The Volvo Ocean Race has six crews that are preparing to battle head-to-head for the first time in over a month when the second stage of Leg 3 to China gets underway on Sunday, 22 January at 0800 UTC. The teams will have very little time to prepare for racing, with the ship carrying five of the yachts expected to dock at the safe haven port on Saturday and Team Sanya scheduled finish the first stage of Leg 2 and arrive at the port later today.
A mine-field of hazards await the fleet on the Leg 3 course to Sanya in China, including monsoon winds, a collision course with hundreds of merchant ships and a brutal week-long beat – sailing against the wind by tacking – in rough seas.
The more than 3000 nautical mile course will steer the six teams from the safe haven port through the Indian Ocean to the notorious Malacca Strait and into the South China Sea.
Volvo meteorologist Gonzalo Infante explained that the course consists of three distinct stages - the first is a more than 1000 nautical mile stretch in prime monsoon territory from the undisclosed port to the northern tip of Sumatra.
The prevailing winds consist of a moderate monsoonal flow from the northeast, and pack several squalls, Infante said. A giant wind shadow created by Sri Lanka that reaches as far as 200 nautical miles in the southwest is likely to be the first navigational hurdle for the teams. However, attentions will soon turn to the challenges of the northeast monsoon. 'There will be a lot of squalls and variable winds which means there will be a lot of sail changes and a lot of sailing by the clouds,’’ Infante said.
The second phase of the leg may be the shortest - a 500 nm passage from the tip of Sumatra to the Singapore Strait yet, it is likely to keep every bunk on board empty for nights on end with sailors keeping watch for dangers.
Giant merchant vessels in their hundreds are the more obvious risk in the Malacca Strait, however small fishing boats, nets, pots and floating debris are also likely to be troublesome.
The Automatic Identification Systems on board each boat, which are used to identify any on-water traffic, will be a vital tool for the teams.
Race rules have prescribed a narrow path for the yachts through the strait, with five marks guiding them on the safest route through the shipping superhighway.
Infante said it would be tough going for the crews, with every pair of eyes likely to be on deck around the clock. Light airs and a three to four knot current are also likely to be problematic, with teams maybe even being forced to drop anchor at some stages.
'It is very tricky, you can lose everything you gained in the Indian Ocean with one bad decision or lack of attention in here,’’ Infante said. 'It’s unlikely that the yachts make big gains, but you can certainly make big losses.’’
A long beat in the South China Sea is the easiest summary of the third and final stage of Leg 3. The fleet will make a sharp left turn out of the Singapore Strait, tending towards the coast of Vietnam where they can make gains from coastal shifts and head north to China.
The fleet must keep an archipelago consisting of Ritan, Nunsa and Selia islands to port, before they are likely to head for the Vietnam coast.
Whether it is the monsoon winds or the trades that are ruling, the wind direction will almost definitely blow from the northeast. However, it is the sea state that will cause hell for the fleet.
Infante said the South China Sea is shallow, and when combined with the long fetch (the length of water over which a given wind has blown) a nightmarish sea state is created.
'They are likely to be beating for one week in conditions that are very hard on the boat,’’ he said. 'The waves could reach four to five metres, and could be very steep.’’
The course is tipped to take the teams around two weeks to complete, with a finish in Sanya in early February.