Thomson smashes speed mark to close on Vendee lead

3 min
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Paris (AFP)

Record-setting Briton Alex Thomson is closing in on long-time leader Armel Le Cleac'h in a dramatic denouement to the Vendee Globe around the world yacht race.

The exhausted, first finishers are set to arrive on Thursday to a hero's welcome at Sables d'Olonne on the French Atlantic coast.

But whether it will be Le Cleac'h bagging the habitual success for France or Thomson scoring a dramatic first British triumph remains unclear after the latter's spectacular attempt to overhaul his rival.

At 1700 GMT Thomson was just 74.6 nautical miles behind, with less than 800 nm to go.

Sunday night into early Monday morning saw Thomson set a new record for distance covered in a single hulled yacht in 24 hours, skimming across 536.81 nautical miles of ocean at an average speed of 22.36 knots.

That outdid the 534.48 nautical miles which Frenchman Francois Gabart set at an average speed of 22.27 knots.

"I'm very happy but in reality I must try to get as close as possible to Armel," said Thomson.

"It's tough at the moment, I'm not reducing the gap as much as I'd like."

Gabart, commentating for the event's television channel, called the duel on the high seas "truly magic".

"We're heading for a super finish between Armel and Alex. It is fabulous to see these boats go so quick.

"The battle between Armel and Alex is magnificent. Armel is not in an easy position, he has much to lose. But he still has quite a few strings to his bow and everything it takes to hang in there."

Organisers expect the race winner to cross the line in this 87th edition between 0700 and 1500 GMT on Thursday -- that would see another speed mark.

If the winner finishes before 1202 GMT then he will come in just under 74 days at sea to smash Gabart's 2012-2013 mark of 78 days 2hr 16min.

Le Cleac'h has been leading since December 3 in his Banque Populaire VIII with Welshman Thomson fighting to stay in contention in his Hugo Boss.

Neither man has before won the race, an unyielding endurance test which Gabart says in his case "radically changed my life".

Gabart was the youngest winner, aged 29, and was in floods of tears at the finish after his global battle against the elements.

"I was awash with a real cocktail of emotions," he told AFP.

"First of all there was relief -- under pressure for 78 days. Then of course there was pride and pleasure at meeting up again with loved ones."

As Le Cleac'h and Thomson battle for supremacy, Gabart's next project is to circumnavigate the globe later this year in a multi-hulled, faster vessel.

Vendee Globe standings at 1700 GMT

1. Armel Le Cleac'h (FRA/Banque populaire VIII) at 763 nautical miles from the finish, 2. Alex Thomson (GBR/Hugo Boss) at 74.6 nm from the leader, 3. Jeremie Beyou (FRA/Maître Coq) 841.38, 4. Jean-Pierre Dick (FRA/StMichel-Virbac) 2314, 5. Yann Eliès (FRA/Quéguiner-Leucémie Espoir) 1751.24, 6. Jean Le Cam (FRA/Finistère Mer Vent) 1757.07, 7. Louis Burton (FRA/Bureau Vallée) 2899.69, 8. Nandor Fa (HUN/Spirit of Hungary) 4497.68, 9. Eric Bellion (FRA/CommeUnSeulHomme) 5027.82, 10. Conrad Colman (NZL/Foresight Natural Energy) 5144.72