The winner of the Retour à La Base is forecast to cross the Lorient finish line on Saturday afternoon. It is looking increasingly likely to be a maiden solo IMOCA race triumph for longtime race leader Yoann Richomme on the new blue and red Koch-Finot Conq designed Paprec Arkéa. 

But while the top three - Yoann Richomme (Parec Arkéa), second placed Jéremie Beyou on Charal and Brit Sam Goodchild on FOR THE PLANET – are now well clear of fourth placed Boris Herrmann (Malizia Seaexplorer) – there are intense, close races going on all the way through the fleet. 

Indeed the most ‘solo’ of solo racers is veteran Jean Le Cam (Tout commence en Finistere-Armor lux) who started from Martinique yesterday on his new IMOCA and faces a tough crossing with a lot of upwind sailing. 

But with this level of intensity and sustained high speeds comes at a physical cost and today, still with two to five days of racing left, many skippers were talking of their level of fatigue. On the new, fast foiling IMOCAs even short periods of deep, restorative sleep are hard to snatch. Hermann noted today, “I feel super tired. When I turn the handles (on the pedestal winch) I have no energy. I am worried that if a big gust comes I would not manage to furl the big sail. I am sure with the adrenalin I would be OK….but…”  And second placed Beyou who is fighting technical issues with his pilot system and a lost J2 reported, “The level of fatigue is high exacerbated by the stress linked to technical problems from the start. I can't sleep because I don't have an autopilot and so that requires me to be extra vigilant. The weather conditions are also very strong, which is trying for the boats but also for the skippers. We really had to keep pushing hard these last few days to avoid being trapped by the ridge of high pressure. And so with this leading quartet we knew we had to stay fast to avoid trouble. That in part explains how we are now nicely detached from the fleet.” 

Beyou added, “The end of the race is also likely to be very demanding, it will be complicated to keep up this pace, especially physically with the depression which should come to us soon (40 knots expected downwind). Losing my J2 also complicates things a lot. The main objective remains to be able to bring the boat back to Lorient.” 

Consistent leader since Sunday night, now with an 80 miles margin over Beyou and just over 850 miles to the finish, Richomme reveals, “I have had the same sail configuration for five days. I haven’t had many repairs to do. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. So I have managed to get some rest. I slept a lot during the night. I feel in good shape, so have managed that well. I have managed to extend my lead over the two behind me, so all is going well. When there is too much wind, I calm the boat down to prevent it from jumping all over the place with the waves. Like she is doing now… When it’s quieter, I have to avoid it getting tossed around on the waves, so get some more power going and go on the attack.” 

And in third, following Seb Simon’s need to pitstop into the Azores because of an engine failure and consequent power blackout, Sam Goodchild now has a cushion of over 200 miles back to Herrmann. 

It is going OK, I am getting bored being smashed around by the waves. The wind was actually due to die and I was kind of hoping to get some rest before the big day tomorrow but the advantage is we are still moving. We managed to stay ahead of the ridge and hopefully it stays that way so we have this breakaway for the last run into Lorient in this storm so we hopefully have a little breathing space, a buffer. It is a big final 1000 miles or so to go  as there is a big depression with the most wind we have seen in the race and the sea state that goes with it, so we need to keep the boat under control and not break anything. I was very very tired three or four days ago and I have managed that and got on top of it, and I was able to do something about it. But it tiring after a week at sea in the conditions we have had, the people and the boats are tired. So a gybe coming up and then a long leg in strong winds then we look at how we get to Lorient.” 

Behind the top trio everyone is fighting hard and giving up little. Among the most experienced solo and solo IMOCA sailors are Herrmann, Sam Davies (Initiatives Cœur, 7th), Damien Seguin (Groupe APICIL, 9th ) all with at least one Vendée Globe under their belts. In among them – not unexpectedly – is the hugely talented Nico Lunven on his first solo race on Holcim PRB, chasing hard behind Herrmann who he sailed The Ocean Race with. Meantime maverick Louis Burton (Bureau Vallée) has made the daring choice that many have come to expect of him and gone more than 100 miles north of the pack, only just squeezing through the north end of the Azores gate, in search of gains. 

It’s a very daring choice on his part but it could allow him to make some places,” assures Christian Dumard, the race meteorologist.

The foilers who occupy places up to 9th place intend not to give up anything. Among them, there are very experienced skippers – Boris Herrmann (Malizia – Seaexplorer, 4th) – and a sailor who discovers his boat alone and not without talent, Nicolas Lunven(Holcim – PRB, 5th). In this group is also Sébastien Simon (Groupe Dubreuil). The skipper had to head towards Flores Island at the end of the night. His team indeed indicated that he was experiencing energy problems on board. “It is deprived of autopilot, computer, weather and position data, light, as well as drinking water via its watermaker,” said its team. On the race front, Louis Burton is attempting a very northern route, more than a hundred miles from these direct pursuers. 

Behind Isabelle Joschke (MACSF, 11th) and Romain Attanasio (Fortinet-Best Western, 10th) are duelling after having left Clarisse Crémer (L'Occitane en Provence, 13th) and Pip Hare (Medallia, 14th) behind. 

“I blame myself for having taken off my little gennaker with which everything was going well to score a J0,” confides Romain, very combative. Thomas Ruyant (For People, 12th), despite his struggles which force him to sail flat, repeats “want to finish”. 

Leading the daggerboard boats Benjamin Ferré (Monnoyeur – Duo for a Job, 15th) dominates the “match within the match” of the non-foilers. On her first solo IMOCA race Violette Dorange (DeVenir, 20th) is impressive for her drive and maturity at only 22 years old, she has been battling well. Dorange has had a “a horrible night with small technical problems, a monstrous broach, autopilot problem and electronics problems. 

“I’m going to just ease back a little because I need to recover from this fatigue,” she explains. Dorange is scrapping with three other boats within an 80-mile radius: Kojiro Shiraishi (DMG MORI Global One, 17th), Louis Duc(Fives Group – Lantana Environnement, 19th) and Arnaud Boissières (La Mie Caline, 18th).

They said:

Pip Hare (Medallia): “Well I am out the other side of the hole (light winds zone). It was pretty frustrating. I chatted with Alan (Roura) in the night and he was frustrated too but that is sailing for you. I made the most of my time, fixed a few things, done a lot of little things, sorted out my coachroof which was leaking quite badly, but the biggest thing was I climbed the forestay and sewed my J2 zipper together. I will need to check it again but I am so pleased as the J2 will be quite an important sail between now and the finish. It is amazing sailing at the moment. Amazing….I a sitting at 26-26kts with no nose diving, it is utter bliss. I know it wont be this for long. The route is becoming a little more obvious. It has been quite a challenge trying to work out the steps, the combinations of wind direction and sea state, wind strength and sea state, it has not been that easy for me to find the best course, especially for me on my first time big downwind with these big foils. And the models did not agree but they are getting better. I am not going to take a super aggressive line back. I don’t need to be going into massive seas, I will just kind of nurse the boat back. Yawns…..and I tell you what….I need some sleep.”