Amory Ross / Team Alvimedica

Vanuatu race re-start

Eight miles separate the top five in the Volvo Ocean Race parking lot

Monday February 23rd 2015, Author: James Boyd, Location: none selected

Just when it looked like Team Brunel had put herself into an unassailable position on leg four of the Volvo Ocean Race, so the Doldrums have rolled the dice (in fact several times over the past days) and Bouwe Bekking's team have ended up the loser.

Since concluding her 'buffalo girls' manoeuvre that at one point saw her lead extend to 80 miles, the chasing pack was able to close on the Dutch VO65 as the wind went through a transition on Thursday just after the boats had passed to the east of the remote Senyavin Islands in Micronesia. At this point the boats behind were divided into two groups with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Team Alvimedica in the west and the remaining three, led by MAPFRE, but still impressively close - within 10 miles of each other in terms of DTF - on a track some 30 miles to the northeast.

Crossing the Equator in the thick of the Doldrums at around 0500 UTC on Friday, Team Brunel attempted to do the right thing in staying on a course between the two groups however she was caught out, as Bekking reported: “We were surprised by an enormous wind change last night. Within a fraction of a second, the wind suddenly came from the opposite direction. We were smacked almost flat against the water in the pitch dark night, with the large Code Zero headsail stuck to the wrong side of the stays. It was all hands on deck. Even the men whose turn it was to sleep, helped get the boat back under control. All was well again within a few seconds, and we continued the same course, but with a change of tack, on towards Auckland. Unfortunately the Code Zero sail did not come out unscathed. And so we dragged everyone out of bed again, this time to lower the large headsail and hoist another. Today, Laurent Pagès and Gerd-Jan Poortman have the task of repairing the two holes in the 300 m2 Code Zero.”

However possibly due to the sail damage or for tactical reasons on Friday night UTC, Team Brunel cracked off a little more than her rivals leaving her furthest right (southwest) on the race course. And this marked the start of her downfall. Over the course of Saturday morning, as Team Brunel floundered, the boats in the east came down with pressure and around lunchtime UTC, the Dutch team lost its lead for the first time since 15 February, with Dongfeng Race Team pulling ahead.

Out to the west, Team Brunel was granted a reprieve on Saturday as the wind filled in from the northwest, and by the last sched on Saturday she was back out in front. However at around 0100 on Sunday, Brunel made a costly gybe to the east, crossing ahead of Team Alvimedica but behind Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, which she gybed back astern of. This left Ian Walker's team in front but with MAPFRE and Dongfeng off her port side, more or less neck and neck (all within six miles in terms of DTF).

Over the course of yesterday afternoon Team Dongfeng nosed ahead of MAPFRE, at the same time edging east on the race track and as the wind backed from the west to southwest, so Charles Caudrelier's team recovered the lead again. At the final sched last night - just 12 miles separated the top five boats.

Unfortunately since then, as they lie some 190 miles due east of Vanuatu, the boats have once again been floundering in their umpteenth encounter with Doldrums-like conditions - the top five now within 8.3 miles of each other. 

So, ladies and gentlemen, with around 1350 miles left to sail until they reach Auckland, we have a race restart with even Team SCA still in the mix, 33 miles astern and attempting 'something different' by crossing astern of the fleet and heading out to the west.

Special mention should be made regarding Dongfeng Race Team. The Franco-Chinese team's prospects were not looking so rosey in the middle of last week as they approached the Doldrums when they were suffering from both a broken J1 lock and yet more broken mast track issues. However they have managed to get up to speed thanks to the efforts of their talented boatbuilder Kevin Escoffier spending much time aloft, his work including rebonding 3m of mast track back (a running repair he's become something of a master at). In our interview with Ian Walker, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper shared his thoughts on why Dongfeng keeps breaking its mast track.

Images below (click to enlarge) courtesy of Expedition and Predictwind

So what now? 

At present the boats have parked up to the north of a trough running west to east between the northern ends of Vanuatu and Fiji. In theory once the boats have crossed this transition the WNWerly wind, which got the boats to the north side of the trough, should be replaced with ESEerlies. However while the forecast has this trough contracting over the course of today, by tomorrow it is replaced by a shallow depression between Fiji and Vanuatu. While the boats are currently at around 14°S, it doesn't look like the wind is going to fill in until the VO65s get to 17-18°S with the new breeze filling in first on the left side of the course. Unfortunately this wind looks set to be southeasterly, meaning that the course to the top of New Zealand will leave them upwind with port tack favoured, the breeze heading them on this challenging leg as they sail south.

