Knox-Johnston’s Vendée View

27 November 2020

With the Vendée Globe 2020-21 underway, Clipper Race Founder and Chairman, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is sharing his views on each day's racing and what lies ahead for the solo sailors which include Brit and Clipper Race Alumni, Alex Thomson. Alex was the youngest ever skipper to win the Clipper Race (a record he still holds) taking first place in the 1998-99 edition.


Friday 27/11/20

Those in the western group who headed south earlier are now benefiting from a depression coming off the Argentine coast as it reaches them first. Sam Davis, one of the first to make the southern choice, is one of the beneficiaries and making 16 knots at the last poll, lying 9th and 596 miles behind the leader which is still Apivia making 13 knots. Alex has dropped to 12th, 658 miles behind the leader, but was showing 19 knots. The two boats ahead of him are less than 10 miles in front but both are making over 18 knots.

As this depression moves eastward, it will pick up the southern members of the fleet and they will start that headlong rush through the Roaring Forties, known as Running your Easting down in the days of sailing vessels.

Thomas Ruyant in Linked Out has cut away his damaged foil and is still holding second position but 200 miles behind the leader. Since it is his port foil, he will be sacrificing speed when on starboard tack for the rest of his circumnavigation, but is continuing nevertheless. Still holding third place is Jean le Cam in the foiless Yes We Cam, 354 miles astern of the leader making 14 knots. He has been doing very well but will begin to suffer once the foilers get into the same wind pattern.

These Open 60 boats do not require very high winds to achieve their full potential. In fact high winds build up the seas, and make the passage more uncomfortable and takes more out of the boat. I have always found that about Force 6, (25 knots) blowing from the quarter (45 degrees from right astern) gave me the best speeds and manageable seas from behind. Much above that and the waves are steeper and the seas breaking.

So now we watch to see whether the leader can pick up sufficient wind to hold his lead, knowing that there is a pack chasing from behind with the oncoming depression. The next 24 hours will be fascinating.

Thursday 26/11/20

The South Atlantic High has slowed the two leading boats and the trailing group to the west have picked up some light but favourable northerly winds. These are predicted to back round to the north west. This wind should hold and increase as they move further south and into the Roaring Forties.

During the night, Alex Thomson, in Hugo Boss, was shown making 18 knots and Sam Davis, 25 miles further from the next Waypoint was making nearly 15 knots, but they have both slowed now. At 0730 this morning, Sam has got ahead of Alex by 14 miles due to her more southerly position, but her speed is down to 5.6 knots whilst Alex is making over 12 knots.

So how much Alex can close the 680 mile gap depends on how quickly the leading boat, Apivia, can get clear of the High Pressure system and the strength of the winds Alex is now beginning to get. Everything to watch.

Thomas Ruyant in second placed Linked In, reports damaging his port foil during the night

Maitre Coq (6th) and Seaexplorer-Yacht Club de Monaco(5th) were match racing in sight of each other 4 miles apart and 500 miles behind the leader.They sent back video of a calm sea and the boats moving along slowly. Lovely for cruising but frustrating when racing.

Wednesday 25/11/20

The South Atlantic High Pressure system has taken control of the leading part of the fleet, resulting in slow speeds and directions that are not the way people want to go. Luck plays its part in these conditions and it is a real test of patience trying to eke out just a fraction more speed from what little puffs arrive.

This fleet is already running four days behind the previous race and the centre of the High does not show any sign of moving for the next few days. Alex is still in 8th position, making over 8 knots, but his speed in the direction he would like to go, his VMG, is just 0.5 knots. Still, he is moving.

The leading boat, Charlie Dalin’s Apivia, is 628 miles ahead and 70 miles ahead of second placed Linked Out, but Alex’s immediate target is Arkéa-Paprec, 66 miles closer to the next Waypoint. Sam Davis is further south than Alex now but because she is further west she is 40 miles further from the next Waypoint than him. She has just eased into 9th position.

