STORM CHASERS
Yachting World|January 2021
HOW BIG A GAMBLE WOULD YOU TAKE TO WIN THE VENDÉE GLOBE? HELEN FRETTER FINDS OUT HOW THE SOLO SKIPPERS USE STORMS IN THEIR RACE STRATEGY
HELEN FRETTER

On the morning of 13 November, the middle of the North Atlantic glowed a deep magenta on the weather maps. Some 200 miles south of the Azores, around 470 miles north-east of the Canaries, and bang in the way of the Vendée Globe fleet, tropical Storm Theta was deepening, with 45-50 knot winds whipping up the grey waves.

Avid Vendée Globe followers, overlaying the race tracker with the forecast, couldn’t help but notice the hot pink icon of Hugo Boss pointing directly at the swirling arrows and dark crimson that indicated the centre of the storm. Just a week after the fleet had left from Les Sables d’Olonne, would this be a defining moment in the 24,200-mile race?

Nothing about the beginning of this year’s Vendée Globe was as might have been expected, even for an event as unpredictable as this one. Shortly before start day on 8 November, France went back into lockdown. The Vendée Globe village drew down the shutters, and strict rules against public gatherings forbade spectators even from cheering the 33 competitors from afar along the walls of the famous channel. Armed police stood silent guard instead. Les Sables d’Olonne did its best to rouse an atmosphere, with indefatigable fans balanced on garden gates, banging saucepans out of balconies and blasting ships horns to show their appreciation instead.

NOT NORMALLY LIKE THIS

Then there was the weather. “The best way to describe it is that this year was all about the Azores Low, instead of the Azores High,” said navigator and racing router Wouter Verbraak. “Where you normally had a high pressure system, now there was a low pressure system in the same position. So you couldn’t be further upside down from a normal situation.”

Leaving the Atlantic coast of France in November usually carries the risk of battling a north Atlantic depression and associated fronts, with big headwinds in the Bay of Biscay causing the early retirement of many a Vendée contender over the years. But this year the fleet got away in a benign, moderate south-easterly.

Ahead lay the remains of an old depression that left in its wake a huge expanse of largely windless water off the Iberian coast, making the direct course down to the Canaries a non-starter. “This is quite an exceptional weather pattern,” meteorologist Marcel van Triest explained at the start. “For a low to form off Gibraltar, skirt up the Portuguese coast and finish in Ireland, that’s not normal at all.”

The next feature was a pronounced trough blocking the course westward, and a line of violently shifting winds extending from Iceland to the Canary Islands amid rough and confused seas. This is where Charal’s winning chances ended (see page 29).

Given the unusual meteorology, the usual Atlantic playbook simply didn’t apply. “Normally the standard strategy is west is best, but this not being a normal scenario there was a lot more detailing to do and the gains were to be made going south,” explains Verbraak, who worked in depth with Alex Thomson on weather strategy ahead of the race start.

“One week out and the weather models were all over the place, they couldn’t decide what was going on. Normally in Europe we just get one blow after the other that is driven by the jet stream. But this Azores low, the models didn’t know what to do with it. It’s really unpredictable.

“So instead of looking at the models and the routes, we focussed on exactly how does this work? Really going back to basics, so that Alex could adjust the strategy as the model developed.”

The first strategy the team identified was that Alex should follow the back of the first front, tacking south as quickly as possible, something Verbraak says Thomson executed perfectly.

Next up: Storm Theta. While many may have winced as Hugo Boss lined up for the eye of a storm which was blowing a steady 50 knots, gusting 60, Verbraak says this was all part of the plan.

“The best thing you can do in a low like that is to reach in, and reach out. By going through the centre you’re doing exactly that, and with these boats that is much easier because you can sail with your jib, you just need to reef down a bit. Whereas if you try to go around the centre, then you end up having to gybe several times. So when people go, ‘oh my God, he’s radical!’ actually, going outside the low when you’re sailing by yourself is more risky because gybing in 40-50 knots is probably the most risky manoeuvre you can do in single-handed sailing.”

Although the tack in the centre of the low took a couple of attempts, Hugo Boss seemed to exit Theta without incident, extending Thomson’s lead over the nearest foiling designs.

Thomson’s performance manager, Neal McDonald, explained afterwards: “He was in the horror zone for maybe five or six hours and he was fully revved up for it. He was particularly conservative, he described the sailplan – and he was very, very conservative about what he had up.”

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