Monday, 16 February 2009


PUMA leads the way from Qingdao. Image copyright Rick Tomlinson/Volvo Ocean Race.

24 hour party people

by Mark Chisnell

Twenty four hours into Leg 5 and the party has finally kicked off – the north-east monsoon is shrieking down the Yellow Sea and everyone has hit the dance floor. But it took a while for the superstar DJ (i.e. the weather front) to arrive and the eager, fresh-faced debutantes that turned up at the invited hour – Ericsson 4, PUMA and Green Dragon - have had to sit and fidget for half a day before they could get going.

But that worked just fine for the fashionably late aboard Ericsson 3, able to strut their stuff pretty much as soon as they turned up, and now happily edging closer to our group of debutantes with their eyes on the prize. And even Telefonica Blue - playing the role of the horribly late, drunken gate-crasher – has little to complain about. The breeze had filled in and the party was in full swing when they arrived.

At 10:00 ZULU, the fleet were all hammering south-east in a strong (20 knots True Wind Speed) north-northeasterly (True Wind Direction). At the front was Torben Grael and Ericsson 4, holding a ten mile lead from Ken Read’s PUMA. There’s been a lot of puff, but the magic Dragon has still been struggling a little, dropping back to 15 miles behind Read and his team. The Dragon was already threatened by Ericsson 3, who have brought the wind south with them and are just ten miles behind. Even Telefonica Blue is only another 165 miles back – not bad for a boat that started 19 hours late.

To see how the late-arrivals kept their deficits so small, we’ll pick it up from where the Start info finished yesterday, with three slow boats to Rio, and one slow boat to China - all struggling in light air. Aboard PUMA, skipper, Ken Read and his navigator, Andrew Cape, evidently believed that the breeze was going to fill in from the north and east. Their initial move in that direction briefly lost them their early lead, but they quickly gained it back as Green Dragon and Ericsson 4 came to see the argument their way, diverted north to chase the breeze, and dropped back into line behind PUMA.

The three of them ended up going north-east for the first five hours of the race – not exactly sailing away from Rio, but as good as... so that by 10:00 ZULU yesterday morning they were all off Laoshan Head.

At this point, the breeze did finally roll in, jumping PUMA into the lead. But it rapidly shifted to blow from the south-west – which I suspect hinted to everyone involved that it wasn’t going to last. And it didn’t. But again, PUMA were backing their convictions with their boat positioning, and went due east to meet the breeze (as Ken Read explained) – leading to a divergence of opinion and boat tracks that’s clearly visible on the Race Viewer.

But the wind was committed to a full lap of the compass, and continued to back (rotate anti-clockwise) into the east (at which point they all tacked) before fading to what the meteorologists politely call ‘light and variable’ around the time of the 16:00 ZULU Position Report. And for the next three hours, the leading trio struggled to make any progress. Meanwhile, behind them...

Ericsson 3 had crawled towards the finish of Leg 4 at the same speed that the others were crawling away from the start of Leg 5. They finished just after 10:00 ZULU to pick up the four points for Leg 4, and started Leg 5 just under two hours later – with a seven hour deficit to the other three, and new skipper, Magnus Olsson, as ebullient as ever.

They also struggled for wind for the first four hours. Then, not long after the 16:00 ZULU Position Report, the breeze started to roll down from the north – patchy at first, but it was clearly filling in. And for the next six hours Ericsson 3 happily chased down the leaders. At 19:00 ZULU, she was up and running in 12 knots of wind, while the leading trio still languished in six or seven knots. The gap could only close and it did.

Fortunately, good things come to those who wait, and the new wind had to reach the leaders eventually. In fact, it was moving south quite fast, and started to pick up for the front three not long after the 19:00 ZULU Position Report. Ironically, after all that struggling to get positioned for its arrival, the new breeze treated the three of them pretty evenly. They all had a north-easterly wind in the mid-teens by about 20:30 ZULU, when there was still only about six miles between them – and the party started in earnest.

It was 23:42 GMT before Telefonica Blue was finally ready to join in, after thoroughly checking and repairing the damage from her grounding. It’s one of those experiences that every navigator has nightmares about (believe me, I know) – and you can only sympathise with Tom Addis.

But he still had the backing of his skipper, Bouwe Bekking, who certainly wasn’t blaming him for the incident. And with the northerly now blowing strongly down the Yellow Sea, the start was a lot simpler for Telefonica Blue. They simply high-tailed it south in high pursuit in a building breeze - and when I say building, I mean building.

It really kicked in at around 02:00 GMT – which would be 10:00 local. So the sun was up and starting to warm the air, mixing the fast-moving wind aloft, down to the surface. These are fantastic conditions - 30 knots and flat water – so long as you ignore the bitter cold that the crews are reporting.

It’s a new breeze, so the waves haven’t yet had time to build, and we’re going to see some seriously fast runs.

So - it’s payback time - the powerful, north-easterly monsoon that the fleet battled all the way to Qingdao is giving them the kind of trip south that everyone hoped for. And they are going to ride this surge for a while yet, right down past Japan - as you can see in today’s Predicted Route image, showing the boat positions and weather in 24 hours time. After that, well, more of the same – the wind will ease back to the mid-teens, then get up again, but it will remain out of the north-east – as the monsoon becomes the north-east trade wind.

So it’s going to be all about boat speed on a power reach.

These are conditions in which the Ericsson boats have previously excelled, and they’re at it again - Torben Grael and his team have slowly eased out into the lead since the breeze kicked in.

It will be a while yet, but once the fleet is past Japan, the strategic options will open up as they start to think about the precise angles that they want to sail to skirt the sub-tropical high and hit the Doldrums.

If anything, the fact that one of the main players – Telefonica Blue – is chasing the pack from behind, will make it more interesting, rather than less. The scarily wide range of routing options on this leg was always likely to force the contenders to keep a close watch on each other, with the result that they would drive around in a tight pack. But with Telefonica Blue having to come from behind, her navigator, Tom Addis has a clean sheet of paper – even if he says he wants to keep it tight...

Volvo Ocean Race

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