Volvo Ocean Race leg 4 properly underway

Groupama takes the lead as the VO70s head out into the South China Sea

Monday February 20th 2012, Author: James Boyd, Location: China

Chart above courtesy of Expedition/Tasman Bay Navigation Systems and high res GRIB from PredictWind

Positions at 0902 UTC:

Pos Boat Skipper Lat Lon Spd Crs Dtf DTL
1 Groupama Franck Cammas 17 40.000n 111 33.400e 12 123 5100  
2 Camper Chris Nicholson 17 39.070n 111 31.980e 12 123 5101 1
3 Telefonica Iker Martinez 17 57.280n 111 29.220e 12 118 5102 2
4 Abu Dhabi Ian Walker 17 59.070n 111 27.320e 11.8 115 5104 4
5 Sanya Mike Sanderson 17 31.000n 111 26.250e 12 120 5108 8
6 Puma Ken Read 18 04.000n 111 17.250e 11.8 82 5113 13

Last night leg four of the Volvo Ocean Race properly got underway after the organisers chose to keep their six-strong fleet in Sanya for around 12 hours to avoid bad weather. The boats had returned to port after a 42 mile lap yesterday west to the impressive 108m tall statue, Guan Yin of the South Sea of Sanya, but the delay represented the first time in the 29 year history of the fully crewed round the world race that a leg start has been effectively postponed.

Overnight, the VO70s finally departed Sanya in their finishing order from yesterday's opening part of the leg with Telefonica out of the blocks first, followed by Groupama, Abu Dhabi, Sanya, Camper and finally, 39 minutes after Telefonica, by Puma (after they were horribly becalmed yesterday causing them to go from amply first to dead last - read the report here).

“No doubt there will be some very big leftover waves,” said Team Telefónica watch leader Neal McDonald prior to leaving. “Despite the wind being a more manageable breeze I suspect there will be boat breaking conditions and we’ll need to be careful.”

Abu Dhabi skipper Ian Walker said his team had been especially careful in their preparations to make sure they were covered for the expected tough conditions. “We’re ready for this. We’ve worked through what we think are our weak points and we’ve moded the boat a little bit differently for stronger air and upwind for this leg. We’ve also made our lifejackets more accessible and all our personal gear is set up for easy access in difficult conditions.’’

Race meteorologist Gonzalo Infante gave his forecast: “It is going to be very tricky with many unknowns due to the dynamic nature of this section of the world’s oceans. From the tropics to the Tasman, the weather systems are fast moving and variable. It’s going to be one of the most tactical legs of the race so far with plenty of opportunities to reward bold tactical manoeuvres.”

According to Infante perfect timing will be required over the first three days to negotiate the tricky stretch of the South China Sea between Sanya and the Strait of Luzon [see the map above]. He expects the extreme conditions of the previous few days to begin to lessen as the southerly located low dissipates over the next day or so. However, this could leave behind a difficult sea state making it imperative that the fleet makes it through the Strait of Luzon as quickly as possible to hook into stronger steadier breezes from a newly developing low pressure system to the north east.

Infante says he sees a northerly route through the straits as the only viable option. “This way they can avoid the worst of the current, stay in the strongest breeze and avoid the chance of a wind shadow from the northerly tip of the Philippines."

Once out of the strait the fleet could have an opportunity to set themselves up perfectly for some fast sailing in the north east trade winds by making early rapid progress to the east.

"East is best," Infante said. "A well timed exit from the strait will enable the boats to take advantage of strong winds from a new, easterly moving low pressure system. If they get it right it will be like taking an eastbound train to line up perfectly for the north east trade winds. If they miss the train then they will be forced south closer to the island land masses of the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia where the trades are less stable and harder to predict."

Ironically the boats set out last night into light winds of just five knots but as they began to edge away from the shelter of Hainan Island and into open waters, the breeze steadily built and the wave height increased to between three and four metres.

The boats have generally been trying to head east to lay the north of Luzon and the Luzon Strait between Luzon and Taiwan, with the wind in the northeast or ENE. Already different strategies are playing out with Abu Dhabi and Telefonica staying high, Groupama and Camper cracked off and Sanya even more so. So far bringing up the rear, Puma is the only boat to have tacked setting up astern of the Telefonica and Abu Dhabi. At the latest sched Groupama is leading.

While the breeze may not be boat breaking, the wave state is and many competitors who will no doubt be reminded of the carnage that these seas caused during the last race. “The trick is to back the boat off to a speed where you are much less likely to damage it,” explained Camper navigator Will Oxley.

“Nobody is really looking forward to a week or two of upwind slog – especially in these waves,” wrote Ian Walker from Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam this morning.

The current ETA for the arrival of the six teams in Auckland 8 March.

Ian Walker reports:

A number of firsts for me in the last two days. First I’ve never sailed round a ‘Buddha mark’ before. Next I was putting suncream on in the dark before a 7am start and then today I had a hint of seasickness for the first time ever. Fortunately I have kept the freeze-dried roast chicken and mashed potato down so far (unlike a few others onboard) and the conditions are improving.

Right now it is still quite lumpy (the sea state). I would guess 3 – 4 metre waves but the wind has dropped to 16 knots. We are trying to hang on to Telefonica’s coattails in the north after quite a good morning that saw us leave the land in second place behind Camper. We have done a couple more sail changes than the other boats which wasn’t too pleasant. This also led to a bit of a shiner for Bubs after an encounter between his head and the foredeck. There is no permanent damage to either his head or the foredeck as far as I can make out.

Back to the race we are now settled into our watch routine, the snoring has started down below and the guys on deck are finding their rhythm. Nobody is really looking forward to a week or two of upwind slog – especially in these waves, but we will cross off the miles and wait for better sailing somewhere further down the line.

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