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Escoffier: "It could be a tight finish with all the boats together under Table Mountain"

by Ed Gorman / IMOCA Globe Series 7 Feb 04:24 PST
Table Mountain © Ainhoa Sanchez / Volvo Ocean Race

It's been a long, exhausting but also thrilling second leg of The Ocean Race and the pattern is not going to change in the final stages, with the five IMOCA crews bracing themselves for one last push to Cape Town.

But the routing is far from straightforward, with the boats having to sail a long way south into the Southern Ocean to get round the St Helena high before climbing northeast to the finish, where an area of light winds is likely to block their route to Table Bay.

Kevin Escoffier the ebullient skipper of Holcim-PRB, currently trailing new leader Team Malizia by just four miles in second place with under 1,800 nautical miles to go, told the Class in an interview from on board that the fleet could easily compress before the finish.

"The last part of this leg won't be easy," said Escoffier as his boat surfed before northwesterly winds at a position roughly equidistant between Buenos Aires and Cape Town. "We had a cold front during all last night and we are going for another one tonight. That front - the low pressure - will bring us up to the southern limit of the course at the ice limit, so we can't go further south than that."

"Then, when we are along the ice limit, we will wait for a third low pressure that will bring us northeast to Cape Town," he added. "But,"he went on, "but, but, is not finished because, before arriving in Cape Town, there will be a very light spot. It means that the day before we finish we could have all the fleet coming back together in order to have a great finish for you, but not for us! Because we don't like that. But, for sure, it could be a tight finish in Cape Town, with all the boats together under Table Mountain."

Christian Dumard, weather consultant to the race, says the ridge before the finish could give the crew on Guyot Environnement-Team Europe a chance to catch up again. The team skippered on this leg by the German sailor Robert Stanjek, are currently 245 miles off the lead in fifth position to the north and west of the other four boats, among them 11th Hour Racing Team Mãlama and Biotherm. "The wind will come back from the west first, so it will be good for Guyot - they should be able to come pretty close to the first boats," summarised Dumard.

Despite what Escoffier is saying, Dumard is not sure that it will be necessary to drop down as far south as the northern limit of the ice exclusion zone at 45S. "It is difficult to know what they will do because there are many different routings that all arrive in Cape Town more or less at the same time," he explained. "Some of them go very close to the ice limit. It could be that one or two boats - thinking they are slower or something like that - could take a risk of going close to the limit. But it is difficult to know what they will do. I would not do it if I was on the boat, but maybe one boat will try it."

February 12th - 12PM UTC

Dumard says, in the meantime, the crews will continue to sail south and east on a northwesterly and westerly airflow, but wind conditions will gradually ease.

"The wind will decrease. They are not going to go to Cape Town at the current speed (15-20 knots) - they will slow down probably in two days from now. The front is going to become less and less active as it gets closer to South Africa, with less and less wind. So it will move east over the fleet and then they will have to wait for the next one to get to the finish, probably on the 12th."

This fascinating leg that is seeing the latest generation IMOCAs pushed to new limits in foiling mode by crews working round the clock, has seen two big developments in the past five days. First the loss of position for Guyot after her spectacular gains on the eastern flank of the fleet after the Doldrums, that put her in the lead on the tracker, and genuinely so for some time. The former Hugo Boss, whose crew includes Sébastien Simon as navigator and tactician, got trapped in patchy winds and paid a heavy price, made worse by the loss of their spinnaker.

But Dumard says it would be wrong to criticise them. "They stayed in the east. They could have probably accepted to lose some of their lead and go further west and they decided to stay in the east," he said. "It is easy to say now, but if you go back four or five days, it wasn't so clear that there would be much more wind in the west, so it is always easy to say afterwards."

The other big development has been the big step forward by Team Malizia skippered by Will Harris. The German boat had been lagging far behind for the entire leg from Cape Verde, after losing out in light and medium conditions in the early stages, when Harris said they were struggling to find the right set-up to be competitive. For several days Harris and fellow crew Yann Eliès, Rosalin Kuiper and navigator Nico Lunven, were stuck on the western edge of the fleet before finally it came good for them as the boat showed her paces in fresher conditions. Now that she is in the same part of the ocean as her main rivals, she has not struggled to match them for pace.

Back on Holcim-PRB, Escoffier says he has been enjoying every moment of this brand new race on the IMOCA calendar, (even if he knows it well from his days on board Dongfeng Race Team).

"I think it is very important to enjoy what we do," he said. "We love ocean racing and we've got a nice fleet, we've got a nice crew and so there is no reason not to enjoy it. I definitely enjoy fully-crewed racing - it is less stressful than single-handed. It's also definitely a great crew on the performance side, but also on the human side. So yes, I am very happy about where we are and very happy about how we came here and I hope it will continue like that."

The Holcim-PRB skipper says he and his fellow sailors on board - Sam Goodchild, Tom Laperche, Susann Beucke and OBR Georgia Schofield - are ready for their first taste of the Southern Ocean.

"We don't have the heaviest wet weather gear, but we've got the sleeping bags, we've got gloves, we've got hats, so it should be OK and we have plenty to eat, even though the leg is longer than expected," he said.

"So everything is OK on board," he continued. "It will be a bit colder than expected, but I think it will definitely be a great practice before leg three and the huge southern leg of the race."

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