Neal McDonald onboard Green Dragon on leg 1 of the Volvo Ocean Race. Guo Chuan/Green Dragon Racing
The western side of the race course has been bandit country for days now, every boat that has ventured west on starboard gybe has had their pockets picked and returned to the fold fleeced. Just like Shackleton, the fleet were hooked on the south.
And then today, it turned on them. A tiny bubble - a blip in the atmosphere, a wobble in the pressure lines with no wind at its centre - showed up on the NOAA weather charts.
And at about midnight, pounding south on port gybe once more, Kenny Read and his team on PUMA ran smack into the middle of it – about a hundred miles east of where NOAA thought it should be. The brakes came on, the speed came off – just five knots of wind at one point - and their lead started to crumble.
PUMA were hit hardest (the disadvantage of leading when sailing into less breeze), but they weren’t the only ones suffering. If you check out the Data Graphs for True Wind Speed (TWS) you’ll see it drop for everyone except the Telefonica boats, who were well to the north.
But by the 10:00 ZULU Position Report, PUMA appeared to have clawed her way past the worst of it, and was holding onto pole position and back in the breeze, once again headed west. Behind her, the picture was mixed. Both the Ericsson boats were almost due north, Ericsson 3 the closer of the two, shadowing PUMA on starboard gybe, and neither had any real leverage (leverage is explained in Wednesday’s TEN ZULU) on the leader.
The next pack, Green Dragon, Team Russia and Delta Lloyd were all about 100 miles further north, but Green Dragon had got about 50 miles of leverage to the west, while the other pair had invested equally heavily in the east. Behind them were the Telefonica boats, again almost due north of the leader. Everyone had some sort of north-easterly, but the wind speed varied from almost 10 to 20 knots – it’s getting really tricky out there.
Last chance saloon
A beautiful morning with perfect breeze, 12-16 knots. Five boats are battling with less than a mile distance between each other. Gustav Morin/Ericsson Racing Team
It was so much more straightforward when we left them yesterday morning. The fleet were finally venturing west, everyone on starboard gybe in the north-easterly, wind speed in the low 20s, their boat speed only a couple of knots lower – but they were sipping at the champagne sailing in the last chance saloon (hey, it’s a weekend, I can mangle as many metaphors and clichés as I like, it’s a ghost town, you can hear the tumbleweed blowing around cyberspace).
First to stumble outside into the cold light of day was Ericsson 4, with the evacuation of Tony Mutter. There’s no more news on his condition yet, but we’ll let you know when we hear anything.
That detour didn’t lose the team much either (which seems heartless, but I suspect that Mutter will be just as worried about that as his knee). At the 16:00 Position Report Ericsson 4 were 50 miles behind PUMA, both on starboard gybe, headed south past the Cape Verde Islands. Just after 22:00, heading west away from the islands and the evacuation rendezvous, Ericsson crossed PUMA’s track south five hours behind. In those conditions, with boatspeeds still in the mid- to high-teens, that was about 80 miles – so, 30 miles lost.
Ericsson 4 now face the rest of the leg a man down – in soccer, having a man sent off usually inspires the rest to play a blinder). But they only have to cope for whatever remains of the 90 minutes – these guys have another two weeks of sail changes, grinding, stacking … and they’re just about to hit the worst of it.
The fleet all gybed to head down the western side of the Cape Verde Islands through early afternoon, we saw that PUMA and Ericsson 4 had turned on the Race Viewer, when the 13:00 Position Report was published.
At this point the Distance to Leader (DTL) still wasn’t telling us much. The course to Fernando de Noronha is about 200 degrees, and their heading on starboard gybe was going almost straight down that bearing (called the rhumb line). But anyone on starboard was headed at almost right angles to the course, and taking a corresponding tumble down the leaderboard.
However, the hours spent on starboard, painfully watching the DTL grow, were the hours you needed to spend to get to the correct longitude, the line that the navigator’s felt was safest to go south. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and all that – except for a Volvo Ocean Race crew going the wrong way courtesy of their navigator. A fact that Green Dragon’s man-in-the-hot-seat, Ian Moore, was pondering in an email last night.
'Looming large in the rear window'
Evening. Champagne sailing all day and it all sums up with a nice wind increase up to 22 knots. Gustav Morin/Ericsson Racing Team
'We have been watching the progress of the Russians and Delta Lloyd and trying not to get reactive when we see them looming large in the rear window. In fact the three-hourly scheds have started to show them as ahead of us now and it’s very easy to say we should try and cover them but we are also trying to look at the bigger picture. We have had to pay quite a high price to be the west-most boat and I guess we will know in the next 24 hours if our strategy pays off. If not the boys will be dark.'
The pressure is on the strategists now, as the difficulty knob gets turned up to 11 (and I’m not going to link that to Spinal Tap because it’s just too obvious …). Simon Fisher, navigator aboard Telefonica Blue, was feeling it yesterday afternoon as well.
'Sadly I haven't done so well preventing the miles from slipping away from us on the track. I continue to berate myself for opportunities missed seeing Delta Lloyd flying up the rankings and out of our grasp. I keep telling myself there are plenty of miles to go but it is hard to fight the feeling of guilt inside when I look at the scheds. I am afraid I have to go through a few more bad ones until things may improve …'
At least they have that broken spinnaker back up, as skipper Bouwe Bekking reported early this morning. And Bouwe made another very good point in that same email - 'We should take full advantage from being in the back of the fleet, as the boats ahead will give a good indication of how much breeze they are sailing in.' I’m sure Ken Read would concur, after what must have been a stressful night on the PUMA.
Place your bets, gentlemen
But now it’s time to place your bets, gentlemen, as everyone walks through the doors of the Casino Doldrums – put the house on the west or the east? Go down the middle? There’s going to be plenty of action, particularly with Green Dragon over 120 miles from the Russians and Delta Lloyd. Will the Dragon breath fire? Let’s put it this way, I’d rather be aboard with them, than Team Russia or Delta Lloyd.
Race forecaster, Jennifer Lilly’s weather forecast describes the situation. OK, technical content warning, this bit is trickier …
Jennifer thinks that a course to the west of the great circle (shortest) route is favoured, at least by the British and European Meteorological offices – going down a line about 30W. While the U.S. NOAA forecast prefers a more direct approach (very American) – turning to go south at 28W (PUMA, for example, is currently at 26.5W) sailing about a hundred fewer miles, but at the risk of more light winds and squalls. Both of these are much closer to the time-honoured, tried and tested line south than 22W that was looking good a few days ago – computers and weather, is there a more capricious combination?
It’s the NOAA computer model that we’ve used to drive our Deckman for Windows weather routing, and you can see how to the west of the red line of the optimum route, the spider’s web (that’s the technical phrase) shows nice straight simple lines (the vertical black ones) running south – but to the east it’s a mess. And the final black horizontal line or isochrone (the line that tells you all the places the boat could sail to in five days) is a straight east-west line, if you look to the west of where it meets the optimum route. But to the east, the isochrone takes a huge turn to the north.
What that’s telling us is that the optimum route shown here is v