As the third week of the Arkea Ultim Challenge-Brest draws to a close, half the fleet is now in Cape Town or heading there, following major damage, while Charles Caudrelier set a new solo reference time at Cape Leeuwin on Thursday. To analyse these developments, Tip & Shaft spoke to meteorologist Christian Dumard, a member of Actual Ultim 3’s routing team, Christian Le Pape, former director of the Finistère ocean racing centre in Port-La-Forêt, and Renaud Bañuls, one of Sodebo Ultim 3‘s designers.
There has been a radical change of atmosphere on the Arkea Ultim Challenge-Brest in this third week of the race, marked by the competitors’ entry into the Southern Ocean. “Everything around them has gone grey, says Christian Le Pape, the alarms are going off all the time and you get the feeling that they’re orbiting another planet.”
This feeling is strengthened by the distance that separates the three boats still racing, each of which is now in completely different weather systems. “It’s as if there’s one in Moscow, one in Paris and the other practically in New York”, emphasises the co-founder of the Port-la-Forêt centre.
At the front, Charles Caudrelier continues to impress. On Thursday, the skipper of the Maxi Edmond de Rothschild crossed the second symbolic gate in the course, Cape Leeuwin, in 18 days 5 hours 44 minutes and 5 seconds of racing, improving François Gabart’s previous solo record by more than 32 hours.
“On the other hand, he didn’t beat the 24-hour record, even though the conditions might have been right at the start of the week. We can feel that he’s eased off a little and his average speeds are lower in this third week,” analyses Christian Dumard. Dumard sees this as “the consequence of having lost Tom Laperche as a direct competitor, and the comfortable lead over his pursuers”. “We can feel that he’s in a phase of managing his race, in control of this boat that he knows well”, confirms Renaud Bañuls.
However, the Indian Ocean wasn’t all plain sailing. “While he hasn’t had any extreme conditions, it hasn’t been easy, with a lot of downwind sailing and the ice limit, which has forced him to do a lot of manoeuvring and sailing,” points out Christian Dumard, who adds: “For the moment, the Pacific seems to have no problems ahead of him, apart from the risk of a slightly soft zone in the middle.
Le Cléac’h “finds his rhythm”
Behind, on the other hand, Thomas Coville is “in a complicated phase over this third week. His trajectory doesn’t reflect a choice, but rather that he’s suffering”, analysed Christian Le Pape. After suffering damage to his starboard foil system just before the Cape of Good Hope, “Sodebo found herself sailing behind the front, in very difficult sea conditions, making it impossible to find a window of opportunity to repair and perform in a stable manner”, concedes Renaud Bañuls who is immersed in the team’s performance unit.
Although “a stopover in Cape Town was considered, the choice was finally made to continue while waiting for the right window of opportunity to bring the boat back up to her potential”. In a video posted on Thursday, the 55-year-old sailor was delighted to have successfully completed his repair, even though “the boat is still far from 100%”, the naval architect added. However, could this enable him to get back on track? “This week, he has lost 1,400 miles on the leader, but the mild conditions may enable him to reverse the trend, answers Christian Dumard. It all depends on the boat’s operational state.”
Behind him, Armel Le Cléac’h is having, in everyone’s opinion, “an exceptional week”. “We’re back to the Armel of the major events, with a very pure linear trajectory, he’s finding his rhythm”, observes Christian Le Pape, who is delighted with “this comeback, after a complicated start to the race and a forced stopover in Brazil”.
The duel with Anthony Marchand as they rounded the St. Helena high enabled the two boats to “maintain great speed averages, staying in contact with each other for a long time”, underlines Christian Dumard. However, he points out that “as soon as the wind picked up, above 15 knots downwind, Banque Populaire showed she was very comfortable and sped away”. On Friday morning, Armel Le Cléac’h’s trajectory marked a sudden break. “It looks like something has happened, but what? You can see that the speeds have been erratic ever since”, the meteorologist emphasised.
Traffic jam in Cape Town
For the other three competitors in the Arkea Ultim Challenge-Brest, the atmosphere is obviously radically different, with three pit stops underway or to come in Cape Town. “A small stone chip on a windscreen can cause a lot of damage, and it’s the same on these boats, which are travelling at breakneck speeds,” notes Christian Le Pape. Tom Laperche, who was the first to be hit, managed to reach Cape Town last Monday, but not without difficulty given the strong wind and sea conditions. Since then, his team has been studying “all the options“, while acknowledging that continuing is only a “mini possibility”.
On Tuesday morning, it was Anthony Marchand who announced that he had suffered an impact to his port foil. Although the skipper of Actual Ultim 3 initially indicated that he would continue his race, he finally decided on Wednesday to divert to the South African port, where he arrived on Friday. “Setting off south with an unsecured boat was risky. The amount of minor damage was enough to convince us,” says Christian Dumard. “As with aircraft, vibrations can quickly make things worse, which is less the case for archimedean boats,” adds Christian Le Pape.
Finally, on Friday morning, it was Eric Péron who reported that he was also heading for Cape Town, following damage to the starboard rudder of the trimaran Adagio, and a breakage to his steering gear. “It’s a real shame because he had a great week and was the closest to his boat’s maximum potential with Armel,” emphasises Christian Dumard. The 4,500 mile deficit doesn’t necessarily give that impression, but he sailed superbly, especially as he got his boat back at the last minute. I take my hat off to him!”
Collisions: “Zero risk will never exist”
What conclusions can our experts draw from the numerous collisions that have affected the fleet? For Renaud Bañuls, founder of the Share The Ocean consortium, commissioned by the race direction to determine exclusion zones for marine megafauna, “it’s impossible to know with any certainty what they’ve hit”. “Single-handed, and if it’s at night, you can’t see anything when you’re inside“, agrees Christian Le Pape, who points out that “a lot of things circulate in the oceans, and not just living things”.
While the risk of a collision with a marine animal is obviously plausible, “we are going to analyse the location of collisions, which will help us to refine our models so that we can define more zones in the future“, Renaud Bañuls sums up. For the architect, “all safety on the high seas is based on statistics, so we will have to continue to develop this notion of risk zones using data, even if, at the same time, we finally succeed in developing effective avoidance technology”.
For the specialist, however, “zero risk will never exist, but the aim of all this work is to continue to reduce this risk in order to preserve biodiversity and the safety of sailors”.
Photo: Guillaume Gatefait