A weekend with Saint Helena
On this 20th day at sea, the deficits are minute at the front of the fleet – the top nine 60 foot Imocas squeezed into just 35 miles – with each ranking providing a new leader. After this long, drawn out descent of the southern Atlantic, deliverance is finally taking shape on the not too distant horizon for the solo sailors in the Vendée Globe 2008-2009, though there is still a sizeable obstacle across their path: the Saint Helena High, which is continuing to slowly shift to the NE and is not very far away now. Indeed a further reduction in pace at the head of the fleet is forecast over the next few hours.

Loïck Peyron said it some 48 hours ago: “you mustn't let yourself get distracted by the rankings and the change in hierarchy… the focus is elsewhere!” Indeed, rather than concentrating on the 4th place currently occupied by the skipper of Gitana Eighty at the ranking this Saturday 29th November, you simply have to look at the state of play on the chessboard in the southern zone of high pressure. This zone, the Saint Helena High is unusually far south this autumn 2008, forcing the sailors in the Vendée Globe to go to great depths in terms of latitude, prior to finally being able to gain sufficient longitude and close on the direct route. On this big loop, each skipper is selecting his or her camp and moving their pawns forward, remaining loyal to their logic and strategy: “I'm naturally looking a little at what my playmates are doing in the east but I'm also seeing that Michel Desjoyeaux has decided to skirt right round the outside out to the west. For those to the east, it's coherent that with their slight deficit, they're trying to cut the corner. Sébastien and I got here too early to do that” explained Loïck Peyron.
The game plan seems to involve either cutting the corner on pain of getting their wings burnt or slightly lengthening the distance to go, so as not to rub shoulders with the centre of the high pressure: Loïck Peyron and Sébastien Josse, decidedly inseparable, seem today to be displaying a preference for the second option… As such, the competitors further to the east, but also further north, have pipped them to the post at the top of the leaderboard. The bets have been placed and the gamblers will have to wait for the end of the weekend, or even Monday morning, to find out who has made it into the top three.

As the fleet approach the Saint Helena High, which will see a reduction in pace amongst the frontrunners this evening, the days are just as busy as ever. As such, there is certainly no let up on the deck of the monohull equipped by Baron Benjamin de Rothschild: “It was a lively night with the wind climbing as far as 28-30 knots… We went through the entire sail wardrobe! The seas on the nose had the biggest impact though. The wind is tending to ease but it's still very shifty”. During our conversation, the skipper of Gitana Eighty excuses himself and disappears for a brief moment… in the background you can hear the sheets working: “I've just eased the sheets because the 10 knots of breeze just 5 minutes ago have suddenly transformed into 20 knots! That's how it's been for the past week: it's constantly moving and the evening promises to be studious too.” Despite these conditions, the sailor from La Baule was nevertheless taking the time to enjoy the simple but oh so important pleasures of life: “This morning I grilled myself a few slices of bread, thanks to a toaster modified by Will (William Fabulet, Gitana Eighty's boat captain), with some salted butter and a bit of jam… It still smells like a bakery inside the boat.”

Close-hauled, steering into the wind and the sea since exiting the Doldrums – around ten days ago - Loïck Peyron couldn't disguise his impatience this lunchtime to get back into some fine sessions of slipping along at speed: “It's soon going to be time to hang a left. I'm longing for it… it's a real motivation to tell yourself that at the end of the weekend we'll finally be sailing downwind, under gennaker, and no longer have to sail close-hauled with this uncomfortable ride.” Before this though, the solo sailors will have to fulfil their duty to Saint Helena… because Neptune may be content with an offering as the equator is crossed, but the zone of high pressure in the southern Atlantic may well be a lot greedier.

Indeed, whilst the top four monohulls are still making headway at around 12 knots, the grib files leave no doubt: over the coming hours, the wind will gradually ease; a drop in pace which certainly won't be synonymous with a brief respite for the solo sailors. In fact, quite the opposite will be true, as Loïck Peyron recalls: “calms are dreaded by sailors, as they're a lot worse than storms.” In addition, this forecast reduction in pace will certainly be the last one before they set off on the big loop of the Antarctic. As such, tidying up, rig checks and a general tour of the boat looking for wear after three weeks at sea, will all be on the programme. However, this will also be accompanied by adapting the sail area to the weather, playing with the ballast tanks and some time spent on studying the weather and looking at the latest grib files received on board… The weekend is a hollow word for the sailors in the Vendée Globe!

Ranking on 29th November – 1600 hours (French time)
1. BT (Sébastien Josse) 19,626 miles from the finish
2. VM Matériaux (Jean Le Cam) 3.9 miles from the leader
3. Generali (Yann Eliès) 5.4 miles
4. Gitana Eighty (Loïck Peyron) 7.8 miles
5. Brit Air (Armel Le Cléac'h) 12.7 miles
6. Paprec Virbac (Jean-Pierre Dick) 18.1 miles
7. PRB (Vincent Riou) 23.1 miles
8. Veolia Environnement (Roland Jourdain) 24.7 miles
9. Ecover (Mike Golding) 35.1 miles

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