France’s stellar senior sailor Jean-Luc van den Heede (73) is such an experienced long-distance racer that the last thing he’d welcome is a premature celebration of his expected victory in the Golden Jubilee Golden Globe Race tomorrow morning writes W M Nixon. But in Les Sables-d’Olonne, the tension and excitement of anticipation is building as he brings his retro Rustler 36 Matmut (the “Little Snail” as he calls her) gingerly into the final hundred miles to the finish, knowing both that his rig is suspect after a pitchpole and emergency repairs in the Southern Ocean, and that by tomorrow afternoon another series of ferocious gales will be sweeping into the Bay of Biscay.
During the past week his patience and skill has been sorely tried, as Matmut has been held back by calms – in one eminently forgettable 24 hour period, he did less than 50 miles – and then yesterday he and his little boat were battered by an exceptionally vicious if brief nor’west storm, which he had to run before in order to minimise stresses on mast and rigging.
But by noon today he had safely crossed the Continental shelf without the locally disturbed waters causing too much trouble, and in effect - particularly for someone who has traversed all the world’s oceans – he is now experiencing coastal sailing, with the northwest wind in theory giving him a beam reach. But the airflow is unstable in the extreme, and constant vigilance is essential if the show is going to be brought to a successful conclusion.
Despite the difficult and uneven sailing, van den Heede has managed to maintain a lead of more than 300 miles over second-placed Mark Slats of The Netherlands in another Rustler 36, after increasing the gap in some keen strategic sailing around the Azores. In terms of time, this lead may be increased by tomorrow's approaching storm, for when the intense low at the heart of it goes driving on through into central France, there’s a possibility that Slats may find himself struggling with headwinds in order to reach the finish.
But for now, all eyes are on the Little Snail and her gallant skipper. He started from Les Sables d’Olonne on July 1st with the rest of what was then a fleet, but is now a much-depleted flotilla. However, not all would have reckoned that the first boat would be within sight of the finish before the end of January. After all, fifty years ago, when Robin Knox-Johnston was pioneering the route in Suhaili, at this time stage he had still to round Cape Horn. Matmut may be light years ahead of Suhaili in terms of design development despite her retro pedigree, but there’s no escaping the fact that van den Heede is also a remarkable force in racing terms.
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