After 26 days of racing on the Arkea Ultim Challenge-Brest, difficult weather conditions in the Southern Ocean have forced Charles Caudrelier to slow down, Armel Le Cléac’h to take an atypical route, and Thomas Coville to stop over in Tasmania. To talk about these twists and turns, Tip & Shaft interviewed Nicolas Lunven, member of the Maxi Banque Populaire XI routing team, Francis Le Goff, race director of the last Transat Jacques Vabre, and Arthur Le Vaillant, former Ultim skipper now in the hands of Eric Péron under the colors of Adagio.
With a 3,500-mile lead, you can afford to do a lot of things, including “putting your race on indefinite pause”. Friday morning’s announcement by Gitana Team and skipper Charles Caudrelier that they were slowing down to allow the strong gale expected this weekend around Cape Horn to pass did not fail to provoke a reaction, starting with Francis Le Goff, who sees it as “the highlight of this fourth week, which has only served to reinforce the leader’s supremacy and demonstrate his composure in managing his ultimate goal: victory”.
In fact, the skipper of Maxi Edmond de Rothschild is now the only skipper not to have made a technical stopover, and has also benefited from “favourable weather, where behind, everything has been complicated”, underlines Arthur Le Vaillant. Nicolas Lunven confirms that “the Gitana Team is continuing its flawless performance, which has been even more remarkable over the last few days given the difficult conditions”. Francis Le Goff is also keen to pay tribute to Tom Laperche, who made his retirement official on Monday, when discussing the leader’s lead: “If Charles is where he is at the moment and can afford to do what he’s doing, it’s also because he had this formidable competitor throughout the early part of the race who pulled him up.”
Charles Caudrelier and his team have opted to hold off on rounding Cape Horn on the narrowest of corridors, in order to get through this iconic third gate while minimizing the risks. “When you know the man and the team behind him, you know it’s not an easy decision. It’s going to make him sick, but at the moment, it’s part of the strategy to win, on a regular basis. It’s not at all a conservative choice for me, but a choice of a potential winner“, analyzes Francis Le Goff, who finds the sailor “impressively fresh and lucid. I’ve seen people more marked at the finish of a transatlantic race!”
“Moving north was never
an obvious choice”
Armel Le Cléac’h and his team were forced to make a similar decision, rerouting the Maxi Banque Populaire XI, now in second place, through the Bass Strait, between southern Australia and Tasmania, then north of New Zealand, to seek shelter. “I don’t remember seeing many people passing through there!” says an astonished Francis Le Goff.
“Going north was never an obvious choice, but it gradually became one,“ explains Nicolas Lunven. “Our problem was a series of lows. It was a train with several carriages, and even if we managed to get through the locomotive, behind it it was just as violent. Was it reasonable to send Armel into 50-60 knots and 7-8 metre waves in the fourth week of the race? We discussed it a lot before deciding.” The week so far had been very positive for Armel Le Cléac’h, who had swallowed the Indian Ocean at high speed, covering 842 miles in 24 hours, the best performance of the fleet since the start, just 9 miles from François Gabart’s solo record.
“Our decision to head north cost us this record, but that’s because it wasn’t in our objectives. We chose not to compromise the rest of the race. We didn’t want to put any more strain on the man or the boat, especially in these parts where disaster is never far away if you have a technical problem,” confirms Nicolas Lunven. And he is delighted that “we’ll still have a 100% boat, with easier conditions and less maneuvering over the next few days. The hardest decisions are behind us.”
“It never came back from behind”
“What’s surprising about this race is that it’s really a double penalty for all those who made a stopover. It’s never come back from behind,” stresses Francis Le Goff, who foresees the same punishment in store for Thomas Coville, who was forced to stop in Hobart, Tasmania, on Thursday, after tearing off the front balcony and port net of Sodebo Ultim 3, the skipper might leave Hobart between Friday and Saturday. “It’s a pit-stop that’s going to cost them dearly, as they can’t race again [after the 24-hour limit, editor’s note] due to the violent conditions, so they had to wait,” confirms Nicolas Lunven.
The situation is also hard for Anthony Marchand and Eric Péron, 4th and 5th respectively, who were able to set off again after 24 hours last weekend from Cape Town following their respective damage (foil and steering system), but in erratic wind conditions and cross seas which only increased their deficit. “This hyper-unstable weather they’re experiencing is the concretization of climate change,” analyzes Arthur Le Vaillant. “It’s very worrying to hear them say that they’ve never been so hot in these parts of the world, and to see the ice limit so high, simply because the pack ice is melting. It’s important to say that.”
For the sailor, “the notion of adventure has taken precedence this week over the pure race, which allows you to see that the real performance is to lead these boats single-handed on this course, regardless of your place in the rankings”. A view shared by Nicolas Lunven, who sees “behind each sailor an incredible feat, which we mustn’t minimize. It’s not over for anyone, and we have to keep going, even if we’re down, like Actual, who chose to sacrifice a foil. It’s better to have three good legs than four that put the boat at risk!” “This long race forces us to be wise and measured, and I hope it augurs well for the future of our sport,” smiles Arthur Le Vaillant.
Photo: Armel Le Cléac’h