Return of the Phantom Menace
As 2007-8 Barcelona World Race winner Jean-Pierre Dick said today ‘we are in mode ‘wait and see!’
Current predictions have the fleet leaders reaching Gough Island and just after it the first of the course’s seven safety gates, next Monday evening.
The heaviest burden of questions is imposed on the current race leader, Estrella Damm. Their relatively direct routing towards the waypoint, essentially down the direct southeasterly diagonal, has them fighting though the most disturbances as they open the course through the systems of the Saint Helena high pressure zone.
In fact today their track is affected not by a simple single anticyclone to climb round or through, but no fewer than two high pressure systems and two low pressure systems, all exerting various influences on them.
The net result will be at least 36-48 hours of unsettled, changeable conditions to the point that they would be forgiven for stopping looking at strategy and weather for a couple of days simply adopt the approach of heading down the course and adjusting for each new change as it comes to them.
Alex Pella, Barcelona based co-skipper of Estrella Damm was still upbeat today when he spoke on the morning’s Audio-VisioConference.
“We have had a really mixed time, with showers, squalls, showers with and without wind, a little bit of everything. We have chosen the option to the SE which we felt was the best with the information that we had, which we think is the best choice. To be first is good and something to look back on, but thousands of things can happen, and so today we just enjoy being leaders.
"We have repaired the winch quickly because we had carefully packed the spare part which we had to change. It is interesting for Mapfre to go in ghost mode, especially because they must have been confident that they have conditions they felt they could attack with. Surely they will have gone to the west and certainly it must be something radical.”
Pella and Ribes made a swift repair to a primary winch today. Their routing is far from certain to bring them the outcome they desire. And it will be physically and mentally the most taxing of the top half of the fleet.
Being second down this track could yet be beneficial to Groupe Bel’s French duo Kito De Pavant and Seb Audigane. Their deficit to Estrella Damm remains around 135-138 miles, but that half a day’s sailing not only allows them the advantage of the weather systems to develop a little more, but they can carefully monitor the Spanish crew’s progress.
De Pavant commented: "We have been kind of in the middle of nowhere for the last three days. Now there is a bit of a separation between the boats which are right in the west and us with Estrella Damm. I don’t think we have any other options at the moment and have to stick with our choice. We will see how it pans out in a few days. Conditions are really different where we are to what they have in the west, and I think that we will be slowed down especially on Wednesday, that we will be really slowed, and so these days will be really decisive.
"But at the moment we are making between 11 and 13 knots and we are under autopilot so we won’t be tired when we get to Gough Island! But we are resting a lot to be on form to attack the next bit of the course. The trade winds will die and then there are routings which take us through mouse holes. But to try and pass a cow through a mouse hole is not going to be easy. But we will give it a go."
The same cannot be said of the second Spanish crew who were in the top three before they went undercover on Sunday morning. Speculation was rife among the skippers spoken to today about where the ‘Sanxenxo phantoms’ on Mapfre, Iker Martinez and Xabi Fernandez, will re-appear on this evening’s 1900hrs GMT sched, 34 hours after they pressed the ‘disappear’ button on Sunday morning.
The duo’s ‘Ghost’ mode expires this evening. Alex Pella considers that the Spanish Olympic medallists were looking at a radical move to the west as the most likely option. But the single biggest question is a long term one: 'how will the western option which is being taken by Foncia, Michel Desjoyeaux and Francois Gabart, and Virbac-Paprec 3, Jean Pierre Dick and Loïck Peyron play out?'
Dick today said he felt confident in their option and the duo have been consistently quick, and they will accelerate more and sail better and better angles as they get down the Atlantic. 150 miles off the Brazilian coast, Foncia are already more than 400 miles to the west of the leaders and their routing is estimated to have them sail some 600 miles more than the more direct course of Estrella Damm.
Dick reported: “We are glad to be back in it because the ripped off mainsheet track affected us, but we succeeded in getting out again quickly and so we can be satisfied. The other reason to be happy is that the weather is good, the boat is going well and with Loïck we managed to regain a few miles back against Foncia through the night. Our western option is marked ‘wait and see’. We think the southern option is still good and I hope that we are not wrong.
"The team did a great job. In a day and a half we had the track made in France and brought to Brazil and fixed. It was a real technical challenge for the shore team. The stop was stressful watching the time all the time. We got some rest but it was not good rest. I want to thank all the technical team which made the stopover in Recife work so well.”
From GAES Centros Auditivos, Dee Caffari reported: "Obviously we most look at Renault ZE Sailing team as they are closest to us, and we need to be as fast if not faster than them, and so that is our gauge. But we look at the pack in front to them, Groupe Bel, Mirabaud and Neutrogena to see what is going on with them and see if there is anything we can do against them, and I am trying not to look over my shoulder at Hugo Boss coming back at us. I did get a message from Andy Meiklejohn today that they are coming to get us.”
From Hugo Boss, Wouter Verbraak: “The Doldrums for us was about handling the squalls and Andy did a really good job for us in that respect. You can easily get caught out with too much sail up, so he did a good job there. It looks good for us. The weather situation is very unclear, how the whole Saint Helena system will work and which way will be best.
"The Southern Ocean will be about best using the power we have. I don’t think we will be looking to use all the power, but trying to sail a something like 3% below the polars. At the moment we are close to 100%, but in the south it is not about raw speed but being a little conservative on the safe side of the sail programme.
"At the moment we will take time to recharge ourselves and the boat’s resources, it was a lot of work in the Doldrums and we were very proactive so we need a little break. But we are steadily gaining about 20 miles a day on the boats in front.”