Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama 4 are on the fifteenth day of racing in leg six, from Itajad, Brazil to Miami. Suspense is in the air... Air which is proving to be increasingly absent with the invasion of a light windless patch offshore of San Salvador.
Groupama Sailing Team during leg 6 - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
The American leaders are beginning to stumble into this meteorological barrier, to the extent that they can now see the New Zealanders in their rear view mirror, whilst Groupama 4 is stealing a march by passing beneath the Bahamas archipelago. This French option has already borne fruit since the Spanish have slipped down the rankings already and there is even a chance that the leadership could be under threat within the next 24 hours!
Everyone on deck! All the sails on the rail! Battle positions! Up lads and at `em! It's the final heated exchange before the arrival in Miami: you have to score bull's-eye for this Bahamas-style skirmish... Indeed, in this labyrinth of islands and coral reefs, which delighted the British pirates such as Blackbeard, Henry Morgan and Anne Bonney, in their pursuit of the Spanish galleons laden with gold, a bit of cut and thrust was certainly par for the course. At the Americans, beware of the New Zealanders: the French vessel is on the attack to the West and may yet upset the hierarchy after some 4,500 miles covered since Brazil!
Indeed, once again, the heavens are claiming their victims: a wind hole has opened up to the East of San Salvador like a kind of barometric wasteland, and is stretching out just above the Tropic of Cancer. And in 24 hours' time, there is more pressure to the West of the Bahamas than on the Atlantic side: 4 knots of easterly wind in front of Pirates Well, 8 knots at Hogsty Reef! This is enough to sail double or even triple the speeds of Puma and Camper, who are sailing to the East of the Acklins and Crooked islands, whilst Groupama 4 is slipping along towards the Cays and South Bluff... However, in this split, there is a technical obligation to leave Long Island to port, as there isn't enough depth for the keel of a VO-70. As such, the point where the different paths will converge is in Crooked Passage, around a hundred miles in front of Groupama 4.
With a deficit of 72 miles in relation to the American leader, are Franck Cammas and his men still in with a chance of catching up the leaders? It's possible, as Puma has no further route choices. To her left is a vast area of calms and to her right are some coral lagoons. Meantime Groupama 4 is free to go where she chooses as far as the South of the Acklins. She may cut through the Mayaguana passage or skirt around the islets to the West. The effects of the thermals associated with an expected rotation of the wind to the South-East may well create an opening too. Whatever happens, the French boat shouldn't be very far from the two leaders with nearly 400 miles to the finish in Miami...
The Spanish are having a tough time of it after tumbling down the ranking last night and having now been overtaken by Groupama 4. Telefonica, through her offshore option at the Virgin Islands, had found herself to windward of the fleet in a dying breeze. At that stage there were no other solutions than to put in a gybe in a sickly zephyr, in order to reposition herself at Turks and Caicos! The upshot of this little manoeuvre has been ruthless: 40 miles lost in a matter of hours... And now Abu Dhabi is less than 20 miles astern of the Iberian boat. As a result the Hispanics are treading on hot coals right now as a fourth or even fifth place would really put pressure on their chances for an outright win in the Volvo Ocean Race!
For the three pretenders for a top spot in the overall standing in Miami, the finish order is crucial: if Puma secures a win, she'll become a serious contender once again; if Camper stands out, she could snatch back second place; if Groupama 4 pulls it off down the home straight, she could give the Spanish a rough ride in Florida! And after days struggling in a wind which has always favoured the frontrunners until now, a reversal of the situation in favour of Franck Cammas and his men would surely give their rivals something to think about... The die is cast.
Standings on 7 May at 1300 UTC
1 - Puma 426.0 from the finish
2 - Camper 8.0 miles from the leader
3 - Groupama 72.6 miles from the leader
4 - Telefonica 83.5 miles from the leader
5 - Abu Dhabi 99.9 miles from the leader
Groupama Sailing Team website