By Julien Pretot
LES SABLES D’OLONNE, France, Jan 18 (Reuters) – - Briton Alex Thomson made a late surge to catch race leader Armel Le Cleac’h of France on Wednesday as both sailors edged close to the finish of the solo round-the-world Vendee Globe race.
About 100,000 fans are expected to greet them on Thursday after more than 73 days of racing.
Thomson is 34.75 nautical miles behind Le Cleac’h, who is hoping to win the event for the first time after two second-place finishes in the last two races in 2009 and 2013.
Le Cleac’h, aboard Banque Populaire, is on course to cross the finish line around 1700 GMT on Thursday, about three hours ahead of Thomson’s Hugo Boss, but a late upset is still possible.
“I’m so excited but so stressed, my heart is racing. I’m getting very emotional,” Sarah Thomson, Alex’s twin sister, told Reuters. “He’s always pushed through the problems, he’s so determined. I believe one hundred per cent he can win this race. He can pull it out of the bag, it’s amazing the things he’s done in his life where he has come out on top. I have no doubt he could win this race.”
Dino Dimeo, author of “Vendee Globe, the Adventurers of the Great South”, believes Thomson is facing an almost impossible task. “Le Cleac’h should pull it off but Thomson is taking all the risks,” he told Reuters.
“Of course he could change tack before Le Cleac’h but he would then finish upwind. Le Cleac’h must be very tense as the closer you get to land there will be many fishing boats, ferries on the way but he knows this area by heart and he’s not one to make mistakes.
“Thomson, however, is an extremist, he’s got a never-say-die attitude.” Le Cleac’h and Thomson will both beat the previous record set by Francois Gabart (78 days, two hours, 16 minutes and 40 seconds) four years ago as they are using foiling technology that adds stability and power.
Thomson, however, has been sailing with a damaged starboard foil for about eight weeks and he suffered another minor setback overnight.
“We heard that Alex has been facing auto-pilot problems in the past 12 hours, so it’s more tiring for him. He’s going to arrive extremely exhausted,” race director Jacques Caraes said.
In a short radio exchange with the French Navy, Le Cleac'h said; "Tell Alex to stay behind me, it would be great."
(Additional reporting by Miranda Alexander Webber, Editing by Ed Osmond)