British sailor Alex Thomson has regained ground on arch rival Armel Le Cléac'h following a frustrating 24 hours in the Doldrums for the Vendée Globe leader.

British contender Alex Thomson has been working hard to close the gap with Vendée Globe race leader Armel Le Cléac’h, with less than 90 nautical miles between the two frontrunners as they exit the Doldrums.

Frenchman Le Cléac’h lost more than 100 nautical miles to Thomson over a 48 hour period, but has now picked up speed in his IMOCA 60 Banque Populaire VIII and for the first time since Saturday is doing better than British skipper of Hugo Boss.

It is thought that Le Cléac’h is now free of the Doldrums, with Thomson hot on his heels. Their route north is less than clear thanks to a big depression building to the west of the Canaries.

Armel Le Cléac’h

Armel Le Cléac’h

Vendée Globe commentator Bruno Ménard said: ‘We need to remain cautious as sometimes the Doldrums can continue to be felt, but for the moment, that would appear to confirm that Armel Le Cléac’h has found his way out. He may be able to take advantage of that for a few hours to regain some more ground. In the middle of the Atlantic, 600 miles SW of the Cape Verde Islands, Armel Le Cléac’h is sailing 1200 miles further north than François Gabart’s position after 64 days of racing back in 2013.’

Since 19 November, Thomson has been racing his 60ft foiling yacht with a broken starboard foil, following a collision with an unidentified object floating in the South Atlantic. The damaged foil creates extra drag instead of lift on port tack.

Thomson crossed the equator in race record time on Saturday, beating François Gabart’s time from Cape Horn to the Equator by 14 hours, completing it in 13 days, 5 hours and 30 minutes.

With an ETA in Les Sables d’Olonne tentatively pencilled in for January 17, a thrilling finish is on the cards for this eighth edition of the Vendée Globe.

British yachtsman and former Vendée Globe competitor Brian Thompson said: ‘Still only 90 miles in it at the last sched. Alex just exiting Doldrums. He will be on stbd to finish too. So close!’

Alex Thomson at start of the Vendee Globe, in Les Sables d'Olonne, France. Credit: Jean-Marie Liot/DPPI/Vendee Globe

Alex Thomson at start of the Vendee Globe, in Les Sables d’Olonne, France.

The next 12 hours could prove crucial to the outcome of the 2016-17 Vendée Globe, according to British sailing star Ian Walker. Walker, the reigning champion of the Volvo Ocean Race, has been glued to his computer following the exploits of fellow countryman Alex Thomson, currently locked in an epic battle for first place with Frenchman Armel Le Cléac’h.

Volvo Ocean Race sailor Ian Walker. Credit: Matt Knighton/Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race

Volvo Ocean Race sailor Ian Walker. Credit: Matt Knighton/Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race

Walker, who was recently made an MBE for services to sailing, said what happens in the coming few hours could prove critical in the sprint to the finish in Les Sables d’Olonne, France.

‘Alex has had a great few days, there’s no denying that,’ Walker told the Vendée Globe Live show today. ‘He’s had a much better passage through the Doldrums and if he can stay within 100 miles of Armel then he’s within half a day’s sailing, and there’s still a long way to go.

‘The next six or 12 hours is quite important because if Alex isn’t quite out of the Doldrums and Armel is able to double his lead, and it was just a stretching of the elastic that we’ve just seen, then that won’t be good news for Alex. But while Alex will make a few losses now I don’t think he should haemorrhage too many miles before they’re back on an even keel.’

While admitting Le Cléac’h is the favourite to win, Walker said there were plenty of variables which could effect the overall outcome of this eighth edition of the Vendée Globe.

The double Olympic silver medallist added: ‘What we don’t know is what state both their boats are in – do they have all their sails still available, what damage do they have? It looks like Alex will be on starboard tack for most of the trip home and we saw earlier in the race he had excellent boat speed against the other competitors, but we don’t know how much Armel has been holding back. What we do know is that we’ve got a fantastic race on our hands.’

For his part Thomson appeared upbeat today after latching on to an unforeseen but welcome breeze. ‘There’s been some wind that wasn’t expected and I’m currently going quite fast although I’m on port tack,’ he reported. ‘Hopefully this breeze will last for a while but there’s definitely going to be a slow down before we get the north-easterly breeze after the Doldrums. It’s not all plain sailing at the moment.’

Elsewhere in the fleet

Elsewhere in the fleet, French sailor Jérémie Beyou became the third skipper to feel the effects of the Doldrums, slowing to just a few knots this morning.

‘A few hours ago I was completely stopped,’ he said. ‘I thought the Doldrums would be kinder to me.’ By the 1400 UTC ranking the skipper of Maître CoQ was travelling at 13 knots, firmly focused on reducing the deficit to the leaders further. ‘Ahead of me there’s a gap of 500 miles and behind me a gap of 800 miles, so I prefer to watch what’s happening in front of me,’ he added.

Fourteenth-placed American sailor Rich Wilson, having caught up more than 100 miles on the three skippers immediately in front of him by riding an easterly-moving depression, said his immediate aim was to get to the Atlantic as quickly as possible.

‘I was lucky, as sometimes us sailors get,’ he said. ‘I was at the front of a depression while the group just ahead were stuck in a high without any wind. I’ve been able to close up to Alan Roura. My fondest hope right now is that the fog would clear so I could see where Alan is. We’re only about five or six miles apart but I don’t see him on the AIS and that makes me a bit nervous. The chatter among the group down here on email is ‘let’s get to Cape Horn as fast as we can and get out of the Southern Ocean.’

The Vendée Globe, known as ‘the Everest of the seas,’ takes place every four years, and has historically been dominated by the French.

Just 18 of the 29 IMOCA 60s that were on the 2016/17 starting line remain in the race due to dismasting, breakages and damage caused from hitting unidentified floating objects. Irish sailor Enda O’Coineen was the latest casualty of the gruelling race, when he dismasted 180nm from New Zealand on New Year’s Day.

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