the 10 at the front will be losses, however. They can’t afford to fall out of the lead peloton. I think that will affect strategic choices and if a glimmer of a shortcut appears through the high pressure, I wonder who will have the courage to take it?

So far there have been no encounters with whales or floating debris, but this is also a possibility. In most of the Vendée Globe races to date there have been rudder or other breakages in the South Atlantic requiring a diversion to Cape Town. I think the next week could actually be more eventful.