A French Navy helicopter sought out British yachtsman Alex Thomson and his closest rival Armel Le Cleac’h sailing in the Southern Ocean this week and captured some stunning footage.

The front-running IMOCA 60 racing yachts Banque Populaire VIII, skippered by French sailor Le Cleac’h, and Hugo Boss, skippered by Thomson, were pictured off the Kerguelens by a helicopter from the frigate, Nivôse, whose mission is to ensure the sovereignty of the French Islands in the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic.

Thomson is once again leading the Vendée Globe fleet after successfully hunting down arch rival Le Cléac’h in the Southern Ocean, four days after losing the pole position in the gruelling, solo non-stop round the world race.

Hugo Boss skipper Thomson, the only British sailor in the race, had been reeling in Le Cléac’h’s Banque Populaire VIII since the French skipper passed him on November 27.

Le Cléac’h initially drew out a narrow lead of around 30 miles but was unable to fully capitalise because the weather conditions were not right for foiling. Despite boasting a broken starboard foil, lost in a collision with a floating object some 12 days ago, Hugo Boss has been the quicker of the two boats over the past few days.

The record-breaking pace both boats have been exhibiting since the race start in Les Sables d’Olonne, France, on November 6, seems set to continue thanks to favourable weather conditions in the Southern Ocean.

The story couldn’t be more different for all but a few of the 16 skippers still in the South Atlantic. After enduring almost two weeks of painfully light winds, they were today being tested by breeze of up to 35 knots from a depression.

‘We’ve gone from one extreme to the other in a short space of time,’ said an exasperated Stéphane Le Diraison, yesterday afternoon in 17th place with winds of up to 30 knots and building. ‘The wind is strengthening, the seas are building and the sky is clouding over. I’m finding it hard to sleep, because the boat is so fast and there is an incredible amount of noise. IMOCAs are boats that are noisy, shake you up and sound as if they are cracking.’

American Rich Wilson, who at 66 is the oldest skipper in the fleet, and is currently in 20th place on Great American IV, was in a similar situation: ‘It’s noisy, the boat’s vibrating all the time, and then there’s a motion to it which is this sort of jittery, erratic movement like a freight train going down hill out of control.’

He added: ‘You’ve got to hold on all the time, and how you sustain that stress especially at night in the dark is just really hard. It’s not comfortable physically or mentally – at least for me it isn’t.’

Morgan Lagravière, who was forced to retire from the Vendée Globe on November 24 due to rudder to his yacht Safran, has left Cape Town bound for France. Vincent Riou, who also retired to Cape Town, is tipped to leave later this week after fixing the keel bearings on his yacht PRB.

Hellish conditions are forecast east of the Kerguelens late this weekend and the entry into the Indian Ocean will be tough too.

Follow the race tracking and news updates at www.vendeeglobe.org/en/