Volvo Ocean Race - There is a fairly technical 4,800-mile course on the cards, where the fleet will have to get around Brazil, negotiate the Doldrums and traverse the Caribbean. Boosted by their victory in Saturday's In-Port race, Groupama 4's crew have high hopes and aim to further reduce the points separating them from the Spanish leader in the overall standing.
The weather conditions in Brazil are forecast to be perfect for the start of this sixth offshore leg: sunshine with a few clouds and some fine weather, an idyllic temperature, an almost smooth race zone and above all a good fifteen knots or so of southerly breeze!
This will probably be the most intense race start in this Volvo Ocean Race, because although the situation is particularly favourable for a spectacular opening sprint, it's also a key moment for the next stage in the event. This is especially true given that this disturbed southerly air flow isn't set to last very long and tackling the bay of Rio de Janeiro in pole position is likely to be a considerable advantage as the fleet begin to climb up around Brazil.
Indeed this 4,800-mile course will involve the fleet sailing along the Brazilian coast as far as the Doldrums, so this first half of the course is likely to throw up a fair few curve balls, where the navigators will have to play their hand over a stretch of ocean less than 200 miles offshore of Brazil.
The first obstacle will comprise manoeuvring their way around Cape Frio, which will mark the first change of route, northbound. In fact the high post-summer temperatures generate some hot and very humid air masses which spread across the South Atlantic in the form of some stormy zones. Further South, near Rio de la Plata, the Argentinean depressions pushes back the Saint Helena High, which usually creates the Brazilian tradewinds.
There's nothing clear about the programme for coming days however! Instead there are likely to be a mixture of calm zones, sudden squalls and significant wind shifts, combined with at times unpredictable conditions along the coast. As such it will probably be necessary to wait until they get to the latitude of Salvador de Bahia before the steady south-easterly to easterly winds settle into position and accompany them as far as the equator.
Once through the Doldrums, which aren't usually very developed at this time of year at 35° West, the five VO-70s will hook onto the north-easterly tradewinds of the northern hemisphere, which will gradually clock round to the East and then the South-East as the fleet home in on the West Indies. As a result the crews are likely to have no respite and will have to constantly sail within sight of each other, which will call for some very frequent manoeuvring.
The overall conditions are set to be rather favourable for Groupama 4 then, as there will be prevailing downwind breezes and reaching, with an average wind strength of around fifteen knots.
Indeed Franck Cammas and his men were very much at ease in the light conditions during Saturday's In-Port race, and this is a situation which is likely to be repeated many times over in the numerous weather transitions they will have to traverse. There are big stakes at play for all the crews as the points accumulated in Florida will determine the final strategy as far as Galway...
Of particular note for this leg is that Phil Harmer, injured during the Cape Horn leg, has left his place to Erwan Israël so the crew list for the leg between Itajai and Miami comprises: Franck Cammas (FRA) skipper, Jean Luc Nélias (FRA) navigator, Thomas Coville (FRA), Charles Caudrelier (FRA), Laurent Pagès (FRA), Erwan Israël (FRA), Damian Foxall (IRL), Brad Marsh (NZL), Martin Strömberg (SWE), Martin Krite (SWE) and Yann Riou (FRA) media man.
Franck Cammas, skipper of Groupama 4: 'Naturally we'll be trying to get ahead of Telefonica, but our focus will be on trying to win this race like all the others: we're over halfway on this round the world and any points gained now become increasingly important. We're lying in second place and the Spanish are within rifle range: we have every chance of winning and we're motivated to do just that.
The dismasting halted our progress but over the previous two legs, we've seen that we're increasingly at ease. We've proven that we can remain up front for a good while: right now we need to put up a consistent performance for the final victory...
We feel more at ease offshore than in the short races, even though we've made good progress with the latter as we showed in Itajai on Saturday, where we managed to withstand the pressure from some very good crews. For this next leg, there will be more French crew onboard the boat as Phil Harmer is injured and is remaining onshore to get some rest and has been replaced by Erwan Israël. All the sailors were able to get a break in Brazil, and even though the fatigue is building, we're in good shape and the upcoming leg is likely to be less physically demanding.'
Jean-Luc Nélias, navigator on Groupama 4: 'This is the longest of the remaining legs and is characterised by heat! The course is essentially tropical and that will cause us to switch weather systems as we make headway north. The situation as far as Rio de Janeiro will be somewhat disturbed, then it will be necessary to traverse a transition zone before we hook onto the south-easterly tradewinds.
Following on from that we'll have to negotiate the Doldrums, then the tradewinds in the northern hemisphere and hence north-easterly winds, before a more uncertain final sprint as there may be fronts accompanied by depressions at this time of year. The leg will have predominantly moderate wind, with about 80% of the course coloured by fifteen knots of breeze. It will also be very sunny with some serious heat and high humidity levels. There will be a lot of downwind sailing and reaching, which will favour Groupama 4, but there will also be some zones of light air to traverse.
There don't appear to be any major strategic options to be had, but we'll have to keep a close eye on our rivals: the trajectory is a bit blocked by the fact that we have to get around Brazil. There may be a few moves to be attempted in the Caribbean as we pass to windward, leeward or through the islands. The finish could have a few surprises in store too if the usual conditions are a little messed up near the Bahamas.'
Volvo Ocean Race website
by Vincent Borde
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6:09 PM Sun 22 Apr 2012GMT
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