Providing Apivia continues southwards, it will be the first boat to pick up the Westerlies and get back up to full speed and increase its lead over the rest of the fleet. There is always pressure on the leader, but a large cushion is comforting!

Tuesday 24/11/20

Last night Alex was underway again and looking calm and positive. He has completed the beginning of his repairs, but he has been slow through the night, showing just 3.5 knots. He is lying 8th in the fleet at the moment. However he did say that he preferred to continue to work on the repairs in the forepart of the boat at night as it was less humid. He seemed pretty pleased at progress so far, but he will want to make sure that he has restored the strength to his boat before entering the Roaring Forties.

His planning has been impressive as he carried the bits he needed amongst his stores to enable enabled him to tackle the difficult work.

The South Atlantic High pressure system has established itself over the leading boats, which, from Alex’s perspective, is good news. This leads to light and variable winds with calmer seas, which makes Alex’s repairs easier and his competitors are not racing away from him and creating a huge gap. In 1994, we found a small corridor through these variables on “Enza” during the Jules Verne Trophy and it enabled us to create a lead of 1,100 miles over our competition from Olivier de Kersuason in less than a week.

Most of the fleet had swept through the Doldrums earlier at the Equator, but this system is more frustrating. The best speed showing this morning amongst the front ten boats is 13.7, but only three others are making more than 10 knots. Alex is 471 miles behind the leader whose speed is down to 5.9 knots. Sam Davis is still holding 10th place, 548 miles behind the leader but only making 4.8 knots.

Monday 23/11/20

No news yet as to whether Alex has completed his repair, has allowed it to cure and can get moving again. He has been very calm about the damage and repair, just getting on with it and having to accept the loss of miles. His position is currently 5th, nearly 300 miles behind the leader, making 5 1/2 knots. It's frustrating for him, but in the previous race the leader had a much better margin over Alex as they rounded Cape Horn and Alex closed right up and nearly won, despite a broken foil.

Alex was well prepared and carried the materials he needed to effect the repair. On a modern GRP or carbon boat, it makes sense to have some resin and mat aboard and teams can spend days discussing what to carry “just in case” as in the Vendee, like the Golden Globe, outside assistance means disqualification. Run your eyes along a boat inside and out and then consider what might break and have to be repaired. The list can become endless and there has to be a limit or the boat would be overloaded.

When my main boom gooseneck broke, it took two days of drilling, with a hand drill, to make a 1 inch diameter hole in 1 inch thick mild steel to make a repair. Another two days were spent tacking a strip of copper, which just happened to be aboard, along the Garboard seam, the gap between the lowest hull strake and the keel, on both sides to stop 200 gallons of water coming in every day.

Deep breath, duck under 5 feet, put a tack in, come back up and repeat the process. The alternative was to pull out which was not an option. This task was interrupted by a curious shark swimming round to investigate a potential food source. He paid for this curiosity! Then of course there are sail repairs, these days special sticky tape is used for a lot of tears, but 50 years ago it was sewing with a palm and needle.

Ocean racing is not just sitting around steering or trimming sails, it's knowing how to keep the boat functioning as there are no shops in mid ocean.

The lead has changed. Apivia, sailed by Charlie Dalin, has taken over the top spot from Linked Out by 18 miles, as they try to escape the effects of the South Atlantic, or St Helena High Pressure system. Samantha Davis still holds 10th position.

Hopefully tomorrow we will be seeing Alex back up to full speed and starting to reel the leaders in.

Sunday 22/11/20

Not good news this morning. Last evening Alex’s team contacted the race organisers to say that they were investigating a potential structural problem. Hugo Boss has slowed to just under 6 knots whilst the boat is checked and whatever the problem might be can be properly assessed. Alex is fine, just one suspects very frustrated.

The lead is still held by Thomas Ruyant in Linked Out, whose speed has dropped to 11 knots, and 19 miles behind him Charlie Dalin on Apivia is making 15 knots as they thread their way through. Alex is 91 miles astern of the leader, still heading in the right direction. Jean Le Cam has closed up a little to 260 miles of the leader. Sam Davis is making 14 knots 400 miles astern and there is a cushion of 200 miles between her tenth position and the 11th placed boat.

