Volvo Ocean Race: Boats in the east suffer

Groupama adds a further 43 miles to her lead over Puma

Wednesday March 7th 2012, Author: James Boyd, Location: none selected

Volvo Ocean Race charts courtesy of Expedition/Tasman Bay Navigation Systems and GRIB (European model) from PredictWind

Positions at 0702 UTC:

Pos Boat Skipper Lat Lon Spd Crs DTF DTL
1 Groupama Franck Cammas 27 57.920s 164 24.380e 17.7 154 778.1  
2 Puma Ken Read 25 36.550s 163 24.500e 12.7 165 916.5 138.4
3 Telefonica Iker Martinez 25 53.470s 162 28.470e 14 149 938.9 160.8
4 Camper Chris Nicholson 25 08.070s 161 51.930e 13.8 154 994.4 216.3
5 Abu Dhabi Ian Walker 21 57.930s 162 30.350e 8.6 157 1118.1 340
6 Sanya Mike Sanderson 22 03.830s 160 25.250e 11.6 158 1184.6 406.5

The table, above showing Groupama sailing at 17.7 knots while the boats behind are making no more than 14, is an ominous indication of what may be in the store for the Volvo Ocean Race fleet in the final days of leg 4. In fact this is only a recent phenomenon as overnight Groupama has been one of the slower boats in the fleet. However Groupama has still managed to put 43 miles on second placed Puma over the last 24 hours for reasons that Ken Read explains below.

Generally boat speeds have built slightly thanks to the wind backing into the ENE. With this the boats have managed to get some east into their headings, but they remain on too much of a southerly course and for the first time on this leg they have actually passed to the west of the great circle route to the northern tip of New Zealand.

Behind the French VO70, competition is hotting up. Telefonica may be set to lose her first leg of this Volvo Ocean Race, but she is closing on second-placed Puma fast, having maintained her deficit on Groupama over the last 24 hours, pulling up from 62 miles astern of Puma to 22 at the latest sched in terms of DTF. However this doesn't provide the complete picture as she's still some 55 miles to leeward of the American boat.

Behind in fourth place Camper has also managed to hold her position relative to Groupama.

Aside from Puma, the big loser in the last 24 hours has been Abu Dhabi which has dropped back 90 miles on the French VO70. Ian Walker's team is still suffering, boat speed having dropped to single figures for most of this morning (UTC). Walker reported: “We have spent all day fighting to escape a huge cloud and no wind that spun up to leeward of New Caledonia. Groupama and Puma sailed on without missing a beat and we lost 100 miles at least.”

The path to Auckland remains a tricky one with the principle meteorological feature affecting the boats being a giant area of high pressure centred in the south Tasman Sea and moving slowly east over New Zealand's South Island. However also affecting the picture is a weak depression to the north of New Zealand dissolving over the next 48 hours to leave weak winds on the left hand side of the course, while there is a trough off the east coast of Australia on the right side of the course.

So where's Groupama going to go? At the latest sched she has 778 miles to go and has just passed the latitude of Brisbane (some 600 miles to her west). The finish of this leg looks set to be in strong 25-30 knot southeasterly headwinds, and Groupama is going to have to tack at some point to get some easting in so she can lay the Auckland. However this won't work in the short term as this will cause her to sail into light winds associated with the depression to the North of New Zealand. Meanwhile there is concern that the back markers are going to suffer more pain as the light winds from the dissolving depression spread west on Friday further dogging their progress.

Ken Read reports from Puma:

The cruelty in this game has got to be the 3-hour scheds. The 3-hour progress reports we get from Volvo headquarters with each competitor’s vital statistics and their exact position. That sched is fed into a spreadsheet on board Puma and we dissect every bit of information out of it we can. It is quite a tactical tool when trying to position against the fleet.

On one hand it keeps everything sharp. You are always racing. People ask me if it is boring sailing around the world, but the 3-hour scheds don't allow for that. I have said a million times that this race isn't a distance race but it is a series of 3-hour day races. A really long series!

So, the scheds keep you on your toes, but they also play with your emotions. For example: The last couple of days we made our east position work and pushed Telefónica and Camper back in bearing time after time. Everyone on board was on a high. Sure they were gaining in gauge and coming up to us, but they had a better angle of breeze on the outside of the high and that was simply going to happen. As long as we could keep gaining bearing we would be good.

We also had Groupama in front of us almost exactly on our path paving the way. We could look at their wind readings each 3 hours and determine if we wanted to continue down this path, go higher or go lower – all depending on what we saw with the weather and what we saw in their performance. All a no-brainer right?

Then came two squalls from hell. Complete "sucker" rain squalls with zero breeze in them. In the middle of last night. We were cruising along minding our own business when on the radar appears a blob of green the size of the Texas. No way around either of them. We were gobbled up twice over a 6-hour period. And, we have the proof to show for it. The dreaded sched. The one you know is coming and is going to be really bad news. Two scheds in a row that showed us sailing about half the speed of our competitors, all because we were drifting for a good chunk of that 6 hours…in pouring rain, in the middle of a black night.

And you have to announce the sched. We have an intercom system below to the helm station and every 3 hours either Tom or I tell the troops on deck how we did that last 3 hours. And it sucks to read the bad ones. Sometimes you try to "forget" and maybe the guys on deck will forget that a sched has come in...but they never do. You have to deliver the bad news along with the good. The boys say that Tom gives away whether it is a good or bad sched with the tone of the first couple words out of his mouth. They say I have a bit more of a poker voice.

I can say that those two scheds last night may have been the worst of the trip so far. I think it punched the guys in the gut, as if two weeks of work kind of flew out the window in a 6-hour period. Or should I say in a two-sched period.

So love them or hate them, our 3-hour lives revolve around the next bit of good or bad news.

This just in. Sched number 155 for this leg...big gains for PUMA in a sort of unexpected fashion. Got back a bit of that bearing that we lost last night. Smiles and a bit of a spring in the steps of the crew…for at least 3 hours.

- Kenny


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