The Volvo Ocean Race fleet has surprisingly adopted a northerly course, on the fourth day of the second stage of Leg 4.
Franck Cammas and his Groupama 4 crew are not closing on the goal: over 100° from the usual heading and 300 miles above the direct route. However, there's no other way out just now: you have to gain ground to the North-East to latch back onto the normal monsoon system.
'We're in a state of uncertainty because the weather models aren't very clear! As such we're having to make do with the wind we have. This Thursday morning for example, we've had 25-30 knots of south-westerly wind, which wasn't forecast at all. It's very complicated to form a strategy as it's likely that the island of Taiwan, which has some sizeable land masses, has severely disrupted the monsoon. As such there is very little isobaric gradient right the way around. Gradually, between now and Friday evening, we're going to shift our course round towards New Zealand, but prior to that, we'll have to link back up with a steady air flow. We are beneath the tropics and fortunately the skies are overcast, which isn't unpleasant as it's very hot. However, we're making the most of it to recover from the fatigue of the South China Sea, because it was very difficult to sleep with messy waves since we left Sanya,' explained Charles Caudrelier at noon this Thursday.
It's towards this island lost in the middle of the North Pacific that the bows are currently heading: Iwo Jima was one of the last points of entrenchment of the Empire of the Rising Sun's army back in February 1945 when battling against the American armada. This confetti of Japanese islands marks the western limit of the anticyclone responsible for dishing out easterly tradewinds… For the time being, it's the islands of Ishigaki which the fleet will have to negotiate, followed by the Okinawa archipelago, which is sure to mark the breaking point in this rather atypical course. As such, there are still nearly 300 miles to go with the wind on the nose for Franck Cammas and his men. Groupama 4, which has really cut a dash through the tricky passage to the South of Taiwan, is managing to keep up with the steady pace set by Camper, which is the true leader given the route imposed by the weather.
'There was a lot of current in the South China Sea and I dread to think what it must be like when there's 40 knots of wind! Right now, we're not doing too badly as the boat hasn't suffered any damage and we're happy with our positioning as we prepare to launch into a long session of reaching in 24 to 30 hours' time. Right now, to the great despair of our New Zealanders onboard, we're distancing ourselves from Auckland… However, there's no way out from the direct route which passes close to the Philippines as there's very little wind in this zone: as such our goal is to latch onto the easterly tradewinds which are blowing a long way offshore of Taiwan and for now we're still on a beat to the North-East on starboard tack.'
Around the Luzon Strait the situation is very complicated as the light southerly airs aren't managing to hold their own, transforming the direct course into a no-through road. The Spanish tried to close on it last night, but quickly understood that this solitary option was going to hit a wall. Their move to reposition themselves in the North caused them to cross paths with the Americans, who have really made a great comeback after their delayed departure from China. However, just ten miles shy of Sanya and Abu Dhabi, Telefonica and Puma got trapped by a windless zone for a good hour. Ken Read managed to hotfoot it North but Iker Martinez took a lot longer to extract himself from the resulting gloop! As such nobody's going to tempt fate with a course near the Philippines now so the routing is taking the crews towards Japan instead…
Taiwan has witnessed the fracturing of the fleet then and though the boats are heading roughly the same way, they're now split into four groups: Camper is sticking to her guns in her position as true leader, very gradually extending her lead in relation to her direct rival, Groupama 4, which is proving to be a little less at ease sailing into the wind, but is still keeping her hand in thanks to her position to windward of the New Zealanders. Abu Dhabi and Sanya (polled as leaders because they're closer to the finish) are in reality around fifty miles to the South-West of Camper, whilst Puma is continuing to strike out on her own along the coast of the Republic of China, formerly known as Nationalist China, but now commonly referred to as Taiwan. As for Telefonica, she's in a rather difficult patch which could cost her very dearly for the next stage of the race… As such this is a very important stage of the race being played out this Thursday evening and we'll have to wait till the weekend to have a clearer idea of the true hierarchy at the end of this Luzon lesson: there's no Supreme Leader just a guiding line! Positions at 1600 UTC on 23/02/2012
1. Team Sanya 4,614 miles from the finish
2. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing – 3.5 miles astern of the leader
3. Groupama 4 – 11.4 miles astern of the leader
4. Camper – 20.2 miles astern of the leader
5. Telefonica – 40.4 miles astern of the leader
6. Puma – 107.5 miles astern of the leader Groupama Sailing Team website