The roaring waves, the icebergs, the seaman’s grave off Cape Horn, the loneliest point on earth: most of the sailors of the Vendée Globe have left all of this behind. And still an invisible bond seems to hold the sailors together after thousands and thousands of waves crashing on the boat after more than 50,000 kilometers. After more than 76 days of hardship, the decision actually seems to be made in a head-to-head race – like in a match race for a whole fleet.
Normally, at the Vendée Globe, the intervals are counted in days. Sometimes the sailors are so far apart that the leaders see the sun rise while the others see the night fall. But this time everything is different: if the last six sailors crossed the finish line four years ago, the first half-dozen could reach the port of Les Sables-d’Olonne on the French Atlantic coast on Wednesday or Thursday within hours .
But a solo circumnavigation is less of a race than an adventure. There are hardly any certainties, especially not those that will arrive.
Boris Herrmann has long gained the respect of the French
Because originally the Briton Alex Thomson started as a great challenger to the French, he wanted to finally break the dominance of France in the regatta. On his fifth attempt, it should work out with victory, for which he had a radical boat built. But even before the first Advent he had to give up with a broken starboard rudder. Eight out of 33 participants have so far had to give up the sails. Some met again in Cape Town, in the “port of the unfortunate”, as the sailor Boris Herrmann calls the place, because those who had to give up early in the race drag themselves there.
Now it is not Thomson, but Boris Herrmann who has won the respect of the predominantly French competition. At the ninth edition of the Vendée Globe, the native of Oldenburg could challenge France as a sailing nation. The German is given far more than just outsider chances: “We could have a non-French on the podium this time, so why not dream of victory too?” Said Armel Le Cléac’h, the winner of the previous edition.
Until Sunday morning, 36-year-old Charlie Dalin, a French boatbuilding engineer who a trade magazine calls the “foil whisperer” because he has a keen sense for the dance on the wings, was in the front. The competition is also puzzling over how well his boat is in good shape; Dalin is buttoned up. His compatriot Louis Burton, 35, who recently risked a lot with a more westerly course and has gained an advantage with this maneuver, sails tied. Even in the Southern Sea he chose a brutal course along the Arctic Ocean, which catapulted him far forward. That also needs Herrmann’s respect: “Luis Burton seems to be a tough daredevil, quite the opposite to me,” he said on Friday in a video link. Therefore Herrmann sees little chance of catching up with him.
Maybe he doesn’t have to. Should no competitor be able to stand out, then the time credits from the rescue operation in the South Atlantic could ultimately decide on the top positions. At the beginning of December, Jean Le Cam, 61, had fished his 40-year-old competitor Kevin Escoffier out of the water after endless hours, Herrmann and Yannick Bestaven had also turned up and had spent the night searching. Le Cam got the biggest bonus (16 hours and fifteen minutes), Bestaven (10 hours and fifteen minutes) and Herrmann (six hours) a smaller compensation.
And now it looks like the top trio will be able to break away in the next few days: The forecasts of the weather gurus of the Vendée Globe expect that Burton, Dalin and Herrmann could still make the jump into a cheaper wind corridor, while the pursuers in one Zone with light winds get stuck. It could of course – and this is the lesson not only from this Vendée Globe – turn out quite differently.
The fleet is now heading for the Azores Islands, where a high pressure area is waiting, after which every jibe could be decisive: “How we get through the low pressure areas and through the cold fronts, when exactly we jibe, how we catch the wind shifters, that will make the difference” , believes Herrmann. “The podium is not certain,” said Herrmann on Friday, “I could also finish seventh.”
In the Whatsapp group of sailors that Herrmann set up, things have become quieter since the top has left Cape Horn behind and is heading towards the goal: “We have become real competitors again.”