The Vendee Globe race has been on for two weeks, and a familiar pattern is playing out. The newest boats, sailed by the best skippers, have established themselves at the front, and the attrition rate is significant. To date, seven of the twenty starters have dropped out with damage. This is normal for this race. Two thirds of the 30 entries in the 2008-2009 race failed to finish. The failures come to the best funded and best prepared, and to the underfunded as well. There is also an element of luck, with collisions with sea debris a constant hazard.
Here are the damaged. Safran,skippered by Marc Guillemot, one of the favorites, lasted about 50 hours before a catastrophic failure of her keel. This keel had been fabricated out of titanium by the Safran company, a leading European aerospace contractor, and it was state of the art in every way, and had been tested for over 25,000 sea miles. To date the cause of the failure has not been determined, but the embarrassed company promises to make its findings public. The only woman in the race, Sam Davies, lost the mast on her Saveol in less than extreme conditions, thus depriving the race of one of its more accessible and colorful skippers. Two of the boats retired after collisions with fishing boats, Kito de Pavant on Groupe Bel and Louis Burton on Bureau Valee. Jeremie Beyou on Maitre CoQ had a failure of his keel ram- again a part that had sailed many miles. Zbigniew Gutowski on Energa dropped out with extensive electrical issues, especially his autopilot. Energa was one of the underfunded last minute entries that always make the start of the Vendee, but rarely finish. The most recent retirement was Vincent Riou on PRB, one of the newest and best prepared boats, and certainly one of the favorites. He hit a large semi-floating commercial mooring buoy and damaged his hull in a way he might have repaired, but part of his carbon standing rigging in a way that he couldn't.
Here is the racing. A group of six (now five with the loss of PRB) have charged to the front. They made short work of the trip to the equator and are now racing through the South Atlantic, with passing lanes opening and closing as we speak. The lead was taken first by Francois Gabart on Macif. Gabart is the protege of the great Mitch Desjoyeaux and is the hot new young skipper on the scene. He was eventually overtaken by Armel Le Cleac'h on Banque Populaire who is presently 30 miles in front. Jean-Pierre Dick on Virbac Paprec, Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss and Bernard Stamm on Cheminees Poujoulat are the others in this group.
These are all new boats except for Hugo Boss, and the winner of the race will most probably come from this group. It will be the skipper that can best manage his boat in this endurance contest, who can correctly determine when to take a chance and press for an advantage, and when to throttle back and preserve himself and his vessel.
From an ocean voyaging perspective, two things have been of interest. The two collisions with fishing vessels were an embarrassment. Both appeared to happen when the skippers had fallen asleep in benign conditions in heavily trafficked waters. The early race along the Portugese coast is especially treacherous with a lot of fishing activity, and the sailors clearly became exhausted. The other event was that six skippers received a time penalty for violating government traffic separation requirements. They served these penalties by holding position for a length of time determined by the Race Committee. These areas to be avoided had been outlined before the start and the racers had been told they would be penalized, yet the six sailed into prohibited waters while their tracks and positions were broadcast to the world. The Vendee has a spirit of individuality, free from restraint or "rules", but this was a little over the top.
The next portion of the race will see who can navigate the shifting weather between South america and Africa to reach the Southern Expressway first. Sometimes a breakaway of one or several boats happens here, and sometimes boats and skippers break trying for that advantage. It is a critical portion of the race.