Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama 4 hold a 134 mile lead on the sixteenth day of racing in the second stage of leg four from Sanya to Auckland at the 1600 UTC report. Though Groupama 4 has been able to extend her lead over the past 24 hours, part of the weather situation between New Caledonia and New Zealand is coloured by doubt. Indeed the light airs offshore of Auckland could cause the fleet to bunch up again. The ETA is reckoned to be between noon on Friday and Saturday night UTC.
Day 16 - Groupama Sailing Team during leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
The larder will be empty when Franck Cammas and his men cross the finish line in Auckland. This fourth leg has been longer than scheduled, and the person in charge of the canteen had reckoned on eighteen days at sea! As such, from Friday morning, the crew will have to nibble on the leftovers, whilst the light airs around New Zealand could stretch out the race time even further. In terms of hierarchy there is less uncertainty now: the two trios have converged level with New Caledonia and are now making headway in virtually the same sailing conditions, in an easterly wind of between 15 and 20 knots.
Ultimately Groupama 4 opted to sail far beyond her country's overseas territories, passing 150 miles to the West of Nouméa, so as not to be affected by its high altitude. At the same time, the different courses have fallen back into line somewhat behind them and the lateral separation between the three 'westerners' (Telefonica, Camper and Sanya) has shrunk from 250 to around a hundred miles. Now the formation of a low to the North of New Zealand, which isn't very pronounced, is leaving no strategic options for the final 1,000 miles to the finish. As a result, the whole fleet will have to avoid the calms which will reign across the direct route from Wednesday and the navigators have no other choice than to head due South for 500 miles, before they stand a chance of being able to make for the northern tip of New Zealand.
According to the grib files, for the next 24 hours the French leader will further increase her lead over the Americans and Spanish, who are virtually on the same latitude (with Puma 80 miles further East). It's a favourable position in this beam wind, but it's causing some concern aboard the American boat. Indeed the two boats are practically identical and have the same potential. As such the end of the leg is very important for both these teams, who could still threaten Groupama 4 on this descent along the coast of New Zealand where light airs will prevail. It's even possible that the crews will have to beat into the thermal breezes…
In this way, from Wednesday evening, the fleet are likely to adopt a course due South, with a slight tendency to sail close to the wind in order to make headway to the East. However, this eastward move will have to be done in moderation so as the teams don't come up against a light breeze generated by the centre of the low. However, at some time or another, it will be necessary to dip down to the northern tip of New Zealand and sail close-hauled in around ten knots of South-East to easterly wind. Though Franck Cammas and his men are in a strong position at this stage of the leg, Thursday looks set to be decisive for the standing in Auckland. Groupama 4 has some good cards up her sleeve, but the wind may yet deal the aces out again.
Ultimately the major loser in this fourth offshore leg is Abu Dhabi, despite the fact that the team perfectly handled the exit from the China Sea and their entry into the Pacific. However, the lack of Doldrums didn't penalise those favouring an insular route at the Solomon Islands and Ian Walker and his crew haven't been able to hook onto the easterly tradewinds to the North of New Caledonia like their predecessors. As such they're going to really have their work cut out to catch up with the leading group, whilst Camper still has a chance of overtaking the Spaniards on this final stretch, which they are particularly familiar with…
Standings at 1600 UTC
1. Groupama 4 some 990.1 miles from the finish
2. Puma 134.7 miles astern of the leader
3. Telefonica 162.9 miles astern of the leader
4. Camper 216.8 miles astern of the leader
5. Abu Dhabi 258.6 miles astern of the leader
6. Sanya 396.3 miles astern of the leader
Groupama Sailing Team during leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Sanya, China to Auckland, New Zealand. (Credit: Yann Riou/Groupama Sailing Team/Volvo Ocean Race)
Groupama Sailing Team website