Volvo Ocean Race fleet are on the third day of racing in leg six, from Itajad, Brazil to Miami. Before they can hook onto the easterly tradewinds, the five crews must traverse a zone of storms, which marks a 180° wind shift in relation to the current conditions on the water. With clouds, squalls and calm spells, this fifty-mile wide transition zone is likely to establish a hierarchy over the course of tonight, which is likely to last several days… As such this is a major obstacle to be negotiated.
Onboard Groupama Sailing Team during leg 6 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
A little over 700 miles in three days! The introduction to this sixth leg between Brazil and Florida is proving rather laborious as the boats are constantly switching between fine reaches at an average of nearly 17 knots and extended periods of slow conditions at 7 knots… In short, since Sunday's start from Itajai, the sailing conditions have been rather calm, in sunshine which isn't too aggressive yet and a pretty smooth sea state balanced out by a long swell. Even so, Franck Cammas and his men have had to increase the number of manœuvres and adjustments in order to gain headway to the North, though they haven't managed to make up their deficit in relation to the American leader.
Before even leaving the Brazilian pontoons, the navigators knew that the rounding of Cape Frio, to the West of Rio de Janeiro, wouldn't be the easiest zone to negotiate. Indeed it is an area synonymous with a great deal of instability due to the Saint Helena High being pushed back towards Africa and a depression forming to the South of Itajai. As such the Brazilian coast is subject to an uncertain pattern of weather conditions, since a storm front has waded into the frame offshore of Sao Mateus, resulting in a cloud mass which the five VO-70s will have to traverse this Wednesday. On the southern side of this meteorological barrier, the dozen knots or so of breeze have shifted round to the South-East and on the northern side, there is a light northerly breeze of just six knots.
The strong tropical sunshine which is reigning on both sides of this band will give way to a more or less significant accumulation of squalls, which will make any progress northwards fairly chaotic. Some clouds will ensnare the crews in an extended period of calm, whilst others will release a gust of downwind air, or even a light zephyr of headwind… On the cards for this Wednesday afternoon, the traversing of this fairly inconsistent weather system will call for a number of manœuvres, with the main focus being on the constant adapting of the course in a bid to hop from one squall to the next without stopping. As such, it will be necessary to find these veins of air as there certainly isn't a main artery anywhere nearby!
This storm phenomenon is extending offshore of Brazil and there is no other solution than to traverse it perpendicularly. This is why the courses are tending to converge and the two options, which had split the fleet into two groups on Tuesday morning, are likely to fuse together again tonight, amidst the beats which are set to characterise these next few hours. Although the fifty miles or so of lateral separation between those favouring the inshore option (Camper, Abu Dhabi) and those staying offshore (Puma, Telefonica, Groupama 4), will considerably diminish, what will become of the longitudinal deltas?
It's hard to anticipate as the local conditions may be very different within a short distance. It will all depend on the varying degrees of density of the cloud masses which the crews will have to negotiate. Franck Cammas and his men aren't best placed since they're forty miles shy of the American leader. The crew will have to pull out all the stops to hop from one squall to the next, so as to claw back some miles, or at the very least limit the damage in this dodgy section. Indeed, behind this storm front, the tradewinds are in position, even though they're not very steady and are generating just ten knots of breeze.
However, the first to extract themselves from this pitfall could well power over the horizon as they benefit from a gradual increase in the easterly breeze the further North they get. Offshore of Salvador de Bahia, around fifteen knots are sweeping the area and off Recife, the wind is reaching a good twenty knots or so! As a result this acceleration will colour the progress of those at the front of the fleet and the separation with the other boats will only increase if one or several of the pursuers drag their heels as they try to escape the front. The deltas between the five boats could be very sizeable then, since there will hardly be any options possible as far as the Caribbean!
Standings on 25 April at 1300 UTC
1. Puma 4,035 from the finish
2. Camper 5.7 miles from the leader
3. Abu Dhabi 12.1 miles from the leader
4. Telefonica 21.1 miles from the leader
5. Groupama 37.9 miles from the leader
Groupama Sailing Team website