Gate hopping in the deep south
After 25 days of racing, the head of the fleet in the Vendée Globe 2008-2009 is still as compact as ever. The top nine are grouped within 83 miles; an exciting scenario for observers and an enjoyable one for solo sailors who love competition… It's the promised race around the planet, of that there is no doubt! Sailing in the austral latitudes since early this week, those leading the way have passed the first ice gate set by the organisation for safety reasons, and are now heading towards the next gate, which has been repositioned to the NW of the Kerguelen islands. Third at the 1600 hour position report, Loïck Peyron had made it back into the top three and was gradually reducing his deficit on the dastardly duo. Gitana Eighty had reduced his deficit on the leader to 28.5 miles, which is nearly two and a half times less than yesterday at the same time!

This new week at sea, the fourth since the start in Les Sables d'Olonne, began with a few niggles aboard Gitana Eighty. Indeed 48 hours ago, Loïck Peyron was telling us about his misfortunes on Monday night: the gennaker halyard gave up the ghost and with its breakage the sail, to which it was previously attached, span beneath the monohull and ended up wrapping itself around the keel. A brutal rescue mission was then called for, which took Loïck several sessions of indispensable sleep in his bunk to recover from. Although the sail came out intact, the episode wasn't over aboard. Now left with a single halyard for this headsail, the sailor from La Baule will have to climb to the masthead at some stage so as to rethread the halyard and thus be able to use his gennaker again. However, you have to prepare yourself for such a climb and, for the time being, the sea state hasn't provided favourable conditions: “I did think about scaling the mast yesterday but I already had a little jobs' list so I think I'll save the operation for the next calm spell, which is at least a couple of days away.”Rest assured that given the current and upcoming conditions, being deprived of this sail, which is a precious asset in a medium wind, isn't affecting Gitana Eighty's potential at all right now.

The sailor's humour is evidence of this… This Thursday, Loïck Peyron sounded like he was in fine fettle, despite what he admitted was rather a late gybe last night: “I messed things up a bit at the passage of the Atlantic gate as I was sleeping too well and all of a sudden I gybed a bit late. It's nothing dramatic though…” he says reassuringly before going on: “All's well… it's a glorious day. Gitana Eighty is slipping along and we have a 25 knot WNW'ly and the sea is still fairly calm, even though it's beginning to build gradually.” In fact, the first real gale forecast in the southern ocean is in the process of infiltrating the head of the fleet, and Michel Desjoyeaux, author of a superb comeback at the rear of this group, confirmed during the daily link-up that the wind in his sails was already stronger, at around 30 knots. This powerful NW'ly air flow, which comes with the territory here, should reach the monohull in the colours of the LCF Rothschild Group this evening. As we could see in the 1600 hour ranking, Loïck Peyron had opted to continue gaining easting, whilst conserving his fairly N'ly position in relation to the main group. Although this strategy will incur lighter winds than those hitting his playmates further south, it also promises more manageable sailing conditions. The verdict on these various choices will be returned in the coming hours, but for the time being, the main concern centres on which sail configuration to adopt: “To reduce sail or keep everything aloft? That is the question…”

The Indian Ocean is not far ahead now and the skippers are beginning to feel the effects of these faraway regions. As such, amongst the solo sailors contacted this lunchtime, it's pretty much the same scenario for everyone: after 25 days at sea and their recent entry into austral seas, caution and the preservation of gear is the watchword in the drive towards longevity: “To race is one thing, but in order to win you first have to finish. We're going to have to be sparing of our steeds” recalled the skipper of Gitana Eighty. And yet despite everyone being in agreement on this matter, there certainly doesn't seem to be any let-up in the pace as the speeds clocked up over the past few hours are still reaching 15 to 18 knots! Once again, in the blustery conditions forecast, experience will certainly have a role to play in proceedings.

Ranking on 4th December – 1600 hours (French time)
1. BT (Sébastien Josse) 17,933 miles from the finish
2. Generali (Yann Eliès) 3.6 miles from the leader
3. Gitana Eighty (Loïck Peyron) 28.5 miles
4. Paprec Virbac (Jean-Pierre Dick) 32.1 miles
5. Veolia Environnement (Roland Jourdain) 44.1 miles

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