Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama 4 hold a narrow lead of 6.1 miles on the fourth day of the racing in leg five, from Auckland to Itajai, at the 1600 UTC report today.
The fleet is right in the thick of the biggest depression since the race start in Alicante! And this austral disturbance promises to be particularly violent with winds in excess of 45 knots and very heavy seas with over ten-metre waves. Groupama 4 is leading the way, but Franck Cammas and his crew know that the focus has to be on extracting themselves from this Antarctic storm with both the men and the gear in one piece.
It's good and bad news: the depression, which the fleet is in the process of tackling via its western edge, is moving slowly and the boats will be able to hitch a ride with it as far as Cape Horn or almost. However, this austral disturbance is growing everyday and is set to position itself across the route to South America. As such there is an extremely harsh phase in store between now and early next week.
'The wind has really punched back in and for the past six hours we've had 25 to 33 knots of breeze and we're expecting a lot stronger wind ahead of us. We've already reduced the sail area with one reef in the mainsail and the small storm gennaker: we're going at quite a lick, it's very wet and the water is cold! So we're beginning to enter what will be a difficult period for the whole fleet… We're still a long way from the matter in hand and once we have 40-45 knots of breeze, the sea state will be all important. We'll then have two reefs in the mainsail and the storm jib (J-4), so we can reduce the sail area. We have to get around a big depression over the next four days. We're playing a game of wait and see: how will we bear up in some very, very strong winds? The whole crew is a bit tense. Over the coming days we're going to cool things down a bit in terms of the race so we can close on Cape Horn without mishap.'
The Antarctic depression centred over 58°S and 140°W is tracking eastwards very slowly but most importantly it's climbing up to the edge of the ice until Saturday, so it's very close to the optimum trajectory for the boats. Groupama 4 will be forced to close on this violent meteorological phenomenon since the northern motion is causing a compression of the isobars and hence a very brutal increase in wind strength. Fortunately the cold front associated with this disturbance will remain in front of them, though a zone of squalls will come into play with gusts of over 50 knots, and even as high as 60 knots!
'We've repaired our technical issues and we got the boat in order so we're ready to tackle this disturbance. Everyone is aware of the conditions we're going to be subjected to and is preparing both mentally and physically by trying to recover and rest. We'll have to really anticipate the manœuvres well so as we can avoid breakage or injury to a crew member. The optimum route doesn't take us to the edge of the ice gates (imposed by the Volvo Ocean Race organisation at 47° South): we'll be able sail parallel to them because, given the depression, we don't need to go further South. We're not allowed to dip below this limit because it would be akin to us not sailing the right course and we'd be disqualified… However, it will be easy for us given the south-westerly wind expected, as we'll be able to bear away so as we don't get close to it.'
With every passing hour then, the sailing conditions will become more difficult and the south-westerly breeze will reach more than 35 knots this Thursday evening. As such, the already heavy seas are set to get even bigger, with waves in excess of ten metres and above all the risk of breakers. Indeed, once the top of the crest breaks due to the angle of the wave, the speed at which the molecules of water move is greater than the speed of the boat and the resulting breaker could swamp the cockpit from behind. It's a situation which becomes dangerous for the crew on deck, as well as for the boat, which could end up side onto the wave where there's a risk of breaking gear.
'In principle we won't be able to go right around the system and we'll have to plunge into it at some point. As we close on the centre of the depression, there will be the maximum amount of waves, with cross seas and breakers thrown into the mix perhaps… That's what frightens me a bit! For the time being, according to the grib files, the worst of the wind and sea will hit us over the course of the day on Saturday, just before we begin to drop down to the South-East. Right now we have south-westerly wind (and I hope it won't shift round to the South!) and it's already pretty cold with the water at 8°C. As such, they're not the kind of conditions where you're on the attack and I don't think we'll be able to improve on the record number of miles covered in 24 hours… All the crews will have to ease off the pace, because the most important thing is to traverse this zone without incident. There are no strategic options up for grabs and everyone will be following each other at varying speeds. We'll have to make a compromise between safety and performance. We won't be able to sail the boat at her full potential and it will be hard to compare the speeds achieved by each crew. I don't think we're going to have much fun… even at the helm. Will we be able to play with the waves? I'm not sure. We'll have to protect ourselves and try to stay upright with waves of around ten metres! The risk of failure is by no means insignificant…'
As a result, this weekend promises to be horribly testing for Franck Cammas and his men. There will be no comfort, an icy cold, breakers across the deck, and an ‘end of the world' type atmosphere in the most isolated maritime zone on the planet, since on Saturday there will be no land within 2,000 miles (3,500 kilometres) and no ship before Cape Horn…
Standings on 22 March 2012 at 1600 UTC
1. Groupama 5,363.7 miles from the finish
2. Camper 6.1 miles astern of the leader
3. Puma 28.9 miles astern of the leader
4. Telefonica 50.1 miles astern of the leader
5. Sanya 205.6 miles astern of the leader
6. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing 400.2 miles astern of the leader
Groupama Sailing Team website
by Franck Cammas
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6:49 PM Thu 22 Mar 2012GMT
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