Light leg ahead
The pressure may be off for the two leading French boats as the final leg of the Vuelta a España a Vela started in a light, thermal sea-breeze in the Bay of Palma this afternoon, but the fight for third place overall is wide open.
A slow passage is expected, certainly the longest period of sustained light winds sailing of the race so far, in the full heat of the fierce Mediterranean sunshine to close a final 225 miles chapter of the race around the Spanish coast, which started in Hondarribia on Saturday 12 June.
Because of the benign breezes forecast, the course has been shortened to reduce the distance sailed, now turning at the La Llosa mark off Palamos, rather than going all the way east to the Port de la Selva and Cape Creus marks. That reduces the total distance of the final leg to 225 miles.
Marc Guillemot and his Safran crew were looking forward to a low stress finale, requiring only to finish Leg 6 to be sure of winning the Vuelta España a Vela outright. But the French skipper and his Safran team pledged to change nothing, but to carry on doing exactly what has served them so well to date.
As crewman Sebastien Audigane said prior to the start: “We are going relaxed and casual. It does not happen very often that you only have to finish the leg to win the race overall. So we will try to enjoy it. For sure there is no pressure on our shoulders, which is good when you consider the conditions we are likely to get.
“In saying that we are not going to change the way we sail. It’s been successful up until now. In fact on board, our main job is to make the boat go fast and to provide Charles [Caudrelier] with as much information as we think he might need, so he can refine the strategy as we go along. But it is clear that we don’t express our ideas on absolutely everything, we concentrate on sailing the boat fast, we trust Charles implicitly and until now we have no reason at all to complain.”
Off the start line in a very light sea breeze, Safran chose not to mix it with the cluster of boats at the weather end of the start line Instead they slid away in clear air with their Code Zero filling neatly and by the first turning mark they were giving chase to the highly motivated W Hotels Nova Bocana team, who crossed the line making a well timed start.
Three Spanish boats are fighting over third. Only half a point separates Estrella Damm which holds third from their Barcelona-based compatriots on W Hotels Nova Bocana, while five points behind in fifth is Iker Martinez and Xabi Fernandez's Movistar.
Casting their rivalries aside, in a measure of sportsmanship, Estrella Damm have leant a valuable Code Zero headsail – essential horsepower in the light upwind conditions - to the W Hotels Nova Bocana crew. Toño Piris and Pachi Rivero’s sail finally gave up the ghost during the previous leg. The duo have shown confidence in their light winds speed before with their boat and lead out of Palma and had built a decent lead along the south of the island which is home to Rivero.
Dee Caffari, Anna Corbella and the crew of GAES Centros Auditivos had a part flown in overnight from the UK to repair their primary winch which exploded early in the last leg from Calpe to Palma.
As Caffari explained: “ We needed a new part for our winch and had to get it flown in from the UK. The frustrating thing about it was we were doing very well at the time. Luckily the guys caught all of the bits, which is an advantage sailing with five! There are worse places it could have happened.
As to the leg ahead she said: “The sea breeze will get us out of here and then we will just park. We do not actually need that much breeze to get going, but it is the variable directions, and so in order to keep moving so you might not necessarily be pointing the right way. As long as you are pointing north of east or west, I guess you just take what you get. It is going to be hard work and hot. We have got better each leg and the crew work has got better, even if the results don’t show it. But it’s a long way to Barcelona in light winds. The thing for Anna especially is that this has given her so much confidence against the other boats. We are in the ball park and we can be sailing equally against the other boats. It is crew work and the mistakes we have made that have cost us, not actually the boat speed.”
At the picturesque Dragonera island, off the south west corner of the Majorca it was decision time: west or east? Certainly there the beneficial thermal sea-breeze disappeared as the fleet moved offshore into a very light very fickle NW’ly gradient breeze. Some crew gave their views.
Maxime Paul on PRB said: “It’s a very tactical stage with some downwind sailing. I’m still trying to get my bearings as this is the first time I’ve sailed on an IMOCA Open 60, so mostly I am working to make myself useful. I am really impressed with the level of preparation work which goes into this boat. It is a real reflection on the experience and successes of Vincent and the team. The atmosphere on board is great, both very professional and very relaxed and friendly.”
While Simon Fisher navigator on Estrella Damm added: “The bit from Dragonera to Palamos is going to be tough because there is not a lot of gradient. The start of the race will obviously be sea breeze which will get us out of the bay, and then that will get us up to Cala Figuera and then west around the island it will get lighter, and then weak sea breeze. Leaving Dragonera will be the tricky bit, going from sea breeze to very little gradient, going from maybe S’ly, maybe going downwind.
"I think there is a chance it could be vey light up there. That could be the point where we see people spread out and do their own things. For a period I think we’ll be downwind.
"When it is this light, dominated by high pressure, the weather models really don’t do a very good job of predicting what the weather will do. Longer term it will go more westerly in direction, east of the rhumb line, so we have to try and wriggle down there.
We just have to feel it out. After Palamos we should arrive in the day so sea breeze there from the SE and then more SW’ly as you go down the coast.
"Last leg we try and discuss the options. The more we all understand what’s going on the more we can all be heads up looking to see what’s going on.”
Ominously, perhaps, Safran had already risen to the top of the Leg 6 standings, but the 140 miles stage across to Palamos is expected to be the most testing, especially through the hours of darkness.
“Success will depend on negotiating the weak winds expected offshore of Palma to the transition of a somewhat more reliable S/SW winds along the coast off Barcelona,” warned the official race forecast this morning.
Then the final 60 miles should enjoy a heading sea breeze down to the final finish of the race.
Overall Standings Vuelta a España a Vela
Place, Boat, Skippers, Nationality, Total points (Leg 1+ Leg 2 + Cape Finsterre + Leg 3 + Gibraltar + Leg 4+Leg 5)
1st Safran, Marc Guillemot, FRA, 8 (1+2+0,5+1+0,5+2+1)
2nd PRB, Vincent Riou, FRA, 15,5 (2+1+1+2+1,5+6+2)
3rd Estrella Damm, P.Ribes/ A.Pella, ESP, 26 (5+5+2+4+1+4+5)
4th W Hotels-Nova Bocana, P.Rivero/ A.Piris, ESP, 26.5 (4+4+1,5+3+3+8+3)
5th Movistar, I.Martínez/ X.Fernández, ESP, 31 (3+3+2,5+6+2,5+10+4)
6th GAES Centros Auditivos, D.Caffari/ A.Corbella, GBR/ESP, 40 (6+6+3+5+2+12+6)
7th Central Lechera Asturiana, J.Merediz/ F.Palacio, ESP, 49 (7+7+3,5+7+3,5+14+7)
8th Pakea Bizkaia, J.Mumbrú/ C.Sanmarti, ESP, 56 (8+8+4+8+4+16+8)
More images from Jesus Renado/www.sailingstock.com