So we have to wait to see what Alex and his team make of whatever problem they think they have, as the rest of the fleet progresses south, but not at the flying speeds they were making a day ago.

Addition at 13:00

Alex discovered structural damage to a longitudinal beam in the forward part of Hugo Boss. The damage appears to be isolated. He has received instructions on how to make a repair from his shore team who advise that he has all the materials he needs to effect a repair. In the meantime he has rested and put the boat in a comfortable position so he can get on with the work.


Saturday 21/11/20

The bad news this morning is that Alex has dropped to second place, some 24 miles behind Thomas Ruyant in Linked Out. That is just over an hour difference at the speeds these boats are currently making. It may appear significant but a few miles separation can make a difference in the wind and therefore the speed. Both are now heading down a corridor of favourable winds, between developing areas of calmer winds either side and may be able to hold the wind system until it joins the westerlies of the Roaring Forties. By Sunday night, this corridor will have largely disappeared but it looks as if the leaders will be through the high pressure system developing in its place which could frustrate the boats further astern.

Clipper Race Meteorologist, Simon Rowell, and I have been discussing the weather that lies ahead for the fleet. Simon says: "That corridor of wind is just ahead of a front stretching down from the South American coast to a S Ocean low well S. It's the only route to take but is a fine balancing act. If it passes over them they will wallow in the lighter wins behind. There's a secondary low moving with them down the front, the longer this keeps going the more secure their wind will be."

These areas move around so there is always a certain amount of luck involved, however accurate the weather information being received.
The speeds being averaged by these foiling boats is nothing short of incredible. The third boat, Apivia, Charlie Dalin, is 50 miles behind Alex and then there is a gap of 200 miles before Jean Le Cam who does not have foils but is nevertheless putting up a brilliant performance. Sam Davis has dropped to 10th place, some 400 miles behind the leaders, although she has averaged 18 knots for the past 24 hours. She reports having taken a shower in sea water of 27 degrees Celsius!

Life aboard at these very high speeds is not comfortable. Water is constantly flying across the deck and stings when it hits bare flesh. Any job that requires work outside means getting soaked, well as soaked as the clothing allows. Alex relies on cameras to keep him informed of what is going on outside which project in his control console and tell him what is happening outside. His “cockpit” is below decks in the centre of the boat where he can trim his sails without exposing himself. But not everything can be done from there. A headsail change, or reefing the mainsail requires deck work.

So now we watch the developments in the next 24 hours as the fleet flies south.

Friday 20/11/20

Alex was bleeding away miles yesterday, and earlier this morning, his lead over Ruyant was down to less than three miles. But he has opened up a little since and his speed showed 22 knots an hour ago. The next 24 hours should give favourable winds, but there is an awkward low pressure system coming off the South American coast which will be in the path of the fleet by tonight which reduces options. The weather systems ahead look a bit chaotic to the next couple of days but there looks like a small corridor of opportunity to get through to the south developing on Saturday but predictions are unreliable with high and low pressure zones mixing up.

Half the fleet are across the Equator with Sam Davis holding on to 9th place. The last placed in the group are now 1800 miles astern of the leader, and Jérémie Beyou in Charal, one of the favourites, who had to turn back, make repairs and start again, is some 3,000 miles astern.

Thursday 19/11/20

The leading group are through the Doldrums, or squall ally, and making good speeds south. The boats further back look like they will run into much calmer winds when they get to the ITCZ which will spread the fleet out more. It's pretty depressing when you see the leaders getting more favourable winds and there is nothing you can do about it.

Thomas Ruyant is showing 22 miles behind Alex and is sailing faster this morning, but he is further east so this will show him closer to the ideal route.

