Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama 4 are on the twelfth day of racing in leg six, from Itajad, Brazil to Miami.
Offshore of Saint Barth, the fleet is scattering out whilst the tradewinds have eased considerably since last night. This general stalling is also an opportunity to switch strategy, like the three leaders, who have split away in three different directions, Groupama 4 having opted to follow the American trajectory. As such there are some serious options up for grabs.
A little over 1,000 miles from the finish in Miami, the situation has totally changed with the break in the tradewinds on Thursday evening. The easterly wind of around twenty knots now only equates to a dozen knots or so of breeze and has shifted round to the South-East. As such the sailing conditions are considerably less wet, but the coming hours will be very important strategically, as there's a meteorological quagmire forming between Puerto Rico and Florida.
'The wind has eased over the past few hours as scheduled, but we were hoping that the stalling would affect the frontrunners first of all. In reality, the light airs hit everyone at the same time… We were sailing downwind under spinnaker with fifteen knots of breeze, twelve at times, on a direct course: it's a lot less wet on deck! On these boats, with an extra 5 knots of breeze and a 15° difference in terms of angle, that makes a massive change as you switch from 15 knots of boat speed to peaks of 25 knots by luffing up a little. Life aboard is a bit more comfortable since we can open things up down below and get a little fresh air into the areas where it's really hot. It's better for hygiene and for getting rest,' indicated Laurent Pagès this Friday morning.
A technical issue with gathering the data from the five VO-70s is depriving the Volvo Ocean Race organisation of any precision as regards true speeds and distances between the boats as the routes diverge. However, it has to be admitted that Groupama 4 has considerably reduced her delta in relation to the American leader, who is now just 85 miles or so ahead. As for Camper and Telefonica, they opted to gybe mid-morning this Friday (local time) to dive to the North of the Antilles arc, approximately 75 miles from the French boat. And Abu Dhabi is still around fifty miles to leeward of Franck Cammas and his men with a deficit of thirty miles or so in relation to the finish.
'The tradewinds are in the process of crumbling away as scheduled and it's set to become a long hard battle to Miami! It's another opportunity for us, this funny old system: there are doubtless some moves to be played and the grib files aren't clear. It's an important leg for the overall standing, but it doesn't correspond at all with the normal statistics because usually, we'd have had tradewinds from Cape Frio to Miami. The pace is hard as there hasn't really been a moment to decompress and right now, we've been racing for some months and there's probably a bit of weariness creeping in. It's tougher to get up and do your watch now… But everyone must be feeling like that on the other boats. Now that there's been some bunching of the fleet, it's going to be intense all the way to the finish!' commented Jean-Luc Nélias, navigator on Groupama 4, at noon this Friday.
Essentially, a succession of windless zones is lurking between the Virgin Islands and the Bahamas and the navigators will have to zigzag between these calms before entering a barometric minimum which is forming offshore of Florida. It's this rather unpronounced and fairly inactive trough which has snuffed out the tradewinds that usually blow across the Antilles. From this weekend the fleet will be subjected to a light to moderate northerly breeze of around ten knots, practically all the way to the finish. This significant wind rotation of over 120° is accompanied by several transition zones, where the breeze is erratic, fickle, fleeting, variable, inconsistent, irregular and random… among other things. In short, the grib files aren't really able to make head or tail of how the wind is actually behaving over several dozen or even several hundred miles, as everything depends on the extension and movements of this barometric minimum over the coming hours.
Some crews, like the New Zealanders and the Spanish (and the Emiratis to a lesser extent), are seeking to benefit from these sickly south-easterly tradewinds for as long as possible, by closing on Puerto Rico. Others, like the Americans and the French, are counting on the wind gradually shifting round by going to the front of the wind shift rolling in from the North. The hope for the first option is that the transition zone doesn't extend far and is short-lived, whilst enabling them to make as much headway as possible along the direct route. Meantime, the others are hoping that the northerly wind will barge its way into proceedings so they can gybe around a hundred miles above the Virgin Islands. In any case, this scattering of the fleet, which was unexpected just 48 hours ago, is opening up a whole new strategic playing field for Groupama 4. The end of this sixth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race promises to be extremely tense and uncertain, as the breeze is set to remain light as far as Miami…
Groupama Sailing Team website
by Franck Cammas
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2:18 PM Fri 4 May 2012GMT
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2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race
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