This Vendee Globe has been predictable in part, and also unique. The newest boats driven by the best skippers have set the pace, and the ice gates- virtual marks set to keep the boats away from floating ice- have added a navigation element that is giving this race a unique cast.
A group of five, all but one the newest boats, established a front pack that pulled away from the remainder of the fleet, and then that group slowly shrank to two. The pace set was fantastic- reaching in front of a low on flat seas the singlehanded monohull 24 hour record was repeatedly upped- the current best is 545.3 miles,, an average of more than 22 knots. These boats are sailing like multihulls- drawing the apparent wind forward stabilizes the breeze and lets them reduce water ballast allowing the autopilots to work with less load and smaller course changes. Any small mistake or slowing dropped a boat off the back of the train sailing slower. The mistakes make were tiny, but any slip put a boat in less ideal conditions and the losses quickly added up.
First to fall was Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss, the only older boat in the front pack, and the only British skipper in the front pack. His hydro-generator was forced up when it hit something in the water, and that broke one of the tiller bars that connect the two rudders. When Thomson slowed to make repairs he dropped out of the ideal weather and has been forced to radically alter his course to respond the conditions. For Bernard Stamm on Cheminees Poujoulat it was an autopilot glitch that caused a torn sail which dropped him from the leaders. These two are now more than 10 degrees of latitude north of the leaders and in entirely different weather.
Jean-Pierre Dick on Virbac Paprec had no big problem, but was unable to sustain the pace of the front two and slowly fell back to a 450 mile gap. The remaining two are Armel Le Cleac'h- a veteran who finished second in the 2008 edition of this race, and Francois Gabart, a young rising star sailing alone around the world for the first time. Gabart is currently 40 miles in front. Many feel that the veteran Le Cleac'h has been pushing just hard enough to get the rookie to push a little harder, hoping he will make a mistake. So far the rookie has the 24 hour record, a sail made for these conditions that no one else in the fleet has a match for, and all the speed he needs.
There is a long way to go- the leaders are just about halfway through the race and are sailing under Australia at present. The website tracking (in English is here, and an inspired fan of the race has begun putting english subtitles in many of the videos that come off the race boats daily. He has created a youtube page where these videos can be seen.