Alex will be feeling the backing of the wind now as it comes round to a more favourable direction for him, from east south east more towards the east. His average course has come round nearer to due south as a result as he comes level with the easternmost point of Brazil.

He has some keep competition though in Ruyant, currently sailing faster, and there are a couple more within 100 miles astern. At 20 knots, 100 miles is a mere 5 hours away!

Ahead of the fleet, the South Atlantic High Pressure system, also known as the St Helena High, is establishing itself with a ridge of high pressure extending across their direct route. This is going to give all the sailors an interesting problem. But ocean sailing has always been chess with pull-ups, and this will be a serious chess bit.

For those who have a weather system app, such as Windy, you can see what is coming.

Sam Davis is in 9th, 246 miles astern of Alex, but holding up well.

Video from alexthomsonracing.com

Wednesday 18/11/20

Alex has slowed as he is approaching the equator and the wind appears to have veered so he has it more on the beam as expected. But he has only slowed to 14 knots!

He has a lead of 89 miles over second place who currently is showing slightly faster, but all the leading boats have slowed. The wind will veer more as the boats get across the equator into the South Atlantic anti-clockwise circulatory system, but then slowly back as they get further south and everyone will speed up again.

In simple terms, mid South Atlantic, the wind on the African side comes from the south and on the American side they are from the north, and they swing round from south through east to northerly at the equator which is what the boats have now. Following this, the winds will tend to be westerly when level with the southern tip of Africa, and this where it joins the westerlies of the Roaring Forties. (For those confused, winds are named for the direction from which they come).

So it will be hot on board right now, very hot, but there is some wind across the deck which brings a bit of relief.


The next British entry and First Lady is Samantha Davis who is 229 miles astern of Alex but has moved up to 7th position. Jean Le Cam has dropped to 4th place, but has closed a bit to 106 miles behind Alex. The differences in speeds are just proportions of knots, so keeping the concentration for the extra fraction of speed is what counts.

Tuesday 17/11/20

The rich get richer. Alex has averaged an incredible 19 knots over the past 24 hours and others in the leading group are making similar speeds, just not quite so much. Thomas Ruyant, another foiler, has moved into second place, 107 miles behind Alex and Jean Le Cam, with a non foiling boat, is now a very creditable third. Samantha Davis lies in 9th position but in the leading group.

But whilst the leaders continue to hold strong favourable winds, further back the boats have sailed into a calm patch, so the fleet will start to spread out further.

There is a patch of lighter winds close to the equator which may slow the leaders tomorrow for a while, but it does not look like the complete lack of wind in that area that so many of us have experienced in the past and it still looks good for a speedy transit of the ITCZ.

One entrant, Nicolas Troussel, was dismasted yesterday. Fortunately no injuries, and is now heading for the Cape Verdes.

Monday 16/11/20

Alex in Hugo Bass continues to extend his lead, and provided there are no problems, it looks as if he will increase it. He is making close to 20 knots, a formidable speed, and one can only wonder what it must be like on board when even small waves make the boat shake. How much ishe being thrown around inside that machine of his? How is he managing to get any useful sleep? How are his competitors managing in the same conditions?

Think about how responsive automatic pilots have to be at those speeds.

He is rapidly approaching the area where the Doldrums are to be expected, but there is no obvious calm gap between the Northern (Clockwise) and Southern (Anti-Clockwise) circulatory systems. We had that system on Enza in 1994, but our speed halved to give us our worst day's run of the whole circumnavigation of 186 miles. The wind will ease for a short time, and those behind may catch up a little for a short time, but then they will face the same drop in wind and Alex will be in the Southern Hemisphere and accelerating away, the concertina effect...

Looking down the track, the South Atlantic has an interesting pattern of pressure systems at the moment which will take careful navigation, although by Wednesday, it is becoming more easy to read. It looks as if it will pay to stay not too far off the Brazilian Coast, at least until that turns south westward, and then dive for the Roaring Forties, navigating between calm patches.

