Games of cunning and speed

After Virbac Paprec 3 reclaimed the lead of the Barcelona World Race this morning, they look set to remain at the head of the rankings until at least 0500hrs on Tuesday January 25. That’s because the third boat to deal their ‘joker’ card and opt for ‘stealth mode’ is Foncia, their nearest rival and previous race leader.

Having set a new 24-hour 60ft monohull speed record yesterday (subject to ratification by the WSSRC) from second place, the Virbac Paprec 3 duo of Jean-Pierre Dick and Loick Peyron (FRA) overtook Foncia this morning, first crossing to the south of Michel Desjoyeaux and François Gabart (FRA) around midnight last night, then overhauling them in the position rankings by 1000hrs this morning.

At last count Virbac Paprec 3 had a 10-mile lead and were sailing approximately 1 knot faster, with the lead boats anticipated to pass the waypoint of Gough Island this afternoon. However, the Foncia duo have decided to make the game a little more cloak and dagger, with François Gabart revealing in this morning’s live audio conference that they were about to opt for ‘stealth’ mode, which will see Foncia disappear from the rankings until 0500hrs (UTC) on Tuesday. “Michel and I have decided to use the ghost mode, so we won’t appear in the next ranking. With Virbac Paprec 3 it’s a game of chase! So which one is best? I prefer to be in front.”

François Gabartalso hinted at some reasons why Virbac Paprec 3 had outrun the other newly launched Verbier-VPLP design, saying: “One of the mistakes we have made is with the choice of sails. We have made a lot of sail changes, too many. When you haven’t got the timing right with the choice of sail, you are always out of sync. For the past 36 hours that’s what happened. It’s why we have lost a lot of speed against Virbac Paprec. Today we’re going to try and have a good sail, and not change every five minutes.” However, this could of course all be part of their game plan…

For the middle of the fleet the game has become one of snakes and ladders, catching the breeze to move up places and avoiding the windless holes which see boats slithering back down the rankings. MAPFRE in the west have averaged over 8 knots since this morning’s 1000hrs ranking to reclaim third overall. Meanwhile Groupe Bel’s sub-5 knot pace has dropped them to fifth as Estrella Damm jumped back up to fourth, with less than 10 miles distinguishing the pair.

The worst conditions are currently surrounding Neutrogena in seventh and Mirabaud in eighth, who have both averaged just 2.9 knots over the past hour. For Dominique Wavre (SUI) and Michèle Paret (FRA) this actually represents an improvement, having spent the previous five hours averaging just 2 knots. They’re not the only ones to be struggling for speed, with six boats showing less than 5 knot speeds in this afternoon’s 1500hr position report.

Despite the challenging conditions, across the fleet there are plenty of good-humoured fun and games to be had. Dee Caffari (GBR) was celebrating her 38th birthday at sea today, with presents hidden around GAES Centros Auditivos. Unwrapping them live on today’s video conference Dee joked: “I have a syrup pudding and a chocolate pudding, yummy. And I’ve got go-faster Southern Ocean knickers!

“Looking ahead at the weather we’re all going to be hanging out together for a while, so I thought we might have a party and we’re offering on GAES a free bar – it’s all the watermaker water you would like!”

The offer was reciprocated by Juan Merediz and Fran Palacio (ESP) on Central Lechera Asturiana, who invited the rest of the fleet to celebrate the 23rd day at sea for their boat, hull no. 23, saying: “We’ll have a party for this anniversary and we’ll lay on the milk and cider!”

However, as the fleet approach the deep south more serious concerns will become pressing. Yesterday Race Direction repositioned the first ice-gate further north, after a satellite imagery of the race area revealed large amounts of ice in the path of the fleet. Marcel van Triest, official meteorologist of the race, explains that the pattern suggested: “A very large iceberg that had just “broken-up” resulting in multiple icebergs of more than 4 kms, dozens of icebergs of ‘a few’ hundred metres, and hundreds if not thousands of smaller pieces that cannot be reliably identified.”

After the first waypoint of Gough Island, the new position of the first Atlantic Gate is 40°30S and 001°00E-006°00E. The position of the first gate after the Cape of Good Hope, the Agulhas Gate, has also been announced as between 42°00S and 23°00E-28°00E.

Although the quantity of potentially dangerous ice surprised many in the fleet, humour prevails: “Thanks for modifying the gates Denis,” emailed Central Lechera Asturiana this morning, “we prefer our drinks without ice, at least for now!”

Quotes from the skippers, Sunday 23 January:
François Gabart (FRA), Foncia:

“Yesterday we made a small diversion into the Roaring Forties in the middle of the day. We didn’t feel that it was such a good move so we decided to come back up north, but I’ve had my Roaring Forties baptism!

“Virbac Paprec 3 had a very good day yesterday and the day before because they beat the record, and now they are in front of us. We didn’t have such a good day as them, but we are really close so we’ll try to chase them now we’re behind.

“I only have experience of the previous generation of boats with Groupe Bel. What impressed me more these last days is that the boats go very, very fast: Foncia is perfect balanced on the helm so it works very well on the autopilot. And we feel that we can maintain very high speeds without being very hands-on.”

