Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama 4 lead has dropped from a 149.50 mile lead to 95.5 miles on the eighteenth day of racing in the second stage of leg four from Sanya to Auckland at the 1600 UTC report.
Before they can step onto the dock in Auckland, Franck Cammas and his men still have a day and a half at sea, beating into a strong South-East to easterly wind, which will fade as they make their way along the coast of New Zealand. The pressure from behind is considerable, with the chasing group hot on their heels, beating a path towards them.
Though Groupama 4 is forming the vanguard, the Americans, Spanish and New Zealanders are lying in ambush! Their attack is having increasing resonance as they confront the onslaught from the big seas, where the troughs are increasingly deep, the impact increasingly violent in the rough, abrupt waves and the wind shifts roar as they verge on thirty knots. The sailors are having to submit themselves to the crashing and pounding, their stomachs rumbling with the lack of calories (in this campaign to the Antipodes, the stocks are getting low) as they crawl up on deck to make a sail change. This final battle in the Tasman Sea hasn't yet come to an end. The French scouts are leading the way across this meteorological ‘minefield', which is calling for a number of deviations, zigzags and tack changes in order to climb the last hill linked to this depression, from which they'll hopefully be able to make out the liberating land mass of New Zealand…
There are still 300 miles to go in these liquid trenches, which shake the rigs, send the bodies flying and make the structures tremble. In this incessant bombardment there's no shelter and the stream of projectiles across the deck is constant, undermining the troops, who are hidden away behind a wall of sails to windward, as if answering the call for action stations. Helmets are compulsory here as protection against the fragments of spray and waves, which thunder and explode across the bow. There are some signs which are unmistakable though: the wind fields, which oscillate wildly under the influence of an Australian disturbance which will slowly become more ordered and the North wind, which will be transformed into a zephyr once Cape Reinga looms up on the horizon.
'Nearly everyone is on deck because we've going to further reduce the sail area. Sailing under full mainsail, we're going to put a reef in the J2 genoa because we have over 22 knots close-hauled. The breeze has been beginning to get steadier in terms of direction since early last night, but the wind is gradually building and is set to reach 28-30 knots before daybreak. It should remain fairly strong until Cape Reinga. For eight days we were beam onto the wind with a lot of sail changes to adapt to the conditions and, just yesterday, we put in several tacks in the light airs. As such we're pretty tired. Fortunately we have a full moon tonight and our path is being nicely illuminated! We're going to finish off our daily food rations, but we still have a few things left in the larder to get us into Auckland…', indicated Yann Riou, Groupama 4's media man at noon this Thursday.
Once a few additional tacks have been put in to get around Cape Reinga, there will only be 180 miles to go to reach Auckland. The boats bunched up slightly last night. Telefonica, Puma and Camper are just 100-150 miles astern of Groupama 4 and the French crew will have to hold off this trio right the way to the finish line. The slight difference since yesterday relates to the fact that this threesome no longer has many tactical options because, with a 25% lead over a course of less than 500 miles in a stable, enduring wind, their strategy will more likely focus on the internal battle for the podium… The Spanish have been in pole position since they got around to the West of the Americans, as they managed to reposition themselves further along the track in front of them. Puma's easterly option is now just ten miles or so away, which doesn't appear to be enough to benefit from a breeze which is itself shifting round to the East!
In 24 hours' time, Groupama 4 will be beyond Cape Reinga and the breeze will ease. As such the separation between the leader and the chasing trio could well increase, though the change in weather conditions will make the race for second and third place extremely tense behind the French boat. The latter should tie up in Auckland on Saturday morning (ETA between 0600 and 1200 UTC) and it's becoming hard to image a reversal in the situation. However, the same cannot be said of the other pretenders to the podium: the Spanish, Americans and New Zealanders haven't yet done with tearing each other to pieces! All the same, it's a very long day ahead for the French team, who will have to watch that they don't break anything and ensure they use conservative tactics to get around Cape Reinga and for the whole of the descent towards the Hauraki Gulf.
Standings at 1600 UTC
1. Groupama 4 some 437.6 miles from the finish
2. Telefonica 95.5 miles astern of the leader
3. Puma 105 miles astern of the leader
4. Camper 130.6 miles astern of the leader
5. Abu Dhabi 207 miles astern of the leader
6. Sanya 230.9 miles astern of the leader
Groupama Sailing Team website
by Franck Cammas
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7:08 PM Thu 8 Mar 2012GMT
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2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race
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