Volvo Ocean Race: And then there really were two

Abu Dhabi is the latest casualty as we look at why the carnage has occured on this leg

Friday March 30th 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 0655 UTC:

Pos Boat Skipper Lat Lon Spd Crs DTF DTL
1 Groupama Franck Cammas 56 01.230s 070 27.530w 18 91 2026  
2 Puma Ken Read 55 53.320s 070 47.380w 20.5 92 2037.3 11.3
3 Telefonica Iker Martinez 56 07.650s 079 41.100w 18.5 90 2333.6 307.6
4 Camper Chris Nicholson 45 37.070s 101 23.480w 11.8 114 3335.4 1309.4
5 Abu Dhabi Ian Walker 47 05.420s 112 42.980w 11.5 48 3661.3 1635.3

Yesterday Abu Dhabi became the fourth team on this Southern Ocean leg of the Volvo Ocean Race to announce that they have structural issues with the hull of their yacht. This followed a yeehaa day when at one point, with Rob Greenhalgh at the wheel, their boat speed hit 41.5 knots. Since then the team have had to back off considerably and have been cruising north to assess the situation. At present there is no more information about the nature of the delamination.

It seems that there are two problems that have caused this. With the Volvo Ocean Race diverting up to the Middle East and Far East for vital commercial reasons, so the Southern Ocean component of the race has seen a marked reduction, especially in terms of the points awarded for it. As a result the design teams have optimised the performance of the boats for lighter wind legs and certainly not for the sea states that the boats have endured on this leg.

Certainly the teams have been unlucky. Usually on the Southern Ocean expressway boats are wafted along by the winds to the north of a constant stream of depressions and the fronts associated with them. Before the front there are typically northwesterlies and a, by Southern Ocean standards, flat and regular sea state. It is in these conditions that 24 hour records get broken. But once the front has passed over the boats so the wind backs into the southwest, and as this is 90° to the original wind direction so a horrific confused sea gets kicked up, complete with rogue waves of the sort that toppled Telefonica in last weekend's fantastic video. These seas coming from all directions are horrific and probably beyond the modelling capability of even yacht designers super computer clusters and unfortunately is what the boats have spent most of their time enduring on this leg.

Equally significant is that some of the crew don't seem to have a feel for (or haven't been warned about) the kind of loads that racing hard through confused seas inflicts on a hull. This is evident if you compare the Abu Dhabi case with Banque Populaire's recent Jules Verne attempt, where in the Southern Ocean they applied a 40 knot speed limit - and that was on a boat twice as long and with three times the number of hulls. Therefore it comes as no surprise that Franck Cammas, who has done more than his fair share of time in big trimarans, including a Jules Verne Trophy attempt on Groupama 3, and with a crew including Thomas Coville (now on his eighth lap of the planet), should be leading this leg of the race. Aside from having a boat that is supposed to be better set up for racing in the Southern Ocean, the French team certainly have a crew that understands backing off when the going gets tough on high performance ocean racing yachts.

Backing off isn't part of Volvo Ocean Race culture but since the move from bulletproof Kevlar-hulled VO60s to carbon fibre 70 footers, this clearly needs to change (or future generations of VO70 need to have Kevlar/steel hulls) otherwise we end up with the present scenario where two thirds of the fleet gets crippled.

Anyhow...the remaining two boats left in this contest are now closing on Cape Horn. While Groupama has had to put in several gybes overnight to get south enough to line up for the Horn, so Puma has managed to close in on the French boat and from 53 miles astern yesterday, so at the latest sched Ken Read's team has whittled this down to 11.3, with just over 100 miles to go until they reach oceanic sailing's most famous landmark. Although there is a gale blowing to their west, conditions have dropped off a little the leaders with the wind now below 30 knots.

For the navigators there are a couple of key decisions to make coming up imminently. Do they pass through the Le Maire Strait between Isla de los Estados and the Argentinian mainland or do they remain offshore, leaving the island to port. This will have longer lasting consequences, as passing through the Strait is likely to mean that the boats will subsequently leave the Falkland Islands to starboard. At present it is hard to say which option will be favourable. Going through the Strait represents the shortest course and generally isn't a good option if there are headwinds off the east coast of Argentina. However at present the situation to the north of the Falklands is evolving rapidly with a high pressure bulb extending east from Argentina on Sunday but replaced by a shallow depression on Monday. Watch this space.


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