Amazingly, Le Cleac’h, in his yacht Banque Populaire, is barely three nautical miles clear of fellow-Frenchman Gabart, in the yacht Macif, south of New Zealand and in heavy seas.
“It’s incredible, amazing,” Gabart enthused in a video link as he briefly saw the mast of his rival’s yacht emerge from among the swell and on the ship tracking technology.
“We’re keeping an eye on each other,” Le Cleac’h said, “I can see him on the AIS (automatic identification system).” He said they were making progress in heavy seas and explained: “The wind has also got up, with gusts of up to 55 knots.”
With some 12,000 nautical miles to the finish at Les Sables-d’Olonne in western France, the fleet which began with 20 boats but has since been reduced to 13, has now been at sea for 40 days in what is widely regarded as the most prestigious race in the sport.
The solo helmsmen who sail without stopping or without assistance must now negotiate the dangers of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans as they make their way back towards the starting point.
The record to beat is 84 days three hours and nine minutes established by fellow Frenchman Michel Desjoyeaux during the last race in 2008-2009.
Only French sailors have won the event since it began in 1989.
Another Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Dick, is a distant third, 524 nautical miles behind the leading pair.
Italian Alessandro di Benedetto is the back marker, a massive 4,260 nautical miles behind Le Cleac’h.
Vendee Globe yacht race standings at 1100 GMT Thursday:
1. Armel Le Cleac'h (FRA/Banque Populaire) at 11,583 nautical miles from finish
2. Francois Gabart (FRA/Macif) 3 nautical miles from leader
3. Jean-Pierre Dick (FRA/Virbac-Paprec 3) at 524 nautical miles
4. Alex Thomson (GBR/Hugo Boss) at 883.8 nautical miles
5. Bernard Stamm (SUI/Cheminees Poujoulat) at 904.2 nautical miles
6. Jean Le Cam (FRA/SynerCiel) at 1,667.7 nautical miles
7. Mike Golding (GBR/Gamesa) at 1,810.1 nautical miles
8. Dominique Wavre (SUI/Mirabaud) at 1,936.6 nautical miles
9. Javier Sanso (ESP/Acciona) at 2,007.2 nautical miles
10. Arnaud Boissieres (FRA/Akena Verandas) at 2,665.3 nautical miles