It is the first day of Winter in Europe and in the Volvo Ocean Race, Franck Cammas, skipper of Groupama 4, is celebrating his 39th birthday which also marks his very first birthday being celebrated while racing at sea. As such, Groupama 4's pole position can only come as a source of satisfaction to the youngest skipper in this Volvo Ocean Race! Indeed the French boat will enter into the Indian version of the Doldrums this Friday with a lead of nearly 80 miles...
Though winter is proving to be mild in Europe, summer in the southern hemisphere is both very hot and very wet: indeed Groupama 4 is nearly at 11° South and is gradually leaving the high pressure of the Mascareignes High behind her to confront the random mood swings of the Doldrums. Indeed this Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) doesn't appear to be very easy to apprehend, even though in theory it is supposed to be less `twisted' than in the Atlantic.
'I'm preparing a chocolate cake for Franck's birthday' announced Yann Riou, Groupama 4's media man, during the lunch time radio link-up this Thursday. 'Together with my pressure cooker and a few eggs, which I've managed to keep cool, I'm going to make a change to the usual routine and already the aromas are more reminiscent of a patisserie and have replaced the rather vivid odours resulting from the ambient humidity. Indeed the skies are becoming overcast and decidedly grey even. It is very hot as we're closing on the Doldrums, which we're set to reach this evening...'
This Friday afternoon Groupama 4 has also been the first to enter the `stealth' zone, an area marked out on the map by the Volvo Ocean Race organisers to combat the risk of piracy. Positioned between the Arabic peninsula, the southern tip of India and the North of the island of Madagascar, this vast expanse will no longer enable us to track the progress of the six boats as far as the finish, but the distances between the competitors will still be broadcast to the public. This `stealth' zone, which begins at 12° South, is also close to the Doldrums, which appear to start at around 9° South.
'Thanks for wishing me happy birthday! Usually I'm on land at this time of year... However, the current preoccupation is more geared around the Doldrums: it's always a fairly hazardous zone and it's hard to find the best way through. We're happy with our positioning for tackling it as we can still control the fleet behind us. We already know that our pursuers will make up some ground on us over the coming hours since we'll be the first to be slowed...
We're the pacesetter and everyone will be watching where we go to get an idea of the ambience. However, it remains an enviable position: we have a lead of 80 miles with a finish lining up after around 1,000 miles. The coming days will be more complicated than in recent hours though and we could lose a lot of ground' indicated Franck Cammas at noon this Thursday.
Franck Cammas has opted to traverse the ITCZ at 67° East for several reasons: first of all because an opening appears to be taking shape along this axis as a depression isobar (1008 hPa) is bending round between Sri Lanka and the Diego Garcia atoll. The south-easterly wind of around fifteen knots on Thursday morning, will ease to just ten knots or so as it gradually clocks round to the South, then the South-West at around five knots at noon on Friday. Furthermore, by remaining further to the West, Groupama 4 is giving herself the opportunity to dip back down to the North-East, ahead of her rivals, should the opportunity present itself. It's easier to luff up in the light airs and accelerate rather than bearing away under spinnaker as you slow...
Finally, the third element to take into account is the rotation of the wind to the West at 7° South, followed by a gradual shift round to the North-West and then the North on approaching the equator. By positioning herself further to the West, Groupama 4 won't have to put in any tacks to complete this first part of the race.
'It's said that the Indian Doldrums are different to those of the Atlantic but when I asked this same question to those who traversed this zone three years ago, they told me that they'd been stuck fast for three days... It doesn't have the same shape as it's more cross-shaped with a fairly thick North-South axis, quite a way off, and an East-West branch which we're going to traverse. The exit is due North in any case! As a result we'll have to gain miles in all the squalls so as to stand a chance of being the first to exit the zone and latch onto the westerly wind near the equator.'
Ian Walker, the skipper of Abu Dhabi announced that the formation of a tropical wave could reshuffle the cards as they pass through the Doldrums. In line with this, the Spanish on Telefonica and the New Zealanders on Camper have curved their route inwards over recent hours, which would suggest that they're keen to attack the ITCZ at 72° East. Indeed it would appear that another way through is opening up at 75° East, but this involves extending the trajectory with a more easterly exit from the Doldrums and hence a final beat to round off the leg.
'A tropical wave is a weather phenomenon, a kind of atmospheric trough, which traverses the Trade winds in the direction of the Doldrums: this generates stronger activity with southerly wind. This in turn breaks the ITCZ and enables connections between two breeze systems, and hence opens up ways through. There doesn't appear to be a very pronounced tropical wave at the moment, but there are some small elements on the files...'
'We going to pass through some fabulous areas with some very remote islands: there are flying fish at the moment, but not too much activity in the water and in the air. Added to that we're going to have even less movement over the coming days! Aboard the boat it's very hot and at times we're envious of you back in Europe... However, it's also a quiet atmosphere: it's a good thing for Jean-Luc (Nélias, navigator) and I that our option paid off after the failure in the first leg. It's always good to have confidence in oneself and in one's crew... Furthermore, we won't be cut off from the world in this stealth zone as we'll still receive all the data from the organisation.'
After eleven days at sea and lots of turnabouts since the start in Cape Town, the arrival in the secret port is scheduled for Monday, the day after Christmas... The question is, will there be another present for Franck and his crew at the end of it?
Position of competitors in the VOR on Leg 2 at 1300 UTC on 22/12/2011
1. Groupama 4 2. Puma - 76.8 miles astern of the leader 3. Telefonica - 91.8 miles astern of the leader 4. Camper - 128.1 miles astern of the leader 5. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing - 229.2 miles astern of the leader Team Sanya - suspended racing