Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama 4 may have taken the lead so far in leg one but the chasing pack are catching up the miles. The very fast descent by the trio out West is set to slow up late this Saturday afternoon, as the powerful north-easterly winds give way to a lighter breeze below the Tropic of Cancer. As such the whole fleet will be sailing in similar weather conditions from tonight.
Groupama Sailing Team during Leg 1 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
The situation has changed dramatically over the past 24 hours, with the arrival of a powerful northerly breeze of more than twenty knots, which has propelled Puma, Telefonica and Camper along at an average of over 22 knots. However, on dropping down towards Cabo Verde, this zone of wind is stumbling just beneath the Tropic of Cancer and the tradewinds are losing a lot of their intensity. For their part, Franck Cammas and his men have got some distance between themselves and the African coast now, so as to converge towards the planned trajectory of the trio offshore of the Cape Verde archipelago. To achieve this they're benefiting from a northerly breeze of eight knots, which is set to gradually clock round to the north-east and could force Groupama 4 onto a gybe before nightfall and hence take her to the East of the islands.
In the space of a day, Groupama 4's positive delta (241 miles on 11 November at 1100 hours) has halved! The reason for this is an Atlantic front which has generated north-westerly winds, followed by north-easterly winds on a relatively flat sea. Perfect conditions then for these VOR-70s, since the New Zealanders on Camper have racked up 401.2 miles VMG whilst Groupama 4 only made 246 miles VMG... Of note is the fact that the Americans have proven themselves to be a lot more at ease than the Spanish in these conditions (though both are sailing a Juan Kouyoumdjian design), since Puma amassed just 371 miles in 24 hours and Telefonica swallowed up only 335.6 miles by gybing later and really getting left behind.
Indeed the subtlety of this descent of the North Atlantic lies in the difficulty involved in staying in tune with the weather variations. In this way the New Zealanders, who thought twice about taking the same Moroccan course as Franck Cammas after Gibraltar, got left behind by the Hispano-American duo for four days, causing them to concede up to 90 miles! Now just 40 miles stray of the two Juan K designs, Camper is enjoying the same conditions. As such it will be very interesting for us to compare the performances of the Marcelino Botin design for the next part of the race... and for Groupama 4 too.
Indeed the breeze will ease this Saturday evening to just ten knots or so. By nightfall, Franck Cammas and his crew are likely to have a lead of just a few dozen miles, but the haemorrhage should stop. So what of the future? It's hard to anticipate how things will pan out because the tradewinds will kick in once again at the end of the weekend and they should be a bit steadier between Africa and Cape Verde than to the West of the archipelago. The problem for Groupama 4 is staying in phase with the wind shifts (northerlies in Senegal, north-easterlies in Cape Verde) through a series of gybes, so as to get across to the south-west as quickly as possible.
This weekend the navigators are seeking to accurately determine the most favourable longitude to traverse the Doldrums, in the knowledge that after this zone of calms and squalls situated between 8° N and 4°N, the south-easterly tradewinds will sweep the zone as far as Fernando de Noronha at 4°S and 32°30 W... Intriguingly, the trio out to the West are already making headway at 30° West, whilst Groupama 4 is positioned at 20° West!
Furthermore, you mustn't traverse the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone inside 27°W due to the mass of calm zones, which makes Franck Cammas' current position rather tricky. Indeed it's not easy to gain ground to the West in weak downwind breezes, especially when there's a volcanic archipelago lounging across your path for 200 miles, with high summits creating considerable wind disturbance... As the breeze oscillates from the North to the East with the regularity of a metronome, the fine tuning of any options will be paramount.
Groupama Sailing Team website