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Volvo OR: Lead change as the eastern group breaks out

by Richard Gladwell, 10 Jan 15:12 PST 11 January 2018
Leg 4, Melbourne to Hong Kong, day 09, sunset brings cloud activity with wind, and going into the night the fleet is spread out east to west waiting for a lucky puff, above Vestas 11th Hour. © Amory Ross / Volvo Ocean Race

The Volvo Ocean Race fleet is now split into two groups - with four boats in the easterly group and three - who made late but fortuitous moves in the Leg out to the west.

Currently, the race fleet is still in the southern hemisphere, well to the north of the Solomon Islands and to the south-west of Nauru Island.

After leapfrogging their way to the head of the leaderboard yesterday, the westerly group including the former leg leader Turn the Tide on Plastic initially dropped back to take the bottom three slots on the leaderboard.

At the previous sked at 1900UTC on January 10, the form boats - Team AkzoNobel, overall leader MAPFRE, Vestas 11th Hour racing and Dongfeng were making the front-running.

However, at the latest sked four hours later at 2300UTC, the leaderboard had changed again with Vestas 11th Hour Racing leading by a small margin of less than 1nm from previous sked leader Team AkzoNobel. Former leg leader Turn the Tide on Plastic had moved from fifth to third on the standings - which are calculated on a distance to sail to the finish basis, rather than Sail-World's preference using's routing to estimate a finish time for each competitor.

Both groups are still sailing to the north, running in a southerly breeze to escape the Doldrums which are now into their fourth day, and get into the Trade winds which should take them all the way to the finish in Hong Kong - still eight and a half days away.

That last comment is one of the most telling as the time to finish, according to the routing function of Predictwind, has not decreased in 12 hours maybe more.

The simple explanation is that both groups are trying to get north as quickly as they can, trading off distance to the finish against the prospect of an earlier rendezvous with the Trades.

According to the official sked from 1900 UTC, there was a split of over 20 miles between the former leg leader Turn the Tide on Plastic (Dee Caffari) and the new leader Team AkzoNobel (Simeon Tienpont). In fact the fourth boat in the easterly group, Dongfeng Race Team - who led Leg 4 soon after the start in Melbourne, eight days ago only to lose an 11nm lead in just an hour when they hit the Doldrums - a windless expanse either side of the Equator.

Both groups, according to that sked are making double-digit speeds - not anticipated by the Predictwind routing model. However, that is normal for this region as the competitors chase breeze under the thunderheads and rain clouds which move through the area - giving wind squalls followed by periods of near calm.

In the 2300UTC Position Sked, the boats had slowed sailing at an average of 8kts or less for the past four hours - more in line with the Predictwind prognosis. The big mover was Turn the Tide on Plastic which is credited with making a gain of just under 19nm in the four hour period. Simple maths says that she would have had to sail at an average of almost 5kts faster than the three leading boats to achieve this gain - something which is not shown in the average boat speeds.

The explanation is that she has sailed a more westerly course, 20-30degrees better angle for the finish, and this is distorting the leaderboard rankings. The fleet is gybing downwind in a southerly, and boats which spend more time on a port gybe that others will show a gain in terms of distance to sail to the finish.

But the race is not yet over, with Predictwind showing the leaders of both groups finishing at approximately the same time. The out-take from that is that the Turn the Tide on Plastic led group probably still have some favourable cards to come from the Wind Gods.

Skipper Dee Caffari explains the gain made in the last two days by Turn the Tide on Plastic to lead the leg for a two day period.

"All it takes is just one cloud - and what a cloud it was.

"The radar showed a pretty intense cell of activity, we knew it would contain some good rain, and we had been surrounded by lightning for most of the night, but when this cell came overhead, it was insane.

"Huge strikes of lightning and a massive clap of thunder literally overhead in torrential rain. The wind was going all over the place with all sorts of speeds, and at the moment of the big hit, the whole boat tripped. Everything turned off and had to be re-started. At that moment when everything is in chaos, losing the boat systems was not what was needed. It certainly woke any sleepy people from their slumber!

"Sadly as a result of this crazy cloud action, we went from heroes to zeroes in the rankings. So we have some work to do. They are still in sight, but sadly we are not controlling them anymore.

"We need to fight our way back, and there is the opportunity to do that as we will have more of this activity and then there is also the doldrum active cells currently sat at the equator before we get any steady trustworthy wind. It is a long race and a lot of sailing still to be done.

Earlier the On Board Reporter on Turn the Tide on Plastic, Brian Carlin described conditions on board:

"It's been a day or so since I wrote - but in truth, it's been so hot below decks I've struggled to spend any time down here at all.

"Well you guessed it, it's the same as yesterday, no sharks but instead we had another waterspout, which I properly captured today and rain! Yes! Rain, glorious rain... we got a freshwater shower! Amazing really...

"I like the peace and quiet here but it's time to leave - like farm animals, we have all bunched together ready to leave in a hurry... we just hope we get the jump on the fleet and pick up the first signs of a stable easterly... fingers crossed...

"We had a false alarm today when we made some progress north, but a westerly isn't going to help us - we need an easterly to get out of here proper...

"We live in hope and push on - hopefully, we are on our way to HK soon! A cold beer is in order...."

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