2.5 miles between top four
One final hurdle, a zone of very light winds more than 60 miles wide, is blocking the final straight for leg 2 of the MOD70 European Tour. With less than three miles separating first from fourth places whichever crew can crawl through it this evening and overnight, and break into the forecasted NE’lies on the other side is very likely to win the stage which started on Sunday afternoon from Dun Laoghaire, Ireland.
The fleet is now expected to cross the finish line during Wednesday morning, but the calm zone, caused by a ridge of high pressure is very difficult for the navigators and decision-makers on board to decipher accurately.
Conventional thinking may be to stick tight to the Portuguese coast where the new northeasterly is expected to arrive from, but the question is how close? A small lateral split in the fleet developed during Tuesday and was opening more by afternoon. The Sidney Gavignet skippered Musandam-Oman Sail remains furthest offshore and has led through much of the day.
As they raced in near perfect conditions, 16-18 knots, making between 22 and 26 knots of boat speed, it was with full awareness that they are about to hit the buffers, the big light wind zone. By 1530 UTC speeds had already fallen to 12-15 knots as the light breezes took hold.
“It is really good on board just now, just great sailing conditions," said Musandam-Oman Sail’s watch leader Brian Thompson. "We are about 70 miles offshore off Cape Finisterre with a really flat sea and just charging along, making 20-22kts in 16,17,18 knots of breeze and we are just smoking along. We never really drop below 20 knots and it is getting warmer and we have been in the lead and so it can’t really get better than that, can it?”
“It is going to completely shut down. We have this transition zone about 50 miles wide and then we will get some northeasterlies on the other side. So I think everyone is going to bunch up again, just looking to do whatever we can to get out through the other side.
“Everyone is doing the same thing just now. You could have gone inshore earlier, but we are only 15 miles apart laterally and so we are very much in the same corridor, but there will be a great deal of lottery attached to who gets out first, but whoever gets out first will win the race, into more breeze. So that will be decided this evening and tonight.”
Foncia skipper Michel Desjoyeaux also warned: "We have less easterly wind for now and since about an hour ago we have had a band of cloud cover, but the sun is just coming out again. The sea is flatter and it is no longer the 30 knots boat speed we had this afternoon. The wind is due to drop quite a bit this afternoon…we will have to see how we extract ourselves from this! We are just going to have to sit it out until the midnight or so when the wind is due to build up to some ten knots from the North. We just have to cross this transition zone as soon as possible. Lateral differences can have a big influence on how to route through this calm area. The first out will make the most gains; it is like Russian roulette! In these kind of conditions there is always a difference between what the forecasts promise and what you end up getting, We should get some wind for the finish. As the sea state has eased we are going to try and get some rest.”
Passing the latitude of Porto this Tuesday afternoon at around 1500 UTC, it is apparent there are three schools of thought. Musandam-Oman Sail and Groupe Edmond de Rothschild second, are furthest offshore and mid afternoon were diverging more southwest. Furthest to the east, some 35 miles inshore is Race for Water, on which Volvo Ocean Race winning skipper Franck Cammas as navigating. They look increasingly like they will try and find the thermal breezes closest to the coast. Race for Water has bounced back several times already on this leg, to stay in contention. Most recently they twice struck large fish and had to stop or back up, losing miles.
Spindrift Racing skipper Yann Guichard airs his views: "Anything could happen on this race! We were told that in the south, it would be sunny. The wind has dropped and we move along slowly in the calm. As the weather files show a large transition zone of 60 miles wide, each of the navigators has his own idea about how to cross it.
"It is not really clear for now what is best and we will have to wait for about midnight for the breeze to come in from the north. Some think that the thermal breeze will come in first from the shore… The dice are rolled and there will be differences at the end of this leg. There's the night breeze in shore that runs across a strip between 10 and 20 miles offshore. The question is whether it will set in or not! I hope that the fleet will be regroup because if it implodes, it will be impossible to control our competitors. We need to find the little gap to get through and right now just two or three knots of breeze this afternoon will not give us much to play with. We are really working the crew and the boat because from dawn we had the full main and genoa or gennaker and made good headway. Tonight we are going to have to do loads of manoeuvres so have to make the most now to get some rest.”
And taking more of the middle route are the MOD70 European Tour’s top two teams Spindrift Racing and Foncia, both playing a more conservative game, staying close together. Knowing there are only three points between them, perhaps neither is prepared to push the risk/reward equation too hard at this stage and are sticking with the option to change sides if the choice arises. Spindrift Racing was credited with a small lead of just 1.3 miles this mid afternoon at 1530 UTC.
Recognising that the breezes are going to be light overnight, Race Committee for the MOD70 European Tour, confirmed this afternoon that the leg will be stopped as the fleet reach Cascais rather than making them run the full course which was originally around Cabo Saint Vincent to Lagos and back.
That makes the distance for leg 2 around 975 miles and once again it looks set to be minutes, or even seconds in it. Only 14 miles separated first from fifth, north to south - in fact only three miles from first to fourth with less than 160 miles to sail.
Estimated finish time is early morning Wednesday.
Standings at 1530 UTC
1- Spindrift Racing (Yann Guichard) at 150 miles to finish
2- Musandam-Oman Sail (Sidney Gavignet) at 1.3 miles to leader
3- Foncia (MichelDesjoyeaux) at 1.5 miles to leader
4- Groupe Edmond deRothschild (Sébastien Josse) at 2.5 milles to leader
5- Race for Water(Stève Ravussin) at 14.2 miles to leader