Volvo Ocean Race - Groupama make laboured progress

Below decks with Groupama Sailing Team during leg 1 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Volvo Ocean Race - Groupama 4 on the Saharan coast lead the trio sailing mid Atlantic by nearly 600 miles! Uncertainty reigns as to how the situation will pan out in relation to the huge lateral separation. The only thing that is sure at this stage is that the West will be the first to be hit by a change in the weather.

The light airs will give way to a fine breeze, but the same isn't true for everyone! A northerly wind of around twenty knots will be the order of the day for Groupama 4's trio of pursuers (Telefonica, Puma and Camper), whilst the French leader will begin to make laboured progress in a sickly tradewind system, which is set to ease gradually tonight and dipping to less than ten knots, it too from the North. As such, those favouring the West will considerably pick up the pace on their dive southwards for at least 24 hours, as they hitch a ride with a system of downwind breezes. Meantime, Franck Cammas and his men are likely to attempt to shift across slightly towards the south-west to reposition themselves towards the trio's trajectory... However, the next stage is fairly uncertain beneath the Tropic of Cancer: the tradewinds aren't managing to settle into position to the West of Cape Verde, whilst they do appear to be enjoying the balmy climes offshore of Senegal again!

Aboard Groupama 4, the atmosphere is still relaxed with these calm conditions and it is hot without being humid, beneath a full moon which is making the night much more pleasant... Ultimately this descent has been faster than planned, since the boat is approaching the Mauritanian border, near the Nouadhibou peninsula, at nearly fourteen knots.

'Tonight was just like the night before on Groupama 4, but with even more moonlight, even milder weather, even more wind and even more of a lead over our rivals. Pretty good in principle then and yet... At the chart table, it's a case of noses to the grindstone. Analysis of the satellite charts, grib files, routing and the study of the different routes open to us. Either way, we're drawing the same conclusions: we know we're going to have a tricky passage today with little wind. Once again this transition will be decisive for the next stage. Conversely, our rivals are going to hit the phenomenon they've been hunting down. In terms of standing, we expect to see the trend of the past few hours completely turned on its head. It remains to be seen where that will take place and what the repercussions will be. All's well aboard and spirits are high.'

Isn't the Earth's satellite having an influence on the anticyclone and causing it to position itself in the usual place? That might well be the case. In any case, the Doldrums (a transition zone above the equator, which alternates between calms and squalls) isn't very pronounced as yet and may well leave a passage open at around 25° West. That would be considerably further inshore than Groupama 4's three rivals, who are more likely to choose a way through at around 30° West. As a result, sailing conditions would be very different for each group once it comes to having to tackle the south-easterly tradewinds of the southern hemisphere! Indeed Franck Cammas and his crew would be able to make headway with eased sheets at an average of over 18 knots, whilst the trio would be beating into this same system at 12 knots, as far as Fernando de Noronha, the only course mark before the finish in Cape Town...

In the meantime, the crew of Groupama 4 is focusing on the timing of the gybes so as to slip along as quickly as they can towards the Cape Verde archipelago, some 450 miles ahead, which equates to barely two days at sea. Whatever happens, it will be a sensitive passage point because that's where the veil of uncertainty over the benefits of the African route or the offshore option will be lifted... Boom or bust, the presses will roll as the news comes out on Sunday morning!

'In fact, when you have to manoeuvre, the whole crew is woken up because you have to shift the stack of sails down below and on deck. Added to that, those who are resting, always sleep to windward. The manoeuvres are faster now too... There are a minimum of three crew in position on deck: the helmsman, a spinnaker trimmer and the winchman, while the fourth can attend to other activities according to the different configurations. The current conditions are perfect for doing odd jobs and getting some rest. As regards navigation, I'm making the decisions with Jean-Luc Nélias, who's dissecting the grib files' explained Franck Cammas yesterday at noon.

At the back of the fleet meantime, the skipper of Abu Dhabi has announced that he'll now be making for Lisbon so as to get the boat loaded onto a cargo ship bound for South Africa: ultimately the delay incurred after the dismasting won't allow skipper Ian Walker and his crew enough time to reach Cape Town and fully prepare for the next leg. As such, the team have opted to ensure they're in South Africa on 28 November so they can finish their preparation properly. The same is true for Mike Sanderson, whose boat Sanya, will be loaded onto a ship this weekend.

Groupama website