Amory Ross reports from Team Alvimedica

The only thing worse than knowing a disappointing truth is not knowing at all; we fear the unknown right now. Our bow’s been pointed northeast for the last 30 minutes, trying of course to head almost due south but the wind isn’t cooperating. Brunel is in sight coming directly at us from the north. We are literally facing each other. But how are the others faring further to the east? Not knowing is agonizing.

Going into this ‘dead-zone’ transition we were all within a few miles of each other relative to Auckland and virtually even on an east/west line, but they very well could be 20-30-40 miles ahead now having already punched through. We just don’t know and as we wallow around in wait, the lingering doubt is that they’re gone—off to New Zealand and at a good clip, too. Anxiety is growing with the 7 o’clock sked two hours away.

Satellite photos show the total span of this transition zone to be about 40 miles wide, north to south. We felt it would take us 36 hours to break free entirely, but as we’re discovering, the models for these sorts of complex weather features are impossible to trust. Progress comes down to active cloud dodging, luck, and a whole lot of patience. You have to be patient, for your luck!

But no one is in their bunks; everyone’s on deck tending to the sails and the trim of the boat in the super-light conditions. We’re well aware the efforts over the next 12 hours can make or break our chances in the sprint to the finish—we’ve been talking about it for the last week, how important this would be—and everybody is ready to do what it takes to get us going again as soon as possible.

But we really want to know: what news will the 0700 sked bring? Agonizing for sure!

Matt Knighton reports from Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing: 

When Ian ran the models for all six teams a little while ago, all of us are predicted to finish in Auckland within an hour and a half of one another. What’s more, the top three teams – Dongfeng, Mapfre, and ourselves – are only 10 minutes apart.

Five days out, these numbers are purely speculative but one thing is for sure: this could be one of the closest and most unpredictable legs in this edition of the race.

Speeding southeast through the South Pacific, the 600-mile doldrums that was predicted a week ago has now shrunk to a small river of transitional breezes only 150-miles wide. Compression is bound to happen as we reach this gap in the next few hours and we’ll see the distance between teams down to only a few miles. The teams that can cross this light patch quickly will have a good chance at consolidating their position as they reach the easterly trades and fast reach the rest of the way towards the top of New Zealand.
But that’s not the end of the race. Throw in 12 hours of very light wind down the coast towards Auckland and any gains made in the trade winds might be for naught.

It’s not every day you get to do 28 knots through the doldrums. Everyone was on deck this morning enjoying the fast sailing while it lasted. Blasting downwind through the bright blue water of the South Pacific is exactly what you’d imagine it would be – really really fun. The spray is as warm as the air and it’s refreshing – the exact opposite of the funk and sweat brewing down below.

The wind is beginning to ease now but we’re still doing 13 knots and beating the routing as we’ve done the whole leg. Mapfre came into view a couple hours ago and the AIS battle of the doldrums, scratch that, of the LEG has begun.

Sam Greenfield reports from Dongfeng Race Team:

It’s day 16. We are parked and waiting for what the guys keep calling ‘the gate to the south’. I like the term.

It conjures images of a massive, glittering Mc.Donald’s arch that will fill the horizon, under which we’ll sail in a whooping scene of triumph and fraternal glory, Auckland bound.

No. That won’t happen.

So instead I settle for passing through a massive stone soldier gates like the ones in Lord of the Rings. It seems reasonable enough considering Peter Jackson filmed the series in New Zealand, right?

“More like the wall to the south,” says Charles, dashing my hopes.

But no, wait, he’s talking about the clouds. The guys are glued to the radar and terrified of these massive, towering cloud systems. Big clouds mess with the wind. They deflect the easterly trade that will bring us to Auckland, scattering it in every direction. They’re like giant… force… force fields. That… um… no good wind comes through.

Sorry. Words aren’t coming easy today. And it’s kind of complicated.

Many years ago The Simpsons taught me that the water in the toilet below the equator swirls the wrong way, but the past 24 hours have taught me that the weather systems in the southern hemisphere might be a bit mixed up too. The doldrums were wet and wild and now we’re sitting here, clear of the doldrums, and parked.

“It’s like a poker game,” says Charles. “You never know what hand you get.”

Yesterday Mapfre was screaming past us to windward. Today they’re behind us with the rest of the fleet.

Maybe offshore racing is a bit like basketball. There’s no sense following the game until the last 20 minutes. Our sudden rebound makes me want to drift around the boat and drone, “Life is like a box of chocolates...” No. Bad form.

So, in conclusion, the ‘gate to the south’ is little more than a break in this massive cloud system that will let us pick up the easterly wind and sail down to jolly old Auckland but right now we need to find a literal crack in the figurative wall slash gate that’s blocking our wind.

Simple, right? Kevin is sitting at the nav station to my right. I ask if he’s ever seen Forest Gump.

“La vie ecome un boite de chocolat,” he says.

Turns out he’s seen it twice.


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