PUMA Ocean Racing in rough seas heading towards Cape Town, on leg 1 of the Volvo Ocean Race
Torben Grael and the crew of Ericsson 4 swept into the history books yesterday as the first monohull to breach the 600-mile barrier in 24 hours. They’ve been chased by men, machines and the elements in the last 48 hours – and nothing has touched them.
In their foaming, boiling, 25-knot wake the fleet lies scattered as the devil and the deep blue sea picked off the hindmost one by one – the cold front sweeping over them with a mix of murderous squalls and ugly waves in a pitch black night. We’re almost down to the last man standing.
At 10:00 ZULU Ken Read and his team were just over 70 miles behind Ericsson 4. That gap has been opened in the last 48 hours and it represents a bit more than five percent of the distance they have travelled in that time.
That’s a chunk of change for two boats that had been side by side for most of the leg – consider that not much more than two days ago, Ericsson 4 navigator, Jules Salter reflected in an email, 'We seem to hang in there with PUMA but only just, are we faster? Our perception on board is not …'
Behind the front pair, Ian Walker and the Green Dragon had led the chase for 36 relentless hours – then the cold front caught them late yesterday afternoon. The wind backed (rotated anticlockwise to the west) and they elected to gybe to the south. It was the same strategy applied by Team Russia and Delta Lloyd just before the TEN ZULU yesterday.
’Stepping off the train’
Navigator Andrew Cape and skipper Ken Read discuss tactics as they head towards Cape Town, on leg 1 of the Volvo Ocean Race
Ian Walker had expressed his concern in an afternoon email, 'We are starting to see the effect of 'stepping off the train' on Delta Lloyd and Team Russia and we want to delay that as long as we can.’ The deficit of the back markers to Ericsson 4 had blown out to 300 and then 400 miles through yesterday, once they gybed – check out the graph. Green Dragon was the next boat to peel onto starboard, and they were furthest east at the time – Telefonica Black and Blue both waited another hour or two, until they were deeper into the front itself – as Bouwe Bekking relates
All five boats are now headed south-east, in a squally, west-southwesterly breeze. The Dragon’s deficit to the leader is now over 200 miles. Ian Walker and his team have not had a smooth night. And from their track it looks as though every time they have gybed the wind has ‘lifted’ them, forcing them to gybe back (technical content note: a lift is a shift in the wind which, when you are sailing downwind, takes you away from where you want to go – a bad thing).
And in these conditions a gybe is a 30-minute operation involving the man-handling of a couple of tonnes of equipment, as everything is moved from one side to the other.
But it’s so hard at night – if the world’s top sailing tacticians (at least the ones I’ve sailed with) have one thing in common, it’s fantastic eyesight – they can read the breeze on the water, tell whether another boat is faster or slower, ahead or behind, and all from ridiculous distances.
But when it gets dark a lot of that information disappears – no more patterns of waves on the water, no more clouds, no more sky – take the world and paint it black.
’Pitch black, absolutely no visibility’
Ericsson 3’s watch captain Richard Mason reported in an email that they 'were in a squall for four hours and it was pitch black, absolutely no visibility at all. I couldn't see the waves and no horizon and we had everything from 19 to 46 knots of wind …'
They had the fractional spinnaker up at the time, and Mason reflected … 'we were caught with our pants down. There was never a chance to get the damn thing off! It was pretty much survive or die! And, we survived.' I was wondering yesterday who might be trying to hold the fractional spinnaker in the marginal conditions – now we know.
And Ericsson 3 have stormed up the charts over the last 48 hours, overtaking both the Telefoncia boats and Green Dragon. Behind PUMA, they’ve done the best job of hanging onto their sistership. And they’ve done it despite an ongoing flirtation with the cold front – they were already in the group going north of east yesterday morning.
And again, they were north-west of Green Dragon when she gybed to the south yesterday. And yet somehow, (to Ian Walker’s confusion in the above email) as Aksel Magdahl relates in an email this morning, they have managed to keep the boat pointed east at the finish (and the word on the street is that the keel will be changed in Cape Town). But although they are closer to the finish, they’ve ended up further north than the chasing group, and that could be important in the home straight.
But before we get to the future, a quick look at the damage control report to date. Ger O’Rourke reported that the top spreader they damaged in the Doldrums is preventing them from flying anything bigger than a fractional sail – although I can’t see that that’s much of a problem right now, it will be soon.
But it’s Telefonica Black that have had the most torrid time, starting with some broken sails that Michael Pammenter talked about to Amanda Blackley yesterday. Then last night, they lost the rudder, wiped out into a broach, broke the bowsprit, ended up head to wind and then had to cut the spinnaker away. Ugly. But they’ve sorted out the mess and are in good shape, with the emergency rudder on and headed for Cape Town.
Ericsson 4 are not entirely unscathed
Rick Deppe/PUMA Ocean Racing: Jerry Kirby eating onboard PUMA Ocean Racing, heading towards Cape Town, on leg 1 of the Volvo Ocean Race
So … back to the future… Race Forecaster, Jennifer Lilly, has described the situation in her most recent forecast. Conditions will finally ease in the next 24 hours as the low begins to move more to the south than east.
The fleet will all start to see a westerly breeze flowing between the low to their south, and the South Atlantic High to their north.
Jennifer reckons we will see the breeze down around 10 knots for Ericsson 4 as they approach Cape Town. And according to the Predicted Routes in the Race Viewer it’s going to get well tricky for the rest of them. The optimum route now goes via the deep south for everyone except Grael and his boys – who should sneak in ahead of the high pressure ridge building between the fleet and the finish.
If PUMA and Ericsson 3 hang in the north too long, it could open a passing lane to the south. The +3 Day Predicted Distance to Leader has PUMA and Green Dragon dead even – and that’s assuming that PUMA bails out of the north imminently – hey, it’s only a forecast, but we can assume that Ken Read will be looking at something similar and getting nervous.
And finally, a short technical content footnote: Ericsson 4 have not gone entirely unscathed, they have a problem with their instruments, hence the ‘No Data’ in the Data Tables – and having spent far too much of my working life wrestling with electronics and salt water, I can assure you that this is not unusual.
The reason that Ericsson 4's 24-hour record doesn’t show up in the Data Table or Graphs is because it’s only measured every three hours, at the time of the position reports. To check for a record, the boat’s mileage is checked much more regularly.
Volvo Ocean Race Positions - Leg One Thursday, Day 20: 1300 GMT
(boat name/country/skipper/nationality/distance to leader)
1 Ericsson 4 SWE (Torben Grael/BRA) DTF 1122
2 PUMA Racing Team USA (Ken Read/USA) +76
3 Ericsson 3 SWE (Anders Lewander/SWE) +163
4 Green Dragon IRL/CHN (Ian Walker/GBR) +266
5 Telefónica Blue ESP (Bouwe Bekking/NED) +345
6 Telefónica Black ESP (Fernando Echávarri/ESP) +430
7 Team Russia RUS (Andreas Hanakamp/AUT) +454
8 Delta Lloyd IRL (Ger O'Rourke/IRL) +458
The TEN ZULU REPORT (so called because it follows the 10:00 GMT fleet position report, and Zulu is the meteorologist's name for GMT)