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The first members of the Route du Rhum have almost made it to the West Passages

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ULTIME Division leaders François Gabart andFrancis Joyon, sailing 120 nautical miles apart, have passed the Azores and Madeira andare almost to the west trade winds. They are expected to be hours away from the permanent winds. The biggest and fastest boats in the Route du Rhum fleet now have an open path across the Atlantic .

They are now in an area with winds around 20 knots and a wave of around 2.5-3 meters. Such conditions are incomparably nicer than the storm during which the trimaran Armel Le Cléac'h (Armel Le Cléac'h ) just tore off its right hull on Tuesday. This «transitional» area near Madeira, where the winds are not very strong and stable, requires yachtsmen to be careful with their sails, but at the same time allows them to finally inspect their boats and do minor repairs. For example, Gabar admitted to having a broken pair of battens on his mainsail.

The IMOCA fleet is also approaching Madeira, with Briton Alex Thomson still leading. He is a bit more than 60 nautical miles away from the nearest pursuers - the German Boris Herrmann and the Frenchman Paul Meilhat. Closer to the top three is Frenchman Vincent Riou. However, because of the need to take a more southerly course Thomson, who has hitherto tried to stay northwest of the rest of the fleet, may lose some of his advantage. If he finds himself too close to the center of the anticyclone to the west of it - where the wind loses strength - even his swift HUGO BOSS will inevitably lose speed.

«The game is to get south into the high pressure and trade winds. Whoever accomplishes it first wins. There is no doubt about it. There's a good chance that all of us - either myself or the guys behind us - are going to get stuck at the high pressure zone boundary, so the most important thing now is to take it south and try to get over that»," believes Alex Thomson.

Going seventh in the IMOCA division, Swiss Alan Roura is happy to think that the toughest times in the race are now behind him.

«After Lisbon everything is going well. The winds are very choppy both in strength and direction but we are coming along fine so I am happy. A lot has managed to happen and I'm glad it's all behind us. We survived the worst of it and now the winds should weaken. We have a prolonged transitional phase ahead of us, getting to the trade winds will not be easy. But we - both people and boats - have suffered enough already»," said Rura.

Despite the tough conditions of the past few days, all six boats that made the start in Saint-Malo are still competing in the Multi50 division. Only Thierry Bouchard, in fifth place, damaged the mainsail halyard mechanism, which was ripped from the mast chase by a 55-knot squall. Bouchard has only set the jib and is heading southeast, awaiting advice from the shore crew. He is probably about to call at Lisbon, Portugal.

Only Armel Tripon has so far approached the coveted trade winds in the south. He may be 123 nautical miles behind leader Thibaut Vauchel-Camus but in fact, he is the closest of the top three to Madeira. Vauche-Camus and his closest pursuer, 50 nautical miles to the southeast, Frenchman Erwan Le Roux, seem to have decided «to cut a corner» north, through the Azores.

Whose decision will turn out to be correct, time will tell. Remarkably, «the northern» route was chosen by both a newcomer to the Vaucher-Camus division and experienced yachtsman Le Roux, a three-time winner of the Jacques Vabre transatlantic race and winner of last year's Route du Rhum in the Multi50 division.

«We've earned these Passatas. Since I turned west, I've already encountered my third atmospheric front. Oh, and it's about time we got to warmer places, since I have to wear a survival kit suit to keep warm. I am very much looking forward to getting to the Azores where the sea will be warmer, milder and I will be able to eat normally. I have only been able to eat one freeze-dried lunch since the start of the race, and all the rest are nutritional bars andgranolabars»," dreams Vaucher-Camus.

Frenchman Yoann Richomme remains the CLASS40 leader. He is more than 30 nautical miles away from his nearest pursuers, the Briton Phil Sharp and the FrenchmanAymeric Chappelier. In the RHUM MULTI division Pierre Antoni (Pierre Antoine) has a lead of 230 nautical miles. RHUM MONO leader Sidney Gavignet is 194 nautical miles behind.

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