With 2,400 miles to go back to France and the leaders through the doldrums, only 100 miles separates the top two, and there is close competition throughout the fleet . Unusually, no boat has broken irreparably since the boats entered the Southern Ocean and only one boat still has to round Cape Horn.
Francois Gabart on Macif and Armel Le Cleach have led the race almost since the beginning. They gained separation from everyone else by getting one weather system ahead in the Southern Ocean, and have since sailed with almost no separation between themselves. They rounded Cape Horn within hours and then Gabart brilliantly positioned himself a little to the east and increased his leverage from Le Cleach whenever he could. This allowed him to work into slightly stronger wind and at one point as they neared the doldrums his lead was 200 miles and his positioning to cover seemed perfect. Le Cleach responded by waiting until Gabart slowed in the doldrums and then positioning himself 30 miles to the east where slightly better weather has brought him back to less than 100 miles from Gabart, though at this point the distance changes hourly. What is clear is that this race will come down to the final choices each skipper makes, the sails they have available, and the condition of their boats, which they are keeping secret. This race will be close unless one or the other breaks. Barring unforseen conditions or breakage, one or both will finish this race in under 80 days, a pace that 20 years ago was a struggle for the fastest crewed multihulls in existence.
Behind them, there is an equal battle for the final podium spot between Jean Pierre Dick and Alex Thomson who is sailing a one generation older boat. At Cape Horn Dick's lead seemed insurmountable, in fact he was so close to the front two that they all took the classic route north as the front two covered him. This gave Thomson the opportunity to sail much closer to the South American coast where he found a passing lane. At one point he caught Dick for third place but had to give the place back when finally Brazil blocked his way north. He is currently 200 miles out of third place but another opportunity will present itself at the doldrums and then there is the call on the final turn east to the finish. Who ends up in the top three is by no means decided.
Behind these front four there is another great battle among the "old guard". Mike Golding and Jean Le Cam, two grizzled race veterans, are 2,000 miles behind the leaders, but they are currently less than 20 miles from each other, in a fight that has gone back and forth since well before Cape Horn. Trading videos (see the media page at the Vendee Globe site here) and emailed challenges these two have been a pleasure to watch the entire race.
And there is still more- three other boats are close enough to pressure Golding and Le Cam and pass them. One of these is Javier Sanso on Acciona, the boat that started with no diesel fuel, and has sailed the entire race generating only solar anda little hydro power. He will be at a slight disadvantage, for while his generating system was comparable in weight at the start to those carrying diesel fuel, his batteries still weigh the same while the others have shed all the weight of burnt fuel. This may prove telling in the light airs near the equator.
Speaking of hydro, this is clearly the feature of the new boats that is the most interesting to ocean voyagers. The latest hydro generators by Watt and Sea are revolutionizing how these boats manage their power needs. They also have proved unreliable, not the units themselves, but the mounts and controls. Alex Thomson has lost capacity and as well damaged his steering system when his units kicked up in response to debris, and Bernard Stamm has been the only casualty of the race since near the beginning. When the mounts for his hydro proved weak he was forced to anchor below New Zealand for repairs. In gale conditions he found his anchor dragging and a Russian ship that had anchored aft of him became a hazard to him. Naturally the crew of the Russian ship tried to help, but when one stepped aboard unasked Stamm knew he had violated race rules. He reported the circumstances to the Race Committee and set sail again when his repairs were complete. The Race Committee disqualified him but Stamm appealed, and in an extraordinary gesture, every other skipper still in the race supported his appeal. It all came for naught when his repairs failed and he was forced to accept fuel near Cape Horn, and ultimately the Race Committee ruled against his appeal- this race truly means "unassisted and alone".
Keep an eye on the excellent tracking page for the race here, and check the reports and media that stream regularly from the boats elsewhere on the race site which has a decent english version here. This one is coming down to the wire.