'It's brutal. Absolutely brutal. I do wonder why I do this sometimes", says Britain's Vendée Globe contender Alex Thomson

Seven hundred miles east of South Island New Zealand and some one hundred miles apart, Armel Le Cléac’h and Alex Thomson are working through the centre of a low pressure system, playing out their respective choices at the front of the 22-boat Vendee Globe fleet.

As they transit the changing breezes at different times – largely a first in first out scenario – there will be some small gains and losses, but the biggest concern for the British skipper Thomson may be the seven or eight days ahead of him racing on port tack when his damaged foil leaves him disadvantaged against his long time rival.

Conventional routing based on equal speed potential places the two leaders almost equal after several days of racing in the NW’ly breezes they will have. But that does not account for Thomson’s evident speed deficit due to his damaged foil.

After a relatively benign spell around midnight UTC, making 6-10kts French skipper Armel Le Cléac’h was just over 70 miles ahead of Britain’s Alex Thomson this morning. This has now increased to a 121NM gap.

It came after an intense weekend, which saw the two front runners battle a tough depression to the South of New Zealand, with 35-45 knot winds, gusts over 50, and huge seas.

Thomson described his IMOCA 60 yacht Hugo Boss crashing from 30-knot surfs before coming to a sudden, jarring halt as it ploughs into yet another wave trough.

He said: ‘It’s brutal. Absolutely brutal. I do wonder why I do this sometimes. It’s now when your mind starts to wander. What happens if the structure fails? What happens if you hit something? It is much harder to deal with the whole thing in the pitch black.’

The 42-year-old British skipper reported to his team on Saturday that he was is fair shape, physically and mentally, but was very much looking forward to quieter weather.

‘Alex is still crawling around the boat. It is impossible to move around at all. He is pretty tired as you would expect. But he seems to be OK.’ Ross Daniel, the Alex Thomson Racing technical director said on Saturday afternoon.

Four years ago, Thomson finished the 2012/13 Vendée Globe in third place, and became the fastest Britain to sail single-handedly, non-stop around the globe, finishing the race in 80 days, 19 hours, 23 minutes. This time, Thomson has his sights on being the first British skipper to win the Vendée Globe.

Elsewhere in the fleet

Credit: Conrad Colman/Foresight Natural Energy

Credit: Conrad Colman/Foresight Natural Energy/Vendée Globe

Just 22 of the 29 IMOCA 60s that set sail on 6 November 2016 from Les Sables d’Olonne, France remain in the race.

Seven of the solo skippers have been forced to abandon the race, due to a dismasting, yacht breakages and damage caused from hitting unidentified floating objects.

Yesterday evening it was third-placed Paul Meilhat’s turn to enter the Pacific and early this morning Jérémie Beyou did the same, crossing the longitude of South East Cape, Tasmania. Everything is going well for the skippers of SMA and Maître CoQ, with relatively stable, fresh winds (20-25 knot NW’lies).

They will probably not be affected by the very big area of low pressure which will concern the three boats behind them. Yann Eliès, Jean-Pierre Dick and Jean Le Cam will be battling it out tomorrow in this low, which stretches from Tasmania to New Zealand generating 50-55 knot winds tomorrow morning for Quéguiner-Leucémie Espoir,and then tomorrow afternoon for St Michel-Virbac, and later for Finistère Mer Vent.

Thomas Ruyant, who has just gybed after sailing a long way north to avoid having to carry out too many manoeuvres to avoid the Antarctic Exclusion Zone, is likely not to be affected by this system, while Yann, Jean-Pierre and Jean look likely to be facing the sort of conditions, which have contributed to the legend of the Vendée Globe.

In 15th place the first Irishman to take part in the Vendée Globe, Enda O’Coineen (Kilcullen Voyager Team Ireland) is just 32 miles ahead of Alain Roura (La Fabrique).

The Irish skipper has had his problems and has, once again, been given to wondering ‘why am I putting myself through this?’

He said: ‘It’s tough, it’s cold, it’s wet and to think I did it with my own ‘ free-will’…. to live on the edge with constant challenges. The mind boggles, ’tis bonkers. Aboard Kilcullen, a mirror would have been useful. A sheet was jammed around the rudder and I could not see how or why. It was dangerous to the rudder and would not come clear. It would have been handy to look around the edge to see the problem.

‘In the end, we did an Alex Thomson. Namely canted the keel the wrong way and hardened the sails for the boat to heel and go more upwind. She was remarkably steady going along at an angle of about 60 degrees. Then I climbed out over the stern and stood on the aft ledge and the port rudder was clear out of the water which I was able to stand on.’

O’Coineen added: ‘This is hard. So that I can never, ever do something like this again, I will sign a legal binding document and give it to somebody in trust so that they can stop me from ever, ever, ever again doing something like this. That said, I am thrilled to have survived this far. Our next landmark is the Kerguelen Islands, about 600 miles East. I am contemplating whether to pull in there to sort out my halyard problems and climb the mast.’

The Vendée Globe takes place every four years. Since the race’s inception, back in 1989, just 71 of the 138 starters have successfully completed the 23,000-mile race, and three have lost their lives along the way.

Find more Vendée Globe news updates and boat tracking at www.vendeeglobe.org/en/news

About Alex Thomson

Alex Thomson is not just someone, who dives off the top of a mast in his best suit (although it takes skill to dive 29 metres while moving) for the PR requirements of his sponsor, Hugo Boss. The picture was seen around the world on Internet, but Alex Thomson has greater sporting ambitions: he wants to become the first British winner of the Vendée Globe.

He does indeed have what it takes with a foiling boat built by Green Marine in England. In the last race (third in 2012/2013), Alex Thomson showed everyone that he could make it to the podium with a second-hand boat. He is often shown as an example of what can be done with an older boat by his peers.

But this was not the only moment of glory along the way for Alex, who can boast an exciting past. This fan of speed grew up on the South coast of England and back in 1999 became the youngest sailor to win the crewed race around the world, the Clipper Round The World Race, which he achieved at the age of 25. Forced out of the Vendée Globe twice in 2004 and 2008, this is now but a distant memory. Alex is a phenomenon, able to push back his personal limits and those of his boat.

Just like when he smashed the solo Atlantic crossing record or sailing double-handed came in second in the Barcelona World Race. The British sailor is certainly stubborn and very experienced. Like Vincent Riou and Bertrand de Broc, this is his fourth attempt at taking on the Everest of the Seas. He really wants this one to be the big one. He is certainly up there with the favourites. One day, a non-French sailor will indeed win the Vendée Globe. Alex Thomson may be the man to do it.