Xabi Fernandez (ESP), MAPFRE

“We’ve had a very hard night, the calm has been bigger than we expected. Slowly we are getting towards the gate. The change of gate has surprised us a bit because it looked to us as if the change came a bit late. The new gate is a lot nearer the boats to the north, but it’s a safety question so now we’ll just have to work to the new gates in the race.

“The forecast for the next 24-48 hours is light winds, swinging left to around 130 degrees roughly, then going behind us.”

Pepe Ribes (ESP), Estrella Damm

“Here we are with very little wind. Over the last 24 hours we have mainly had less than 6 knots and variable direction. We do not know how long we have got left in here, everything depends on the high pressure.

The change to the cold is going to happen rapidly, so for this we have already been preparing the bags of winter clothes, with boots, technical socks, thermal tights, mid-layers, gloves … We want to be 100 per cent when the wind and cold reaches us so we are not caught off guard.

“It’s impressive to see so many icebergs together, even more because we know that the satellite only records the big blocks, so we have to go very careful of the small blocks. This is the first time I have seen so much ice so far north. The planet is warming and the ice is melting, for many years in this area there was no ice and there are now islands up to 10 miles big. We are pleased that the gates have been moved further to the north.

“When you sail with icebergs you have to be monitor the water temperature using alarms because when you are near these growlers the water temperature drops very quickly, this is a good indicator especially at night when you do not see anything.

“It was very emotional yesterday to be able to talk with my mother on her birthday, because they talk to you about everyday life, and here that seems so strange.”

Kito de Pavant (FRA), Groupe Bel:

“There’s no wind. Since the start from Barcelona we have had a lot of calms. Our goal is to get out of the anticyclone. It’s very difficult to make any long-term forecasts, so we’re just working with what we’ve got.

“Virbac Paprec and Foncia are enjoying very normal conditions, which are just in front of us. They didn’t choose to go to Recife as they had to stop to repair their boats, but it’s true that it’s been very lucky for them. It was a good moment and worked out well for them. MAPFRE tried to take the same way, but they were got the timing wrong.

“Right now we’re trying not to think about the others, as there’s not a lot that we can do about it while we are still in the St Helena high pressure. We can see that some people are benefitting from these conditions; Mirabaud has slowed down while Renault Z.E. and Neutrogena have come back. We are not in a great situation.

“We are still a way north, but yesterday Seb saw an albatross – maybe he was lost or perhaps he was on his holidays!”

Dee Caffari (GBR), GAES Centros Auditivos

“I’ve got presents, which is very exciting. One was hidden in my food bag, and another one appeared this morning from Anna. I haven’t had my birthday treat yet, but Anna’s going to cook ham and eggs.

“I’ve had some really nice emails and messages from friends that have made me smile. It’s really nice to realize that life continues and everybody’s doing normal things, and it’s quite a nice distraction to hear about something other than sail trim, boat speed and the weather strategies, so it’s a really nice distraction.

“We know that the next 24 hours are going to be pretty tricky and so long as we can keep boat speed moving, looking at the position reports we’re closing that gap with the guys in front that we were losing track of. I think tonight will be the telling time. So far so good today. So hopefully my birthday treat is we’re going to keep moving.

“It was quite a lot of ice for very early on and the additional gate kind of really does illustrate the fact that this is quite a lot. Because this race is so much later than the majority of time we spend in the south, I’ve got a feeling we’re going to see a lot more to come and those ice gates are all going to move north, but it’s better that we’re kept safe. I’ve got plenty of photographs of ice flows, I don’t need to see any more!”

Fran Palacio (ESP), Central Lechera Asturiana

“The ice is impressive and really it’s frightening knowing that so far north there are so many icebergs. We are very happy the organization has moved the gates as anything that means more safety is welcome. In the south we’ll go day by day as we’ve never been there, but we have studied the theory closely so we’ll see how it goes in practice.

“We have been doing some repairs, as a rope in the bowsprit was a bit frayed and fortunately Juan detected in it time. In the main track there was one slider broken so we have taken the opportunity to look at all the track for possible problems. Each one of us makes small checks whenever he’s on watch. The mast is alright, we have no problems so far and all the rigging is okay.

“We are not losing too much muscle, we eat a lot of proteins and our doctor gave us a band to mainly work our legs although we haven’t done that much. On the torso there’s no problem, we don’t lose much weight.

“We decided to head for the east and if we’re lucky it will be good as we will do less miles. Our pilot ‘Miguel’ works very well with wind but with the spinnaker and light winds we steer.”

Standings at Sunday 23 January at 1400hrs UTC

1 VIRBAC-PAPREC 3 at 19,401 miles from the finish

2 FONCIA in stealth mode

3 MAPFRE at 513 miles from the leader

4 ESTRELLA DAMM at 522 miles

5 GROUPE BEL at 526 miles

6 RENAULT Z.E. at 584 miles

7 NEUTROGENA at 609 miles

8 MIRABAUD at 618 miles


10 HUGO BOSS at 730 miles


12 WE ARE WATER at 822 miles

13 FORUM MARITIM CATALA at 925 miles