It is what makes the Volvo Ocean Race so special; the opportunity to sail in the harsh wastes of the Southern Ocean, where temperatures plummet, waves are as large as a block of flats, and howling tailwinds produce mind-blowing downwind sailing.
This is what the six-boat fleet is preparing for tonight as they line up to hook into a westerly depression later tonight. But it’s a race against time to reach the fast-moving conveyor belt and to be denied this opportunity, even temporarily, would be a huge disappointment.
Already speeds are building to 16 knots as the fleet swings south under the ridge of high-pressure that has been slowing progress for the past two days. Now, down to 45 degrees south, four of the five teams are keeping together, but Iker Martínez and Telefónica have taken a flyer to the south in order to reach the strong breeze earlier. They are now showing in fifth place on the leaderboard, which is calculated on distance to finish.
After nearly four days of racing, there has been just one loser, Ian Walker’s Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in sixth place after returning to Auckland to effect repairs, but even this team could luck-in and re-join the pack if conditions continue to play into their hands.
It has been known before, on this leg of the course, for the backmarker to sail around the leading stationary pack and cruise on to win the leg. A comforting thought for Ian Walker, who has reduced his deficit to 264 nm with a runway of 6,126 nm left to cover before the finish in Itajaí, Brazil.
There is a fair chance that the fleet will be too slow tonight to catch the low-pressure rolling towards Cape Horn, and be spat out the back into lighter airs. This scenario would play very nicely into Walker’s hands, but it is something almost too awful to contemplate for the leading group, who are ready and waiting for the first real downwind test of the race.
'The fast option really looks infernal, a true challenge with lots of cold and unstable winds and a bad sea state,' Groupama’s navigator Jean-Luc Nélias said. 'We would follow a low pressure until Cape Horn in winds always above 30 knots. But, on the other hand, if we are too slow tonight, we don’t get to surf that low pressure and we will be back in the transition with lighter winds.'
At 1900 UTC, Chris Nicholson and Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand, the most northerly of the fleet, were the new leaders with the slimmest of leads over second placed Groupama 4. Mike Sanderson’s Sanya was in third, 4.6 nm astern of Nicholson, followed by Ken Read with Puma Ocean Racing powered by Berg and Telefónica (Iker Martínez/ESP) filling the fourth and fifth slots respectively. It is almost re-start time so close is the fleet, which is split 9.1 nautical miles between first and fifth, but no other teams have followed Telefónica south.
Volvo Ocean Race website
by Volvo Ocean Race
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9:18 PM Wed 21 Mar 2012GMT
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2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race
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