Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12 team Groupama 4 have extended their lead on the thirteenth day of the second stage of leg four at the 1300 UTC report.
Whilst the tradewinds are becoming increasingly sluggish in this descent towards Auckland, the fleet are about to immerse themselves in the Melanesian archipelagos. Two routes are open to them. The three boats furthest West have opted to traverse the Solomon Islands whilst the three crews furthest East are targeting Vanuatu. This separation of the fleet may create huge differences in the space of a just a few hours!
It was no longer possible: in the past four days since the six crews have been sailing in the Pacific trades, the lateral differential has never been able to be compressed and the Spanish have found themselves 200 to 250 miles further West than Groupama 4 and Puma. As they made their way down towards the equator, the tradewind system has progressively shifted round from the North-East to the East, further reducing any chance of the fleet bunching up again on the same trajectory! As they've been approaching the Melanesian Islands, two groups have formed, which won't all have the same conditions and issues. Those furthest West will be the first to enter the Doldrums and above all will be subjected to the harmful influence of the Solomon Islands, whilst those furthest East will try to get around the ITCZ (Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone) by distancing themselves from the islands and passing between San Cristobal (Solomon) and the Vanuatu Islands…
It was during the summer of 1768 that Louis-Antoine de Bougainville discovered the northerly islands of the Solomon archipelago. The captain of the frigate La Boudeuse, didn't really have the opportunity to stop off there, caught up not solely by the time allocated for his round the world mission, but also by his imperative of stocking up on freshwater, meat and fruit. Attacked by the indigenous pirogues, he made virtually no stopovers between Tahiti and the Moluccas, arriving at the Dutch trading post of Buru after more than 46 days at sea without interruption! However, along the way, the messenger of King Louis XV reconnoitred and named the three islands of Choiseul (Minister of the French Royal Navy), Bougainville and Buka. The accounts written by the navigator-explorer in the maze of Solomon Islands as far as New Guinea certainly weren't reassuring as the pages were not exactly coloured by a calm climate and peaceful weather! In fact the conditions were constantly alternating between squalls and calms, being tossed about the tidal currents, the thermal breezes and the sudden gusts…
Right now, it's this passage between the islands of Choiseul and Santa Isabel that the three ‘western' boats are about to commit to. This choice will mean that they won't have to dramatically modify their trajectory and will still benefit from an easterly wind of around a dozen knots till they reach the Melanesian Islands. Most importantly though, they won't be able to avoid the risk of getting trapped between the Solomon Islands and at that point there are still 150 miles to go before they reach the Coral Sea. Telefonica, Camper and Sanya have also opted to stick together on the same option so as to stay in contact, since the New Zealanders are 55 miles astern of the Spanish and the Chinese are some 125 miles shy of them. The change of course was decided some 24 hours ago when the three navigators observed that it would no longer be possible for them to enter the San Cristobal Strait, which the three ‘eastern' boats are favouring. The trajectory is now ‘blocked' between the island of Malakobi (West of the island of Santa Isabel) and the islet of Mbulo (East of New Georgia): 90 very uncertain miles in terms of weather conditions…
For the three ‘eastern' boats, 250 miles further East, the situation will be dramatically different since they will only be offshore of the Solomon Islands some twenty or so hours later. This temporal separation will enable them to benefit from an easterly tradewind for longer, which though easing, (17 knots easing to 12, then 8 knots on Sunday), will be steadier and less disturbed. As such it's highly likely that Groupama 4 will considerably increase her lead over the three western boats from Sunday evening (around noon European time). However, at the same time, the Americans should manage to make up some ground on the French boat. Indeed, Franck Cammas and his men will be leading the way so they'll be the first to fall into a less consistent air flow and will be subject to some large cloud masses in the Doldrums. However Groupama 4 is benefiting from around thirty miles of lateral separation in relation to Puma, which is not a trifling matter as they approach the island of San Cristobal.
As for Abu Dhabi, it will have to sail closer to the wind over the next 24 hours to ensure it passes to the East of Solomon, as it boasts nearly a hundred miles of lateral separation in relation to Groupama 4. If it doesn't want to get tangled in the disturbances caused by the islands, it must slip into the wake of the French leader… As such this weekend is synonymous with a crucial phase in deciding the outcome of this fourth leg whilst 3 March marks the half-time point in the Volvo Ocean Race! Having begun on 29 October with the In-Port race in Alicante, the race around the world will round off on 7 July in Galway… With this Saturday defining the halfway point in terms of race time, this means that the fleet have sailed half the total 39,270 miles they will eventually cover in a little over eight months. Will this be a radical turning point then, as the hierarchy looks like it may be turned on its head in Auckland in less than a week's time…?
Standing at 1300 UTC
1. Groupama 4 some 1,914.5 miles from the finish
2. Puma 85.9 miles astern of the leader
3. Telefonica 101.4 miles astern of the leader
4. Camper 149.10 miles astern of the leader
5. Abu Dhabi 153.80 miles astern of the leader
6. Sanya 209.5 miles astern of the leader
Groupama Sailing Team website
by Franck Cammas
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5:48 PM Sat 3 Mar 2012GMT
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2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race
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