Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12 second stage of leg three from Malé, Maldives to Sanya, in China kicks off tomorrow at 0800 UTC. This 3,000-mile leg will be very tactical.
There will be a great deal of upwind sailing, in a rather light, variable breeze, with tidal and oceanic currents, a large amount of shipping in the Straits of Malacca, some forbidden zones and some areas which aren't properly charted, boat-breaking conditions in the South China Sea and so on... Franck Cammas and Jean-Luc Nélias examine the special features of this race.
Franck Cammas, has the crew of Groupama 4 been able to enjoy a break whilst the boats were transported from Sharjah to Malé on a cargo ship?
'It was important to have a four-day break at this stage of the race because there won't be a lot of downtime between here and the ultimate finish: such a pause enables you to set off again fully motivated. The pace has been pretty intense since Alicante with the vagaries of the first two oceanic legs. All the rest phases have been shortened and this break has given us the chance to recharge our batteries.'
This second part of leg three promises to be tricky on the water!
'It's a special leg because we'll essentially be sailing into the wind in light airs, which are conditions we won't necessarily have for the rest of the race. We'll rarely sail below 80° to the wind... The first section promises to be pretty direct between the Maldives and the Straits of Malacca: it's likely to involve a long port tack with little breeze and close-hauled sailing with the sheets slightly eased. Things get more complicated as we approach Sumatra, where the wind shadow from the islands will really come into play: there will be four days of speed where we'll have to choose the right angle in relation to the wind and the right sail configuration. It's sure to be a battle where we'll be in close contact and within sight of the others, which will be interesting for analysing the performances of our rivals.'
Traversing the Straits of Malacca is pretty complicated...
'The second part is more random since we'll be sailing in a kind of tunnel with few options possible, but we'll have to really get a handle on the local phenomena such as the landforms, the thermal breezes and the tidal currents. We may even have to drop anchor!'
The climb up the China Sea is also very new!
'We're not used to sailing in a monsoon system, as we'll have to do over the third section of the course between Singapore and Sanya. The wind can be pretty strong as it may reach in excess of thirty knots, with a very choppy sea.'
Will it be a race where the fleet remains extremely bunched together?
'There aren't really any tactical coups to be had, even though we'll have to choose sides over the end of the course along the Vietnamese coast, as the wind is likely to be coming right from where we're heading, before we end up on a starboard tack. There aren't likely to be any major options though as everyone will be trying to stick to the most direct route.'
Has Groupama 4 been optimised for these specific conditions?
'Our recent results are encouraging when sailing with slightly eased sheets, but these aren't the kind of conditions which are shaping up for this next course! All the teams are still finding their feet a bit there and the close contact sailing will reveal any strengths and weaknesses. We're on an upward spiral but that's over short legs: we have yet to confirm our performance over a long course...'
So you've made some modifications to the boat?
'We're tried to play around with Groupama 4's longitudinal trim, as she's a boat which sits lower at the stern for sailing in breezy conditions with sheets eased. We also have some more powerful sails for light airs, as our boat is the stiffest under sail: we've modified our trimming so as to make gains in terms of performance in the light breeze.'
Jean-Luc Nélias, this leg is a combination of three very different phases...
'The course spans around 3,000 miles and is split into three sections: from the Maldives to Malacca, which equates to 1,300 miles of upwind sailing with eased sheets in around ten knots of breeze; then the period where we have to traverse the straight, which involves 630 miles of very variable, light winds, in a zone close to the equator and hence similar to the Doldrums, with some storms and squalls and above all some regions where there can be up to five knots of current! In addition to that there's a great deal of shipping, fishermen, objects floating in the sea, pirates and so on... We round off the leg with a climb up the South China Sea, which involves 1,200 miles of navigation in a North-Easterly monsoon, amidst islands which are poorly charted, into a general current of at least a knot which runs along the Vietnamese coast. As such there's a lot of navigation in view!'
The climb up the South China Sea will involve you sailing into a monsoon...
'The monsoon has the special characteristic that it is the only weather phenomenon that traverses the Doldrums. Right now the winter monsoon is in force which is synonymous with a North-Easterly wind generated by a large anticyclone centred over China. It's a fairly fluky breeze as it's cold air which blows across a warm sea, and as it's an omnipresent wind, that picks up very heavy seas.'
When you refer to the equator, you refer to high temperatures!
'It's a leg which is essentially equatorial: as such it'll be very hot and as it's also a warm wind, and hence lighter, there's sometimes more wind at the masthead. For that reason we'll have to recalibrate the electronics and tinker around with the performance polars. Added to that there will always be six crew down below, which will make it like a good old boiler! Of course in the China Sea, it won't be possible to get air running through the boat, and there will be very little shade on deck... Conditions will be pretty hard to bear then, especially as we won't be sailing very fast! The final beat won't be very comfortable either.'
Is the crew of Groupama 4 well prepared for this particular leg?
'We're feeling pretty confident: the boat is making better headway in the light airs, but the race will be about making small gains, as there are no major weather options to enable you to get away from the fleet. It's more about tactics, where you have to back a horse both ways to minimise the risks, and in the Straits of Malacca there will be some tricky sections. However, there's been a serious preparation phase for this leg: we have Jean-Yves Bernot's roadbook, written for the previous edition, we've carried out some statistical studies and met up with some sailors who are familiar with the area...' Groupama Sailing Team website