A decisive day ahead
Leader of the fleet of Orma trimarans in the Route du Rhum / La Banque Postale since midday on Tuesday, Lionel Lemonchois on Gitana 11 is approaching the Azores archipelago, which he should cross on Wednesday afternoon. At this Atlantic intersection, the unusual weather situation is prompting caution.

The Azores in three days! Who could have imagined such a scenario on a Route du Rhum? Over one third of the course between Saint Malo and Guadeloupe gobbled up at an average of almost 25 knots in recent hours… Courtesy of his deliberately more southerly trajectory right from the first day, Lionel Lemonchois aboard Gitana 11 has benefited from near-ideal sailing conditions throughout and is continuing to go it alone at the head of the fleet, with his chief competitors hot on his heels.
 “I've finally managed to sort out my phone problems but not yet my e-mail ones… But everything's going pretty well here: things are fairly relaxed because we've been on a conveyor belt since Monday evening. The sea was a tad rough but it quietened well down during Tuesday. I've been sailing at full tilt with gennaker up and mainsail high for over 24 hours, and it's going like a dream. The boat is performing well on automatic pilot, which gives me a chance to sleep, eat and therefore stay in good physical shape. The conditions are not too tough but the most important thing is staying alert: at the moment, there's a wind of fifteen knots set to rise to 22 knots… So it's not too fierce!
Now, it's time to negotiate the Azores. It's a key point in the race and I've got total faith in my two “trackers”, Sylvain Mondon from Météo France and Yann Guichard, who've worked superbly on my positioning over these first few days. They've put me in a healthy and rapid navigational situation by maintaining a more southerly route than the other trimarans. I've probably encountered less wind and rough seas than those who headed further north.

Meanwhile, Thierry Duprey du Vorsent on Gitana 12  may be lagging some 260 miles behind his stable mate, but he is continuing on his course with serenity and patience, at a pace which is now proving increasingly sustained. The solo sailing novice has learned to stay calm and focused by managing his sleeping and eating phases efficiently. He should cross the Azores half a day after the leader, which should not be too penalising in weather terms after the archipelago.
As once the islands have been crossed, Gitana 11 is going to have to turn off to the west in a wind rotating north to northeast in order to emerge from this Azorean low-pressure front and cross a long cold front that is splitting the Atlantic in two. This will be followed by a further gybe right at the start of the weekend so as not to get bogged down in the Bermuda anticyclone and to head off in the direction of Guadeloupe. At this pace, the winner of this eighth edition of the Route de Rhum looks likely to be known after less than ten days at sea!

But this Wednesday is highly likely to hold the turning point of the race, in both the literal and figurative senses of the phrase, firstly because the point of passage of the Azores doesn't appear to be the same for all. The four leaders (Lionel Lemonchois, Michel Desjoyeaux, Yvan Bourgnon and Pascal Bidégorry) have elected to cross via the middle, it would seem between Terceira and Sao Miguel, while Thomas Coville, Franck Cammas and Stève Ravussin look to have opted for a route between Flores and Faial, i.e. considerably more to the west. And secondly, because the trimarans are going to have to gybe after crossing the Azores in order to reposition themselves towards the west; and finally because the choice of the time of this manoeuvre will be even more important than the first gybe on Tuesday morning, as the trajectory to be followed needs to curve with the passing miles due to a “backing” wind (i.e. turning gradually from northeast to east), linked to the growing gap from the centre of the Bermuda anticyclone to the northeast. While on Wednesday, the solo sailors will have to contend with the islands, squalls, small windless low-pressure patches, and cross seas made chaotic by the archipelago, it now seems a given that the remainder of the route will be completed amidst sunshine, in the trade winds on the “Southern highway”… But the gaps are likely to be too small to risk letting the pace slacken!

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