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Dutchman Mark Slats has been diligently whittling-down race leader Jean-Luc van den Heede’s once-unassailable lead since the Frenchman sustained rig damage in November © Christophe Favreau / Matmut / PPL
Dutchman Mark Slats has been diligently whittling-down race leader Jean-Luc van den Heede’s once-unassailable lead since the Frenchman sustained rig damage in November © Christophe Favreau / Matmut / PPL

Golden Globe Race

While the eyes of the international sailing world have recently been riveted on the annual, 628 nautical mile Rolex Sydney Hobart Race and on the significant news coming from the 36th Americas Cup, the fact remains that five out of the Golden Globe Race 2018s original 18 entrants are still pressing their era-specific vessels as quickly as possible to the Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, finishing line using their sextants and paper charts for navigation and their woven sails and full keels for speed.

For context, 18 of the 29 skippers that started the 2016/2017 Vendee Globe, which is widely regarded as the hardest singlehanded challenge available to sailors, managed to complete the course, meaning that the GGR 2018 is currently running a significantly higher attrition rate than its big brother event.

And while the skippers who race in the Vendee Globe enjoy significantly faster boats, modern satellite communications (read: GRIB files for weather routing) and modern navigation equipment, theres no question that GGR 2018 sailors have earned their dockside cred by intentionally shunning modern technology in favor of old fashioned adventure and seamanship.

Race leader Jean-Luc Van Den Heede has suffered further damage to the mast on MATMUT and must sail with extreme caution upwind - photo © Christophe Favreau / GGR / PPL
Race leader Jean-Luc Van Den Heede has suffered further damage to the mast on MATMUT and must sail with extreme caution upwind – photo © Christophe Favreau / GGR / PPL

Granted, this has not always worked out well, given the GGR 2018s stated (and ongoing) attrition rate, but that assumes that the ultimate goal of all entrants was to win the race. While I have no question that all skippers brought their best skills and preparation to the table, I also strongly suspect that the sirens song of a fair means circumnavigation rang truer in all GGR 2018 sailors heads and hearts than thoughts of finish-line glory.

That said, the two leading skippers, Frenchman Jean-Luc van den Heede (73) and Dutchman Mark Slats (41), are engaged in a slow-speed, high-level private race-within-a-race for the grand prize, and neither skipper is betraying any sign of easing off the accelerator.

For anyone just tuning in to the GGR 2018, van den Heede has sailed a tactically brilliant race, at one point enjoying a 2,000-plus nautical mile lead over his nearest competition, until a storm damaged his rig and forced him to adopt a much more conservative sailing style.

Jean-Luc Van Den Heede still has a solid hold on the lead, despite damage sustained to Matmut's mast during the Southern Ocean. - photo © Christophe Favreau / Matmut / PPL
Jean-Luc Van Den Heede still has a solid hold on the lead, despite damage sustained to Matmut’s mast during the Southern Ocean. – photo © Christophe Favreau / Matmut / PPL

Impressively, van den Heede has kept Matmut, his Rustler 36 masthead sloop, intact, despite being well to the west of Cape Horn when the damage occurred. But rather than stopping at Valparaiso, Chile, as he originally planned, van den Heede continued eastwards and then north, pressing his lead into the South Atlantic and then the North Atlantic, with Slats steadily nipping at his once sizeable lead aboard The Ohpen Maverick, which is also a Rustler 36 masthead sloop.

As of this writing, a mere 2,095 nautical miles separates van den Heede from the finishing line, however Slats has now reduced the amount of saline separating his bow from van den Heedes sternpost to a mere 353 nautical miles. [N.B., this includes an 18-hour time-out penalty that van den Heede was given due to improper use of a satellite phone to call his wife after suffering his big knockdown on November 9, 2018; van den Heede served this penalty time on Saturday, January 5, 2019 and is now clear to press on to the finishing line.]

Mark Slats hopes to close the gap on race leader Jean-Luc Van Den Heede over the next two weeks - Day 164 - Golden Globe Race 2018 - photo © Christophe Favreau / PPL / GGR
Mark Slats hopes to close the gap on race leader Jean-Luc Van Den Heede over the next two weeks – Day 164 – Golden Globe Race 2018 – photo © Christophe Favreau / PPL / GGR

While a lot can change in 2,095 nautical miles, of course, van den Heede predicts that he will arrive in Les Sables-d’Olonne, France on January 26. This gives Slates less than three weeks to nip as many miles off of the fast Frenchman as he possibly can. However, given that (at the time of this writing) van den Heede was sailing at 5.0 knots while Slats was reporting 4.9 knots, this one could come down to the relative wire after more than 225 days of racing almost identical steeds.

So, while the GGR 2018 has clearly demonstrated that the challenge of racing a period-specific sailboat around the world has not diminished since the iconic Golden Globe Race of 1968, the story of Slats and van den Heede certainly demonstrates the sailing worlds impressive leap in overall skill and experience since Sir Robin Knox-Johnston sailed into the history books by becoming the only skipper-out of a starting fleet of nine boats-to complete the original race, which he did in 312 days.

Circa 1969: Sir Robin Knox-Johnston returning to Falmouth UK to win the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race and become the first man to sail solo non-stop around the Globe - photo © Bill Rowntree / PPL
Circa 1969: Sir Robin Knox-Johnston returning to Falmouth UK to win the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race and become the first man to sail solo non-stop around the Globe – photo © Bill Rowntree / PPL

Hats off to all GGR 2018 entrants, and www.sail-world.com wishes safe and speedy passage to the events the five remaining skippers.

May the four winds blow you safely home.

David Schmidt
Sail-World.com North American Editor

by David Schmidt

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