In the Volvo Ocean Race, the four leaders have been working their way up the coast of Ireland since noon this Monday, in a moderate westerly breeze. The frontrunners are set to make the finish in the middle of the night, with a current ETA of around 0300 UTC this Tuesday in Galway, the terminus for this 40,000-mile circumnavigation of the globe! Puma is currently in pole position in this ninth and ultimate offshore leg, closely tailed by the trio made up of Telefonica, Camper and Groupama 4.
Groupama Sailing Team, skippered by Franck Cammas from France and CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand, skippered by Chris Nicholson from Australia, rounding the Fastnet Rock on leg 9 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Lorient, France to Galway, Ireland.
At 1700 hours UTC, there were less than 70 miles to go to reach the finish line moored off Galway. It's set to be a fairly calm end to the course since the wind has shifted round to the South-West, easing to less than fifteen knots and under spinnaker there aren't really any options to be had. Indeed, since Sunday's start from Lorient, the fleet has remained tightly bunched and has followed virtually the same course.
Rounding the Penmarch' headland at around 1800 UTC on Sunday after circumnavigating Belle-Île, there were just five miles between the then leader (Telefonica) and last place (Sanya). Following that, on passing the island of Sein, the top three entered the Raz de Sein to slip inside Tévennec, whilst Puma opted for an offshore route to the West.
Everyone converged again to slip around the forbidden zone delimiting the traffic separation zone offshore of Ushant and though the four leaders were still within sight of each other, their two pursuers had already fallen some seven miles or so behind. The long climb up to Fastnet (South-West Ireland) was a little more boisterous with the passage of a warm front bringing rain, poor visibility and a south-westerly wind of nearly twenty-five knots. The slight lateral separation between the four `musketeers' had little effect because on rounding the famous rock, Puma was just 500 metres ahead of Telefonica, which in turn was just a mile in front of Groupama 4 and Camper.
At that point it was necessary to sail close to the fifteen knots or so of wind, which had switched round to the West, in order to negotiate the Irish rocks of Baltimore, Crookhaven, Allihies and Valencia Island, before committing to the channel between the Blasket Islands and the Coumeenoole headland. The playing field was freed up at that stage and it will remain so until they reach the Aran Islands, which the frontrunners will have to leave to starboard at sunset. From here there will be just thirty miles to go to reach Galway.
As such, the weather conditions have been pretty varied in terms of strength, with a few wind shifts on approaching the coast. Through outright speed, the Americans have managed to get a slight edge as they make their way along the Irish coast.
Just hours from the finish of this ultimate oceanic leg, Groupama 4 boasts a twenty-mile cushion over her two pursuers, Abu Dhabi and Sanya. If this continues and they manage to secure fourth place, they will be assured of victory in the overall standing before even setting sail on Saturday's final In-Port race in Galway. However, in terms of second place, an Irish victory for the Americans would guarantee Puma second place overall, whilst Camper's best hope would be a third place...
Beware though, as Galway Bay is famed for its meteorological back-stabbing! History has often thrown a curve ball to the finishers in the legendary Solitaire du Figaro race, with the situation turning completely on its head, out of the blue. Although it's somewhat unlikely that the last two boats will worry the four leaders, the latter certainly haven't finished trading blows in the battle for the leg podium...
The game is wide open, not solely for this final offshore leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, but also the hierarchy on the overall podium. That is, with the exception of Franck Cammas and his men, who just have to hang onto their fourth position to be assured of an outright win.
Position of the competitors in the Volvo Ocean Race on the ninth leg from Lorient - Galway at 1700 UTC on 02/07/2012
1. Puma - 74.9 miles from the finish
2. Telefonica - 2.4 miles astern of the leader
3. Camper - 2.7 miles astern of the leader
4. Groupama 4 - 3.5 miles astern of the leader
5. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing - 27 miles astern of the leader
6. Team Sanya - 28.3 miles astern of the leader
Volvo Ocean Race website