Auckland reprieved from Cyclone Pam

Volvo Ocean Race has its hatch battened down

Monday March 16th 2015, Author: James Boyd, Location: New Zealand

The Volvo Ocean Race's fifth leg remains under postponement, while its VO65s have had their hatches firmly battened down in Auckland in anticipation of Cyclone Pam.

Following the devastation to Vanuatu caused by giant waves and 135 knot winds over the weekend, the Volvo Ocean Race organisers have been vindicated in their decision to postpone under these exceptional circumstances. The race’s official meteorologist, Gonzalo Infante, said yesterday morning that a change of course by the deadly weather system would keep the eye of the storm around 200 nautical miles from Auckland.

The organisers of the Volvo Ocean Race have maintained a round-the-clock watch system on the boats moored in Auckland’s Viaduct Basin.

“We now don’t expect the impact in Auckland to be as high as first feared,” said Infante. “Readings around 20 miles north of Auckland have been about 50 knots and the impact predictions in Auckland have been downgraded.

“We now expect the worst of the conditions around late Sunday CET time, with wind speeds in the Race Village within the range 30-35 knots and not as heavy rain as previously expected. A small change in the track of the cyclone looks like it has prevented a much bigger problem for us.”

Infante said the main issue now for the re-start was the sea state, which is likely to greet the fleet once it ventures out of the Hauraki Gulf.

“Once the boats go past the most eastern point of New Zealand the systems look like they’ll be pretty rough. We have to make sure the fleet has options to escape if the sea state is really bad.”

“The situation is different to what we’ve ever had before in the 41-year history of this race,” said Team Brunel’s Australian navigator, Andrew Cape. “With a cyclone in the race course at departure time, you can’t send boats into it, it’s just ridiculous. It’s like driving on a greasy road – there are just some things you don’t do.

Working with Capey on the weather for Team Brunel is PredictWind's Jon Bilger, who was in-house meteorologist for Alinghi over 2000-2010.

“At the moment the tropical cyclone Pam is a category 5, which puts it in the most severe category,” says Bilger. “Tropical cyclones are dangerous rotating storm systems with destructive wind speeds of up to 120 knots. This sort of storm arises in the area around the Equator when the seawater temperature is 27 degrees or higher. On land, the cyclone’s wind speed drops but huge amounts of rain fall – sometimes hundreds of millimetres in a few hours. In the eye of the tropical storm, the weather is clear with hardly any wind at all. However, once the eye has passed, the storm returns with a vengeance, but then from a different direction.”

Even with the aid of computer-based calculations, estimating the path of a tropical cyclone and its wind force is one of the most challenging problems. We can only accurately predict its path with any certainty a few days in advance. “Meteorologists have special software for calculating the path and wind speed of a tropical storm. At the moment, we have reports of wind speeds of more than 120 knots close to the centre of the storm. It’s a good thing that the Volvo Ocean Race organisation has postponed the start of the leg by at least 48 hours. Personally, I think it would be better to postpone it for a day more than that. Then the cyclone will be decreasing in intensity. If we don’t do that and start of Tuesday, the fastest course will be near the centre of the cyclone that will still be Category 4 at this stage. This cyclone has a diameter of 1,000 nautical miles, so that’s quite a detour. And in a case of a Tuesday departure, the boats will have to cope with very extreme conditions. We’re talking about a max swell height over 10 metres high and wind speeds between 40 – 80 knots. Because the storm is moving, the waves will not necessarily come from the same direction as the wind.”

Looking ahead to leg five, the Volvo Ocean Race's only 'proper' Southern Ocean leg, that will be take the boats across the southern Pacific, round Cape Horn and up to Itajai, Brazil, Bilger says that this could be the most severe leg of the race [in fact, traditionally in the Volvo Ocean Race the North Atlantic crossing is usually the harshest]. “The teams will not only have to cope with strong winds but also with low temperatures. Depending on how far south they go near Cape Horn the temperature can drop to about 4°C above zero. When you take into account the wind speed, the wind chill factor at high wind speeds is extreme."

“As in previous races, the organisation has specified so-called ice gates to protect the boats from icebergs. “The ice gates are waypoints that the teams cannot sail below. At the moment, the main ice gate is set between 56 and 60 degrees south. The further south you sail, the lower the temperatures and chance to encounter the dreaded ice!”

Team Brunel crewman Jens Dolmer adds: “We have to keep the boat and the crew in one piece. In the Southern Ocean it always blows hard, even without a cyclone. The boat is going to suffer and so too will the lads. The low temperatures have a big effect on sailing manoeuvres. Leaping from your bed in your shorts to change a sail is not an option when the water temperature is two degrees above zero. Dressing properly is a must. That’s why everything we do on board takes longer than normal. And there’s a bigger risk of something getting damaged too. That’s why you sail a bit more carefully, because serious damage means problems. In the Southern Ocean, everyone has to rely on himself. Nobody sails here. Helicopters can’t fly here and the first piece of land that you meet is Cape Horn. You have to achieve a balance between pushing hard and putting your foot on the brake. But the Southern Ocean is also famed for its beautiful long waves that you can surf on for minutes on end.”


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