Volvo Ocean Race: Tightly grouped fleet in a drag race to the Azores

Skipper Chris Nicholson takes a compass bearing of the other boats, onboard Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand during leg 8 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Lisbon, Portugal to Lorient, France.
Hamish Hooper/Camper ETNZ/Volvo Ocean Race©

Telefónica's bid for redemption and the return of their overall lead was well underway on Monday with the Spanish team leading the Leg 8 race to Lorient, France, though the sight of current race frontrunners Groupama on their shoulder are a sobering thought.

At 1300 UTC Iker Martínez and his crew, who won the first three offshore legs but have since slipped, held a narrow 1.1 nautical mile lead over Groupama following the first 24 hours' racing towards the turning mark of São Miguel island in the Azores. Having rounded the island, the fleet will sail directly to Lorient on a course that is more of a passage race than a trans-oceanic leg of a round the world race.

The fleet is sailing at near wind speed, with boatspeeds of around 20kts being recorded, making for a fast trip.

They are expected to slow as the hit the Azores High - currently parked over the islands. They will take 24 hours to traverse the zone, sailing in winds expected to be less than 10kts.

The first boat is expected to round the Azores on Wednesday June 13, 2012 in the early afternoon, UTC based on current wind data. They should finish late on Friday night June 15, 2012.

The fleet has made good progress to the Azores as at 1900hrs UTC on June 11, 2012. Leg 8 of the Volvo Ocean Race
One of the two weather feeds used by Predictwind, to forecast optimum course and windstrength shows the fleet getting a belting from strong winds from a major depression over the final 36 hours, with average wind strength being over 30kts, which generally means gusting 40kts plus. The other feed shows more moderate winds.

On current standings, Puma Ocean Racing were in third place followed by Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand, while Team Sanya rounded out the fleet on a more southerly course more than 26 nm behind.

Groupama lead Telefónica by eight points with two offshore legs and two in-port races to go in what is turning out to be the closest ever Volvo Ocean Race. Puma are in third, 13 points off the lead, with Camper a further 10 points back. With 30 points going to the winner of each of the remaining offshore legs, there is still plenty of scope for lead changes.

The only real opportunity for the places to swap on a tactical basis would seem to be in a spot of light airs through which the boats will have to pass, just short os Sao Miguel, in the Azores.

Telefónica trimmer and Olympic gold medallist Xabi Fernández said the team were revelling in their return to a position at the front of the pack after a difficult run, but were under no illusion about the battle to come to remain there.

'We are still second overall and everything is still in our hands,' said Fernández. 'The only thing we can think about is to keep pushing, try to do a very nice leg and get back in the lead as soon as possible.'

A couple of course options are available nearing the Azores in a patch of light winds at 1900hrs UTC on June 11, 2012. Leg 8 of the Volvo Ocean Race
He said the team had more to worry about than just Groupama, with third overall Puma currently in third place and within sight on the race course.

Adding to the pressure is the knowledge that the fleet will compress as it nears São Miguel, which is situated in a notoriously windless area in the middle of the Azores High.

'You are always nervous when you go into a zone with no wind,' Fernández said. 'We will have a very hard 24 hours maybe tomorrow or the next day. It's clear that the first one going out of the light air is going to be the winner, or have a lot of chances, so we have to fight hard in the light air conditions.'

Groupama are not only looking to defend their hard fought overall lead, they are also vying for an opportunity to race into their homeport of Lorient in first place.

Groupama Media Crew Member Yann Riou today reported that his team were focused on capitalising on the fast reaching conditions for which his team are famous for being quickest of the fleet.

'Of course it's a bit of a special leg on different levels,' Riou said. 'Its format is a bit different in terms of length, there is a lot at stake and we don't forget that this is bringing us home.'

Belting along at speeds of near 20kts, overall race leader is on second placed Telefonica’s shoulder at 1900hrs UTC on June 11, 2012. Leg 8 of the Volvo Ocean Race

The game will change on Tuesday once the teams round São Miguel and switch from reaching to running conditions in a powerful low-pressure system that promises gale force winds in excess of 40 knots.

Abu Dhabi navigator Jules Salter said turning the corner could be likened to a second start and the race would again become wide open.

'It is going to be pretty exciting to see how we play that low and close we go to the centre of it,' he said. 'That will probably decide who wins this leg.'

The latest ETA for the fleet's arrival in Lorient, France is on Friday.

Neal McDonald and crew looking out on the rail, onboard Team Telefonica during leg 8 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Lisbon, Portugal to Lorient, France. (Credit: Diego Fructuoso/Team Telefonica/Volvo Ocean Race)
In a later interview with Volvo Ocean Race Media, Camper skipper Chris Nicholson said he would 'sooner smack his thumb with a hammer' than continue leeching miles to his competitors, but with the fleet soon to head into fast running conditions he is preparing to mount a comeback.

Nicholson said the team have been working hard on the reach to the turning mark at São Miguel island, as they try to hang on to the top three teams who all have Juan Kouyoumdjian designed boats that revel in the conditions.

Nicholson said if his team could remain within 20 miles of the leaders once the fleet reach the islands then they would be in with a shot of reeling the frontrunners in on what is expected to be some fast and furious running.

'I reckon if we can get to the Azores, to the parking-lot as such, within 20 miles of them, that’d be OK,' he said. 'Several days ago I thought it could be worse.'

For now, Nicholson and navigator Will Oxley are focusing on how they can capitalise on the opportunities that are to be had at São Miguel, which is enveloped inside the centre of the Azores High, where there is little to no wind.

'There’s big gains and losses to be made getting around the island,’’ Nicholson said. 'Then it’s a pretty fast trip if you keep it all in one piece.'

The fast trip Nicholson is referring to is the second stage of the race, from São Miguel to Lorient, France, which will be powered by a massive low-pressure system that is packing gale force wind.

Nicholson said 'it would be like open season for any of the boats' once they’re on the home run, only it was a question of just how hard each of the teams were prepared to push.



Nicholson is hopeful his team will be contenders in the conditions, which he reckons they’re pretty strong in.

'We think we’re pretty good in those conditions, but to take these boats into 30 or 40 knots down wind anything can happen there,’’ he said.

'You like to say everything will be normal, and we’re just going to plod along. But it won’t be it will be the full gloves off.'

Team Telefónica and Groupama sailing team continue to fight for the top spot, with the Spanish team narrowly holding an edge.

Puma aren't far behind, and hoping to make gains on the second stage of the race to help bolster their overall score. Abu Dhabi, on a more northern course than Camper, are narrowly in fourth. Team Sanya remain on a more southern course in sixth.
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