Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama 4 set off on leg four from Sanya at first light local time in the wake of the Spanish and quickly took control of the fleet on their way towards the North of the Philippines. On the programme is a 660-mile sprint to the Luzon Strait, across a rather ill-tempered South China Sea, with an easing breeze of around twenty knots and what are still heavy seas.
It has been the year of the Water Dragon in China since 23 January 2012. This particular dragon belches out rain rather than fire, which is providing the land with moisture and enriching the harvest. For the six crews, who took a staggered start from 2300 hours (according to their result during the preliminary course in Sanya), their introduction to proceedings has also proved to be very wet… A light breeze was blowing as the sun rose in the East. Once the boat had got around the land masses that form the island of Hainan, the wind showed itself to be more consistent with around twenty knots of north-easterly on a somewhat lumpy sea. 'The inside of the boat is wet and the foulies are soaked. Each time it's a surprise to observe the total discomfort of these boats on these points of sail! However, the benefits are twofold: you make very fast headway, and particularly on Groupama 4. Added to that you only have to glimpse at the standing…' wrote Yann Riou this morning.
This lively system is set to last until tonight, Chinese time (UTC + 8), which equates to early this Monday afternoon in Europe. The tropical storm which prompted the Race Committee to keep the Volvo Ocean Race fleet in port for an extra half a day, is in the process of crumbling offshore of Vietnam. Meantime, the monsoon is reasserting itself, but it has been heavily disturbed by this weather phenomenon. Up against a still very rough sea state, set to smooth out over the coming hours, the VO-70s initially sailed with sheets eased in order to get away from the Chinese coast as fast as possible. Then gradually the breeze slowly shifted round towards the ENE and it is likely to ease progressively to around fifteen knots at sunset. As such the courses are bending round and tonight (local time) will probably be an opportunity for some repositioning once the wind backs round to the East again, or even as far as ESE, as it drops away to around ten knots…
The weather forecasts are fairly uncertain in this cavern of the South China Sea, which is presenting a complicated configuration with the mainland to the North, Vietnam to the West, Borneo to the South and the Philippines in their line of sight. Between Luzon and Taiwan, a passage of some 180 miles, which is reminiscent of a sort of dark cave with the current lack of moon (new moon on 21 February), the situation promises to be full of surprises. A depressionary low is forming from noon on Tuesday only to disappear a few hours later. However, this system will ‘break' the north-easterly monsoon to leave in front and behind it a fairly fickle and variable air flow with north-easterly to south-easterly winds of between 15 and 5 knots! As a result it will be very difficult to anticipate the evolution over the medium term and it's highly likely the fleet will split right out before converging on the Philippines…
Indeed, after half a day at sea, the sailors haven't adopted identical short term strategies: whilst Telefonica and Abu Dhabi, tailed a dozen miles or so back by Puma, were sailing high up to reposition themselves to the North of the fleet, Groupama 4 and Camper were lengthening their stride with sheets eased whilst Sanya was making a clean split, plunging down to the South-East! There is already a 25 miles lateral separation after covering just 130 miles since the start in Hainan… However, this first phase indicates that Franck Cammas and his men have negotiated this lively start well and are managing to contain the pressure from the New Zealanders, whose boat is renowned as being the best upwind. They will now have to adapt their tactics to a sky which will become overcast and squally, leading to sizeable wind shifts and appreciable differences in the intensity of the breeze.
As such a highly technical leg is in store and it's likely to involve a great deal of jockeying for position. The reasons for this don't solely relate to the fact that the route towards the Luzon Strait is brimming over with meteorological pitfalls, but also because some zones of calm are forecast around the outskirts of the Philippines. As a result the difficulty doesn't centre on taking the head of the group fleetingly, but rather positioning oneself as best as possible on Wednesday to tackle the Luzon Strait. The options include a northerly route where the pressure seems steadier but on the nose, a direct route where you have to constantly adapt to the sizeable wind shifts, or a southerly route where the general oceanic current is less intense and the sea smoothed by the Philippines archipelago… Position at 1300 UTC on 20/02/2012
1. Groupama 4 some 5,065.6 miles from the finish
2. Camper – 1.5 miles from the leader
3. Telefonica – 4.3 miles from the leader
4. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing – 5.5 miles from the leader
5. Team Sanya – 8.4 miles from the leader
6. Puma – 14.8 miles from the leader Groupama Sailing Team website