Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama 4 hold onto lead

Day 17 - Groupama Sailing Team during leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama 4 hold a 149.50 mile lead on the seventeenth day of racing in the second stage of leg four from Sanya to Auckland at the 1300 UTC report.

The depression, which has settled into position across the direct route to Auckland, is forcing the fleet to go around the resulting zone of calms. Groupama 4 has managed to hold onto her lead ahead of the Americans and Spanish, but the last 500 miles are likely to be punctuated by a steady South-East to easterly headwind, which is set to ease as they close on New Zealand. As such the fleet is likely to bunch up.

'Obviously being in the lead of this leg is a morale boost, but there's no motorway to the finish. We're going to have to deal with a zone of light airs. This transition zone casts some doubt over the last 400 miles to Cape Reinga to the North of New Zealand, as we still don't know if we're going to have light airs and upwind conditions at the finish. There will then be a second tricky zone as we drop down towards Auckland. That could be an opportunity for our pursuers to make up the lost ground on us with the arrival of a front from behind, whilst we'll be in light airs. As such nothing is set in stone, even with a lead of over a hundred miles', explained Franck Cammas during the noon videoconference on Tuesday.

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Sanya, China to Auckland, New Zealand. (Credit: Yann Riou/Groupama Sailing Team/Volvo Ocean Race)

Since they set a course out to the West of New Caledonia, Franck Cammas and his men have been able to hold onto their extra buffer as regards the Americans, who are now behind the Spanish. It would seem that Ken Read got a little too close to the centre of the low and that Puma has fallen into a zone of light breezes, whilst Telefonica is hurtling along at over 18 knots with the wind on the beam! With Camper in the wake of the Spanish, the Americans are on the point of being seriously knocked back in terms of miles, and their position some 50 miles further East, no longer appears advantageous for the end of the leg. Indeed Ian Walker has spotted the danger and Abu Dhabi has side-stepped this zone and are instead covering the Chinese boat, which is becoming a threat…

The route to Auckland is still full of pitfalls, with one depression leaving Australia to slip across the Southern Ocean and another disturbance offshore of the northern tip of New Zealand, which doesn't appear too pronounced. Between the two the breeze is fairly shifty both in terms of strength and direction. As such Groupama 4 has continued heading due South, whilst her rivals have no other choice than to adopt the same track. In this way, the moment when the decision is taken to hang a big left towards New Zealand is going to very important. The French boat will be the first to skim past the centre of the low, where the breeze will struggle to reach five knots, before they can latch onto an easterly breeze of around fifteen knots.

'Though there are no major options to be had for anyone, the problem stems from the fact that the boats aren't in the same timing in relation to this depression: by being in front, we may be led to pass through a windless zone waiting for the breeze to return behind us… bringing the other boats with it! In the current circumstances, given that the route to the finish has narrowed down the options, there's not a lot we can do.'

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Sanya, China to Auckland, New Zealand. (Credit: Yann Riou/Groupama Sailing Team/Volvo Ocean Race)

This Wednesday evening, Groupama 4's lead is likely to shrink then, as has been the case since this morning, where they lost ten miles in six hours. Indeed Franck Cammas and his crew are now skirting along the edge of the disturbed system, in what is a south-easterly air flow of less than ten knots, whilst the Spanish are still making headway with over fifteen knots of easterly breeze. However this situation is set to be fleeting because, once they're past 31° South, which will be around daybreak in the Antipodes, the French boat will have passed below the depression, at which point she'll latch back onto a new easterly breeze of at least 18 knots. As such the gaps between the fleet will concertina as the rest of the fleet will also have to deal with this light patch about half a day later.

It is only once they pass this critical latitude that Groupama 4 will be able to begin to bend her course round towards Cape Reinga, less than 200 miles from the finish. In fact, it's highly likely that it will be impossible to make landfall on the Kiwi coast without first putting in some tacks to get around the northern headland. After that the easterly wind will ease from Friday: the zone of high pressure centred over the South of North Island, will be replaced by a barometric marshland over Auckland! The breeze will radically decrease as Franck Cammas and his men beat their way along the coast to close on the Hauraki Gulf. If things pan out as they should, it will be no picnic for their pursuers either if they have a deficit of at least a hundred miles on passing Cape Reinga. However, if they're any closer than that, there could very well be a turnaround!

Standings at 1300 UTC
1. Groupama 4 some 696 miles from the finish
2. Telefonica 149.50 miles astern of the leader
3. Puma 164.1 miles astern of the leader
4. Camper 211.7 miles astern of the leader
5. Abu Dhabi 330.3 miles astern of the leader
6. Sanya 393.6 miles astern of the leader

Groupama Sailing Team website