Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama 4 are on the fourteenth day of racing in leg six, from Itajad, Brazil to Miami. Leading the fleet for the past ten days, the Americans have again made the break in a north-easterly breeze of fifteen knots, as they approach the Turks and Caicos archipelago. Groupama 4 has lost ground and will shortly have to deal with the coral reefs bordering the Dominican Republic. Franck Cammas and his men are hoping that the calms offshore of the Bahamas will reshuffle the cards.
Groupama Sailing Team during leg 6 - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Up till now, Puma has been imperial since Cape Frio (Brazil) and despite the multitude of comebacks by the Spanish and the New Zealanders, the Americans have always managed to hold onto the top spot. In fact, they have further stamped their authority in this particularly unstable weather since the start in Itajai. Indeed on Friday evening they had a lead of barely ten miles over Camper and less than twenty in relation to Telefonica. The resulting situation was tense to the say the least for Ken Read and his crew, but in the space of 36 hours, the American boat had opened up their lead to some forty miles over their two most dangerous adversaries. Once again, the fresh breeze was first to hit the front of the pack and Groupama 4 racked up a dead loss of some sixty miles during the same timeframe...
However, the unusual weather configuration over the Antilles and the Bahamas is still very much in evidence, causing further 'hair pulling' for all the navigators, who are struggling to define what the near future will bring their way. As far as casting their minds forward two or three days, which is when they should be making their final approach on Miami, crystal ball gazing is proving to be a popular pastime! This Sunday afternoon a north-easterly breeze is sweeping across the race zone, but it is reaching twelve to fifteen knots at the front of the fleet and barely seven at the back... As a result the average speeds have also varied, but for how long? Their approach towards the Tropic of Cancer will once again compress the fleet on the outskirts of the island of San Salvador, the first land that Christopher Columbus discovered on 11 October 1492. Will this fairly low-lying landmass, encircled by coral, prove to be a saviour to the French sailors?
The succession of comebacks in a matter of hours and the gaps that open up within a matter of watches since Cape Frio (Brazil), are tending to be counterbalanced by the hope of a complete reversal in the situation. This sixth leg has seen so much action since the start that things could go either way right now. This is especially true given the expected stalling on Monday evening, which is probably the last chance of stabbing their rivals in the back before Florida... A clear boss in the unlikely scenario of this leg, the American hierarchy could still filter through into the numerous passages, which separate the Turks and Caicos islands and the other isles of the Bahamas. The same is equally true for Camper, which is directly in their wake. Telefonica meantime has shifted 40 miles to windward and looks to be less well positioned to divert towards these channels without losing a few miles.
For Groupama 4 and Abu Dhabi, which have adopted the same trajectory, 35 miles further South than that of Puma and Camper, a decision about which route to take is imminent. It could involve a course between the coral reefs to the North or a dive down towards the shores of Navidad, Silver and Mouchoir, as they sail along the shores of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, so as to slip between the islands of Grande Inagua and Turks and Caicos. However, after that, there are a vast number of obstacles to be negotiated, including coral, reefs and islets, where the sea bed can go from 1,000 metres to 10 in the blink of an eye, and even as little as 1 metre in depth! There seems to be no other way round it and the fleet also have to remember to leave the large island of Eleuthera to port (to the North of the Bahamas), which somewhat limits the tactical options.
Also on the menu is a route via the Mouchoir Passage, to the South of Grand Turk, or the Caicos Passage, a route which the Americans could well initiate, as the large windless zone, which is forming to the East of the Bahamas archipelago, is leaving no other choice than to hug the coast. It remains to be seen if this proves more propulsive on the eastern or the western side. Whatever happens, it is a virtual certainty that the first to extract themselves from this final obstacle within the next 48 hours, will have a great chance of taking victory in Miami. Franck Cammas and his men aren't in the most enviable position, but there is so much uncertainty as regards the extent and the intensity of this zone of calms that anything is still possible!
Standings on 6 May at 1300 UTC:
1 - Puma 621.9 from the finish
2 - Camper 39.8 miles from the leader
3 - Telefonica 40.0 miles from the leader
4 - Groupama 121.6 miles from the leader
5 - Abu Dhabi 163.6 miles from the leader
Groupama Sailing Team website