Leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race is set to get underway on Sunday in Sanya but, gale-force winds and deadly seas are set to make the start the toughest so far in this edition. The race’s chief meteorologist Gonzalo Infante said the six Volvo Ocean Race crews would have no choice to but to enter 'survival mode' if man and boat are to escape the early days of the 5,200 nautical mile race to Auckland unharmed.
Rob Salthouse and Chris Nicholson grind hard as they put a reef in the mainsail as Stu Bannatyne drives onboard CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand during leg 3 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Abu Dhabi, UAE to Sanya, China. (Credit: Hamish Hooper/CAMPER ETNZ/Volvo Ocean Race)
'The weather conditions forming in the South China Sea at the moment will definitely provide the teams with the most challenging start to a leg so far,' Infante said.
'Conditions will be very dangerous, pushing man and boat close to the extreme.'
As is typical at this time of year, a monsoon is currently building to the north of Taiwan and by Saturday will have filled the whole of the South China Sea with north easterly winds of between 35 and 40 knots.
Weather model for 0700 UTC on February 17, 2012, showing a monsoon sweeping through the South China Sea. - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Weather model for at 0700 UTC on February 18, 2012, showing a monsoon sweeping through the South China Sea. - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Weather model for 0700 UTC on February 19, 2012, showing a monsoon sweeping through the South China Sea. - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Although certainly testing, wind speed is not the issue, Infante explained. The real problem will be the sea state.
'Now only a very small area in the centre of the South China Sea is affected by big waves – from six to eight metres,' he added. 'However, as we get closer to the start date, the affected area will grow until by Saturday the whole South China Sea will be affected by this sea state.
'The wave models also underestimate the size of waves on the continental shelf i.e. close to the land. On the continental shelf the depth goes from around 3,000 metres to 100 metres and often the waves can be more deadly there than offshore.
'This means the teams have no option to escape the big waves by heading north.'
With no escape route the crews will have no choice but to batten down the hatches and face whatever the weather gods throw at them as they punch east towards the Luzon Strait, the body of water separating Taiwan and the Philippine island of Luzon.
Wave model for 0700 UTC on February 17, 2012, showing waves of up to eight metres developing in the South China Sea. - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Wave model for 0700 UTC on February 18, 2012, showing waves of up to eight metres developing in the South China Sea. - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Wave model for 0700 UTC on February 19, 2012, showing waves of up to eight metres developing in the South China Sea. - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
A low pressure system forming to the east of the Philippines is unlikely to develop into a tropical cyclone – but could help increase wind speed and wave height.
'The high wind speeds will mean the boats go quicker and in turn ‘jump’ off the huge waves, creating very dangerous conditions,' Infante said.
'Ultimately the teams will have to go into survival mode to make it through the South China Sea unscathed.'
Thanks to the mountain range protecting Sanya Bay from the north easterly monsoon winds, conditions for Saturday’s Sanya Haitang Bay In-Port Race should be perfect with decent breeze and flat seas.
'Offshore it will be a very different story,' Infante said. 'Race Control is monitoring the situation very closely with weather updates every 30 minutes.
'Models predict the monsoon surge will be fully developed by Friday and will last until at least Tuesday. It is clear the conditions for the start of Leg 4 will be very rough, but it’s not clear how long the conditions will remain.'
Leg 4 from Sanya to Auckland is due to start at 1400 local time (0600 UTC) on Sunday, February 19.
Volvo Ocean Race website