Behind Alex, now over 80 miles in the distance, Jean Le Cam, in a non foiler, is in solid second sailing the race of his life. 80 miles may seem a lot but at these speeds it is a lead of only just over four hours! 274 miles further behind, Samantha Davis, the leading lady, is lying 11th just ahead of Boris Herman and both making close to 20 Knots.

Sunday 15/11/20

For a brief spell, Jean Le Cam just nipped into the lead but this has clearly spurred Alex who has opened up a small lead, but he is sailing faster now. Good speeds in perfect conditions, one can only feel envious!

The average speeds for the leading boats were all close to 15 knots over the previous 24 hours. Boris Herman fractionally the best but only by a mile in the day.

So now they are in the Trade Winds, just over halfway between the Canaries and the Cape Verde Islands. In a couple of days they will start to experience the change in the wind direction as they approach the equator and the Southern Hemisphere wind rotation.

This is another tactical situation, although currently the Doldrums are not showing anything to worry about, but that can change very quickly as we all know. The interesting thing will be to see how far west in longitude the boats are as they cross the equator. Historically, it was usually best, which means quickest, between 27 and 29 degrees west.

Fascinating to observe.

Sat 14/11/20

Jean Le Cam had closed to within three miles of Alex this morning, both boats showing 17+ knots of speed, but Alex still has the lead. There is a large group of boats not far behind all showing good speeds. After leaving storm Theta to the east, the fleet will enter a zone of lighter winds for a while, but that should not slow these boats very much, and then they are into the predictable Trade Winds where we will be able to observe who has the best boat speed.

Friday 13/11/20

Well Alex has taken a nice lead this morning, some 34 miles from Jean Le Cam, an experienced solo sailor. He is closing in on Storm Theta’s influence, but to its west where the winds, though strong, are favourable for him. So the next few days should be glorious fast reaching/running with blue skies and increasingly warm temperatures and hopefully opening out his lead..

The disadvantage of being in the lead is that if you run into a calmer patch, those behind can see you slow and so alter course to avoid the patch, but once past Theta he ought to have favourable winds for a few days.

Thursday 12/11/20

Alex is nicely past the front and lying a comfortable 4th, making good speed just 22 miles behind the leader, or under two hours. The fleet reported winds of up to 50 knots as the Front closed on them, not much fun when you are going into it and other damage has been reported but nothing structural. There is still a tight group of boats heading towards the eastern side of the Azores Islands, but his main competition, Charal, has turned back towards Les Sables with a damaged board and broken backstay. Now they have to head South West to work their way to the west of Storm Theta and through some variable winds but mainly favourable. Once past Theta, they are basically into the Trade Winds and can blast down to the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (The Doldrums) and that is when we will see who has the best boat speed.

For regular updates go to vendeeglobe.org

Wednesday 11/11/20

Looks like the northern group have got through the front and are now in favourable winds, albeit probably still having to cope with some large residual waves which will slow them for a while until they subside. Alex is nicely in this northern group. The southern group is closing in. The race re-starts this morning

Their next obstacle is Storm Theta to the south and an interesting mix of weather to its north which will take some careful routing.

Tuesday 10/11/20

This race has not got going. The Open 60’s are not built for windward work and that is what they are getting at the moment. The Azores High has been replaced by a Low and the result is serious headwinds. There are more favourable winds to the west but the boats have a nasty front to get through so as to reach them.

Damage mitigation whilst clearing that front is important. Once past the Front then the best option looks to be to head west of the centre of the low lying west of Madeira and get into a NW-N’ly air stream which looks as if it will be the Trade Winds.

Then the race will start.

Alex is in a good position considering the conditions. He needs to get through the front without damage and then he can open up that machine of his.

I get the positions of the fleet via Alex Thomson Racing.com

Monday 9/11/20

Looks like Alex has had a good and sensible night and is lying 10th. Well placed. He will be able to tack before long when the wind veers and he can then clear Cape Finisterre and start winding in those boats that pressed on harder during the night.

But in a non stop circumnavigation like this race, don’t break anything!

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