Vendee Globe: The Black Rock

Photo: The Black Rock - Cape Horn. Photo by Raphael Dinelli / FONDATION OCEAN VITAL / Vendée Globe

Since Alessandro Di Benedetto (Team Plastique) passed into the Pacific Ocean this morning at 0510hrs all 13 Vendée Globe skippers have been racing in the same ocean. But it will be for one day only as leaders Francois Gabart (Macif) and Armel Le Cléac’h (Banque Populaire) should ‘exit stage left’ passing the mythical Cape Horn late this afternoon to start their long ascent up the Atlantic towards the finish of this Vendée Globe.

Cape Horn on the first day of the year. It will be a passage of the lonely rock on the inhospitable tip of South America that the two leaders, François Gabart and Armel Le Cléac’h will always remember. The presence of ice remains an ongoing worry for the skippers who did not really hide their concerns yesterday when they spoke to Vendée Globe LIVE. The big iceberg (100 metres high and 200 metres across) which was grounded on the shelf at Diego Ramirez island, some 50nm from Cape Horn has dislodged and is giving off growlers. The downwind area, to the NE of the berg is not recommended to skippers.

After 52 days at sea the passage of Cape Horn will be doubly stressful. The duo seem set to suspend hostilities temporarily and put prudence ahead of speed and competition. François Gabart has a 26 miles lead this morning over Armel Le Cléac’h and almost inevitably will play the pathfinder role. But the reward for youngest skipper still on the race course seems set to be to lead on his first passage of Cape Horn. The two leaders were approaching at more than 18 knots at 0500hrs this morning when they still had 200 miles to sail.

Tough times
When Alessandro di Benedetto (Team Plastique) passed into the Pacific in the west, more than 5000 miles behind Gabart, at 0510hrs this morning it meant that all 13 skippers were back racing in the same ocean. The pattern repeats the same as in previous editions. In 2009 race leader Michel Desjoyeaux was emerging just as Raphael Dinelli entered.

All is not perfect for the always upbeat Italian Di Benedetto though who has had to ease back his speed while he tries to deal with a problem with his main autopilot. He explained: “ I have autopilot problems which require me to reduce sail and so I am going slower. The boat is taking a lot of work on deck including steering.” And topping off a series of frustrating problems Javier Sanso found himself working at the end of the bowsprit of his IMOCA Open 60 Acciona 100% Eco Powered. A problem with his gennaker furler meant he had to try and retrieve the sail. Sanso reported:
" I found myself in a terrible situation. I was there trying to sort out the big gennaker furler. There were 17-18 knots of wind, it was night. I had to put my harness and go to the end of the bowsprit. I could not help but think of Yann Elies when he broke his femur on the last Vendée Globe. I collapsed several times due to the force of the water. This experience is worse than the climb up the mast. But all is well now. " A brief pause

For the skippers any New Year celebrations have been short and sweet, a posed photo and a quick e-mail or two…. otherwise it is business as usual. Forced to sail a more southerly course Jean-Pierre Dick has lost over 140 miles on the leaders since yesterday but knows his opportunities will come in the Atlantic. Virbac-Paprec 3 is 479 miles behind Macif.

Relishing the thought of his first solo Cape Horn passage, 1200 miles in front of him, Briton Alex Thomson (Hugo Boss) is making a direct course towards the cape at 18kts whilst Jean Le Cam (SynerCiel), in fifth, holds his margin steady both ahead and behind. And for all of his efforts over recent days Javier Sanso has reduced his deficit to Dominique Wavre to a mere 49 miles today, recovering 130 miles on the seventh placed Swiss skipper since Christmas Day. Now with sixth placed Mike Golding 57 miles ahead of Wavre, this international trio of Owen-Clarke designs can look forwards to a close race, at least to Cape Horn.

As expected tenth placed Bernard Stamm (Cheminées Poujoulat) continues to close down Arnaud Boissières (Akena Verandas) and is just 16 miles behind on the early morning ranking.

The lonely rock which is at the tip of South America was given its name when Sir Francis Drake rounded it for the first time in 1578. It is the 550 miles wide passage which is between Tierre del Fuego and Antartica which is actually named after Drake, but this southerly route was, for a long time, kept secret.

Because the Magellan Straits were controlled by the East India Company who maintained a complete monopoly there, it was the Dutch who launched two ships to seek a passage to the south, the Eendracht and the Hoorn. Ironically the Hoorn was lost in a fire but it was the Eendracht which doubled the Cape for the first time in January 1616, some seven months after leaving from Texel, Holland.

It was during the Gold Rush in the late 1840’s and 1850’s that shipping traffic round the Horn really grew. It was quicker to get from the US East Coast to the West by sea.

At this time then, most of the voyages were from East to West, against the prevailing winds. During the 19th century it could take days, or even weeks to get around the Horn. The most renowned passage was that of the Edward Sewall which took 67 days in 1914, twice being blasted back to a position that they had passed weeks earlier. And the Garthway could not get through east to west and so sailed all the way to Chile eastabouts.

Winds are funnelled and accelerated by the Andes in the north and by the Antarctic in the south, with the low pressure systems funnelled through the narrow channel building huge waves over the shelving waters. It is without question one of the most feared stretches of water on the planet. During Bruno Peyron’s 1993 Jules Verne attempt the crew had to lower all their sails and do all they could to avoid be smashed up in the islands which border the south of the passage.

There are still probably not many more than 120 sailors who can lay claim to having sailed solo past the notorious black rock, and hopefully by the end of this Vendée Globe there will be four more, Gabart, Alex Thomson, Javier Sanso and Tanguy De Lamotte.

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