As expected there has been huge amounts of drama, and changes at the top, since the ninth edition of the 24,000nm Vendée Globe set sail from Les Sables d’Olonne on 8 November.
With two to three months of racing ahead, it began well with all 33 skippers returning a negative Covid test allowing them to race. However, even the start did not play ball, with a sea mist shrouding the start zone, holding the race up for nearly one hour and 20 minutes.
Once underway, it did not take long for the drama to start. Jérémie Beyou, one of the favourites to win, hit a floating object on the third evening. The 44-year-old French skipper had to sail 600 miles back to Les Sables d’Olonne for repairs before re-starting almost a week later, despite the leaders already being around 2,500nm south, approaching the Doldrums.
The first to abandon the race, was French skipper Nicolas Troussel, who was lying in seventh place when he was dismasted on CORUM L’Épargne. After cutting the rigging off the boat so as not to damage the hull, he made his way under engine towards the port of Mindelo in the Cape Verde islands.
Hoping to leave all the drama behind him, British skipper Alex Thomson crossed the equator first with around 79 miles in hand over second placed Thomas Ruyant (LinkedOut). The complicated weather patterns of the first week put paid to any hopes of the Vendée Globe’s 9 days 7 hours and 02 minutes passage record between Les Sables d’Olonne and the Equator, held by Alex, being broken. The British skipper’s elapsed time to the Equator was 9 days 23 hours and 59 minutes.
Alex said: “I definitely expected the start of the race to be tough, but it is not normal for it to be that intense, that is for sure. Normally you would not have to negotiate all of these changing weather systems and then a tropical storm; that has never really happened before. So yes, it has been tough with very little sleep.”
Alex’s time at the front was to come to a sudden end, though, when almost two weeks in, he discovered structural damage in the bow area.
In a statement Alex Thomson Racing said: “The inspection has revealed some structural damage to a longitudinal beam at the front of the boat. The damage appears to be isolated to that area alone. It is yet unclear what caused this damage.
“Alex has now put the boat into a safe position to manage the sea state in order to reduce movement on board while he carries out the repair. He has all the necessary materials on board, a detailed plan to follow and a team of world class engineers advising him.”
Jérémie Beyou offered support to his British counterpart. The French sailor should have been Alex’s main rival but, while Alex was repairing HUGO BOSS, Jérémie was chasing the fleet still 600 miles behind back marker Kojiro Shiraishi and 3,000 miles behind race leader Charlie Dalin (Apivia). Their Vendée Globes both turning out massively different to what they hoped for.
Just 48 hours after he unearthed structural damage to HUGO BOSS, Alex confirmed he was sailing once again.
“I have got a sail up again!” Alex said. “I am sailing in the right direction and I am back in the race. I am super happy about that. It has been a tough couple of days, an awful lot of work – cutting, grinding, sanding, gluing and there is still a lot more to go. It is certainly not over yet, but the structure in the bow is now stable.”
With the race only around a fifth of the way through, and more than 19,500 miles still to go, the opportunity to re-join the leaders was still very much alive for Alex, who won the hearts of fans around the world when, in the 2016-17 edition of the Vendée Globe, he finished in second place, despite suffering irreparable damage to his hydrofoil just 12 days into the race.
“It is obviously disappointing, but I am not going to dwell on the negatives here because I think there are way more positives.” Alex said. “It is positive that I found it before it was catastrophic, it is positive that it happened in the conditions it happened in, which meant the leaders and the rest of the fleet were not moving away at 500 miles a day. So I am just super happy that I am still in the race.”
However, those words would come back to haunt Alex just a few days later when he was forced to pull out of the race after incurring damage to the starboard rudder of his boat, believing that some discarded or lost fishing equipment caused the fracture. At the time he was in 15th place, 650 miles behind leader Charlie Dalin.
Alex reported: “A repair is not possible. We therefore accept that this will be the end of the race for us. Myself, my team and our partners are, of course, deeply disappointed. We believe the best was yet to come in this race. I am obviously devastated.”
The British skipper was around 1,800nm from Cape Town, a journey of around seven days. Alex’s technical team travelled to the city to meet the yacht upon its arrival.
From the skippers still racing and fans and supporters around the world there has been a huge outpouring of support and good wishes for the popular skipper.
Mike Golding, Britain’s four times Vendée Globe, racer said: “I am so very disappointed for Alex and for his team. He is the guy so many of us were rooting for and following every day.”
There was further drama at the top when, just a few days before Alex’s incident, while lying in second place in the South Atlantic, some 72nm behind the leader, Thomas Ruyant sustained damage to the port foil of his IMOCA LinkedOut. The skipper will now be unable to use the foil on the port side of his boat.
He said: “I carry on racing nonetheless. I still have my starboard foil, which is statistically the most important for a round-the-world race. The course is still very long. I am continuing, I will hang on in there!”
At the time of writing, Charlie Dalin tops the standings, but he is one of 10 different leaders since the solo non-stop race round the world started.
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