After leaving Cape Town on February 26 bound for Itajai, the third leg of The Ocean Race is the longest in the history of the race (12,750 miles). The current leader is Holcim PRB. As they approach the Tasmanian gate, Tip & Shaft plays back the first bit of the leg with Christian Dumard, weather specialist for the race, Yann Eliès, who raced the second leg on Malizia-Seaxplorer and Hubert Lemonnier the sports and operations manager for Imoca.
The first point is obvious. After nearly two weeks hard racing in the Indian Ocean, the fleet of five Imocas has not been spared from damage. There was a U-turn close to the beginning for Biotherm (mainsail traveler ripped off), the loss of a sail and a cut near the top of the mast for Malizia-Seaexplorer, cracks on the two rudders of 11th Hour Racing Team and the structural delamination for Guyot Environnement-Team Europe who returned to Cape Town and announced their retirement from the stage. “The reliability of the boats really was put to the test very quickly, just like it nearly always is when you attack the Southern Ocean, you take a smack early from the Indian Ocean which really tests you from the beginning. So four out of five boats have had problems because of the conditions which are much more challenging than anything these boats have been through since they were launched,” observes Yann Eliès.
“This is the first time that Imocas have been pushed by a crew over a longer duration in these latitudes it’s a kind of baptism of fire. We see that there are also a lot of small damages after only 12 days of racing, but nothing so far that prevents them from carrying on, apart of course from Guyot Environnement-Team Europe. In a Vendée Globe, such structural damage means game over, so in the end, so much the better for Benjamin Dutreux that it happened there. The Ocean Race is being used to test boats in the Southern Ocean”, adds Hubert Lemonnier. For him, this harsh period saw the fleet in more conservative mode: “After 5-6 days of racing we came to realize that the boats were slower, around 8 to 10%, compared to the second stage under similar conditions.”
Certainly these various damages allowed Holcim PRB – which appears not to have had any major technical problems – to get away and build a lead of 550 miles ahead of their three pursuers. “For sure they are the team in form. And when I talk about the team I include both the sailors and the technical team. The Ocean Race is not just a sporting challenge, but also a logistical and technical challenge, you have to manage to have a boat that is as efficient and reliable as possible on each and every stage. Right now they are the ones who are functioning best”, notes Eliès.
Holcim PRB are bossing it.
“It is clear they have it all working well” attests Hubert Lemonnier. “With Kevin (Escoffier) as skipper and a very complementary crew, a mix of youth and talent, we feel that they are fully into the Ocean Race mode, you can see it on the water. They are ultra professional, they are always on it, we can see that, for the moment, they are just rolling out the perfect score.” For Christian Dumard, “They have been able to set their level so well since the start of the stage. They push hard, foot to the floor when they can and ease off to preserve the boat when necessary. Right now they make very few mistakes and manage to find the right compromise depending on the state of the sea. They manage to switch from one mode to another. But don’t forget that Kevin Escoffier has a lot of experience in the South, it shows.”
But it is true that from that 550 miles lead Holcim PRB’s margin this Friday is cut now to justover a hundred on Biotherm, 11th Hour Racing and Malizia-Seaexplorer, who are around twenty miles behind. “As Holcim was in another system they didn’t push too much, going at 18-20 knots. They may also have had their own share of damage. And behind, the others have always kept some wind, which has allowed them to make up some of their margin”, observes Hubert Lemonnier.
For Christian Dumard, the crew led by Kevin Escoffier remains in pole position to pass the Tasmanian gate in the lead, probably on Monday, where the first points of this third leg will be awarded – 5 points for the first, 4 for the second… as on the two previous stages, the same scoring is applied at the finish in Itajai. “I see Holcim holding a bit of a lead, between 30 and 50 miles, but really that is just two hours max after two weeks of racing! On the other hand they have more margin than the others, because the front is not very far from the boats behind, which means that if this If they have the slightest problem, they can be swallowed up by this front and end up again in another system.” Dumard points out.
Ice is very north in the Pacific
For our three experts, this gateway to Tasmania could however give rise to a kind of re-start to the stage. As time goes on, though, problems of wear and tear on equipment and sailors will become telling. “We clearly saw in the last Vendée Globe that there was a lot of damage just before arriving at Cape Horn due to the fact that they really pushed the boats hard over a long period”, confirms Yann Eliès. This latter, who knows what he’s talking about after doing the second leg, speaks of the value of ‘comfort’ (a relative term!) and the possible differences in behaviour of the boats in the Southern Ocean: “I think that Malizia is made for this stage, for firing downwind in the big seas. The passage of the boat in the sea is much smoother, with fewer crashes and slams. The boat has an ability to sail high and fast with the bow out of the water that other hulls do not have.”
But what about after the Tasmanian gate? “They will move east in a northwesterly flow, good conditions to go fast for several days, then positioning themselves relative to the next system to come. That may result in routing close to the ice zone or others that go up towards New Zealand”, explains Christian Dumard. He adds, “On the last part of the Pacific the ice is positioned quite far north in relation to the latitude of Cape Horn, that will force them to stay north. And since we are at the end of the austral summer, the anticyclone is positioned quite south, which means that they risk encountering areas of lighter winds along the ice limit.”
It is certain that there is a lot more things can happen during this third stage, Hubbert Lemonnier adding: “I love that things are, in a way, starting again as they are now. I hope that until the finish we will have racing as we are seeing on this and on the leg 2. Yes, sure there are only five boats in The Ocean Race, but as they are all very close together, it is exciting to see how they constantly in competition with each other.”
Photo: Marin Le Roux – polaRYSE