The cliché ‘batten down the hatches’ has its origins in the process of securing square rigged sailing ships for bad weather.
And over the last couple of days, the crews of the Volvo Open 70s have described their own metaphoric and literal battening of hatches – albeit it with sikaflex and sailing bags, rather than pitch and pine. The tension has been palpable as we all waited for the arrival of the eastbound low pressure system, often relieved as humour – as is the way with men under pressure.
At 10:00 ZULU yesterday, we were still holding our breath – 24 hours later we can release it with a little sigh of admiration. All the preparation was not in vain. The cold front hit them right after the TEN ZULU was posted yesterday, the breeze blasting in at 30 knots from the north-west. The fleet took off for Cape Town – PUMA’s skipper, Ken Read described the electric change of pace to Guy Swindells.
At the time, Ericsson 4 and PUMA were side by side – Torben Grael had reversed their earlier stake in the south, sailing a ‘hot’ True Wind Angle (TWA in the Data Centre) – that’s a narrower TWA, and as you can see from the graph, a faster one. I’m not sure if Grael and his navigator, Jules Salter, deliberately closed out their leverage to PUMA – they continued at the same tighter, faster wind angle through the afternoon. The gybe to the south had cost them about 400m (that was how much they were in front of PUMA when they gybed away, returning to be side by side about 15 hours later) – but that loss has become largely irrelevant. Phenomenal display of power
In a phenomenal display of power sailing (despite being a man down), Ericsson 4 blitzed ABN AMRO TWO’s 24-hour mono-hull record in the early hours of the morning to the regret and admiration of Telefonica Blue’s navigator, Simon Fisher who was aboard ABN AMRO TWO when the old mark was set at 562.96.
Grael and his men kept the afterburners on – and the mileage looks to have peaked at 589nm at 07.55 ZULU this morning. And so far, no one has been able to stay with the pace, as you can see from the 48 hour graph of Boat Speed (BS) and Distance Run in 24 Hours (24HR_RUN). (Which looks like the mirror image of the pound’s decline against the dollar, and just about any other financial index, but apparently the recession is all AC/DC’s fault - or is it the other way around …?).
It’s been gloves and ski-masks (and that was just me getting to the office this morning) since the new weather system arrived from the west, as the centre of the low, positioned to the south, moved east. It brought the tail-enders up to the leading pack, as Aksel Magdahl described in an audio interview with Amanda Blackley. The graph of Gain/Loss to Leader Since Last Report (DTLC) shows the effect clearly.
This was slightly different to the Doldrums, when the leading bunch ran into light air first. In this case, the chasing pack brought new, stronger wind with them, as they rolled eastbound and down with the front. This is a pretty common occurrence in yacht racing, in fact it’s how I lost the first race of the 420 Nationals in 1982 – a setback from which I suspect my sailing career has never fully recovered. But I think Neal McDonald was one of the people to go past on that occasion, and it doesn’t seem to have done him any harm. 'This is insane'
McDonald is a watch captain on Green Dragon, and he started his round the world career with Lawrie Smith, a man who never shied away from sail area when it started blowing – as Ian Walker was discovering last night, 'I think it may be time to open negotiations with Neal about taking the spinnaker down …' to which he added the footnote this morning, 'This is insane …’ Draw your own conclusions about the fate of the spinnaker.
Green Dragon and PUMA have just about hung onto Ericsson 4 – all the while falling into line behind them, and closing out the leverage – the icing on the cake for Grael and Salter. As far as I can tell there haven’t been any big crashes, the gap between them has just crept up steadily. We don’t know if that’s the boat, the sails or technique. Jonathan Swain (watch captain on Telefonica Blue, and the one with cold feet) told me in Alicante that the big masthead spinnaker comes off pretty early with these boats – around 28 knots of True Wind Speed (TWS).
And Aksel Magdahl told Amanda in that earlier audio interview that they were already down to the smaller (fractional) spinnaker yesterday morning. Once it gets over 32 knots that comes off as well, and they shift down to a big reaching jib. Jonathan explained that although you have to sail a little higher, you go a lot faster, and like a windsurfer wave-riding down-the-line it gives them the control to carve on the wave and surf the boats to even quicker speeds. The average True Wind Speeds (TWS) overnight have been hovering around 31-33 knots, right on the cross-over that Jonathan Swain described – I don’t know who’s been using what sails, but I’d like to. No shortage of action
Behind the leading trio the gap has been stretching more quickly, particularly for the boats that found themselves going north of east early this morning – Team Russia, Delta Lloyd, Telefonica Black and Ericsson 3 - visible in the Race Viewer.
Rather than an (understandable) instinct for self-preservation, I think these guys have all been overtaken by the cold front, their True Wind Direction (TWD) is backing round (anti-clockwise) to the south-west, taking them away from the finish, and away from the path of the low. Wouter Verbraak explained the risks of getting overtaken by the front in an email this morning but that fate seems already to have befallen them.
The isochrones (lines that define places the boat can reach in an equal period of time) in the Predicted Routes of the Race Viewer look like an arrow head this morning. And the tip of that arrow is a boat holding onto the cold front for the longest possible time. After that all bets are off, and if you check you can see that the routing now thinks that Team Russia and Delta Lloyd need to gybe back to the south to stop their deficit really blowing out – an option that both boats took just before the 10:00 ZULU this morning.
But – barring a breakdown or crash - the leaders should stay with the front until about 500nm from Cape Town, by then the breeze will be dropping fast on the evening of the 31 October. That’s a couple of days away, so it’s all a bit speculative, but there is still time for another squeeze of the accordion as the leading trio run into the protective wall of light air that’s entrenched around the finish. It looks like there will be no shortage of action all the way to the line. Volvo Ocean Race Positions - Leg One, Wednesday, Day 19: 1800 GMT
Ericsson 4 SWE (Torben Grael/BRA) DTF 1624
PUMA Racing Team USA (Ken Read/USA) +41
Green Dragon IRL/CHN (Ian Walker/GBR) +86
Ericsson 3 SWE (Anders Lewander/SWE) +119
Telefónica Blue ESP (Bouwe Bekking/NED) +155
Telefónica Black ESP (Fernando Echávarri/ESP) +172
Delta Lloyd IRL (Ger O'Rourke/IRL) +337
Team Russia RUS (Andreas Hanakamp/AUT) +357 The TEN ZULU REPORT (so called because it follows the 10:00 GMT fleet position report, and Zulu is the meteorologist's name for GMT).