A rough final week of racing

"With my friends in the south, François on Macif and Armel on Banque Populaire, you could say we have directly gone from summer to winter." Marc Guillemot had a very busy Sunday (10th December, editor's note) on board Safran. "I went up to reach the front and just as I was going through it... it was very lively: torrential rain, huge squalls, winds that were very unstable in direction and strength, and I even had to take in a third reef. In such conditions, it is very hard to have the sail up that corresponds to the weather. Either you have it just right for the strong winds, but in that case, you don't have enough up when the wind drops off… or it's the reverse situation." Another revealing example: "I was sailing under autopilot in wind mode (in this position, the autopilot follows the shifts in the wind, editor's note), I was on a bearing of 20° heading north-eastwards, and all of a sudden I found myself heading for 120° (twoards the south-east). A hundred degrees off, which is no small shift. Anyone watching my route at that moment, who was unaware of the weather situation, would have thought I'd gone mad. All of that in winds averaging 37 knots gusting to 42... It was pretty tough," explained Marc this morning by phone.

A good way to prepare
A problem with the headsail really tested the stamina of the skipper of Safran: the code 5, which did not unfurl correctly, got all tangled up. "It was hard going, in strong winds and heavy seas. I really had to fight hard for three hours or so to get it down and shove it inside the boat with the help of a system of ropes that I fed through the companionway. I seriously thought I'd never get it sorted. The consequence of that is I suffered in the rankings, but I must admit that really wasn't my priority at that moment. After that, I was completely exhausted and I simply had to get some rest. I said I wanted a good way to prepare for the Vendée Globe... and I've certainly been given that."

Lorient express
Behind this front, a north-north-westerly wind is pushing the boats along at high speed towards France, while for the time being they are some thousand miles off New-York. "It's more reasonable now with thirty knots of wind, but I need to remain vigilant: particularly, as there are cargo vessels in this area. I just passed close to one a few hours ago," added Marc. These downwind conditions are likely to last throughout the week, which should mean they will be finishing in Lorient at the end of the week. There is still the worry that severe gales are expected on Friday in the Bay of Biscay with winds between 50 and 60 knots, giving them a taste of what they will face in the Southern Ocean…

The way out
Sending the fleet into this heavy weather is a huge risk. That is why after talking it over with the competitors, the Race Directors have decided to set up a gate, in other words a compulsory waymark they need to pass (rather like the ice gates in the Vendée Globe). The whole of the fleet will have to cross an imaginary line between the Azores and Spain at 20°West / 42°North and 16° West / 42° North. This route further south should allow the solo sailors to avoid the worst of the weather, which is likely to be further north… before they head back up to Lorient, where the first boats are expected on Saturday.

1030 GMT (1130 CET) rankings on Monday 12th December 2011:
Safran 6th 198 miles from the leader Macif, at 41°03 North and 44°56 West. Speed 13.6 knots. 1802 miles from the finish in Lorient.

The front passing over was a brutal affair for those taking part in the Transat B to B, with winds in excess of 40 knots. On Safran, Marc Guillemot had his share of little problems. But he remains upbeat and still believes that this solo race is an excellent way to prepare for the Vendée Globe.