Sunday, 7 June 2009
PUMA Ocean Racing surfing at 30 knots off the Blasket Islands West of Ireland, shortly after the start of leg 8 from Galway to Marstrand. Image copyright Rick Tomlinson/Volvo Ocean Race.
by Mark Chisnell
They left Galway as they arrived – at full noise, no shortage of breeze, no shortage of pace, and no shortage of spectators. Going downwind, it was time for some free running action. But now, 20 hours into Leg 8, the sound is slowly getting turned down, and as the wind speed and boat speeds ease, the tactical game picked up, with the fleet splitting in their overnight passage of the Irish Sea.
At 10:00 ZULU this morning, the main pack was being led by PUMA and Ericsson 4, the wind speed was hovering around the mid-teens, and the wind direction was north-westerly and still backing. The leading bunch was slicing past Lizard Point, and up into the English Channel. To their south-west, Green Dragon and Telefonica Black had favoured an overnight route west of the Isles of Scilly, and a wider turn to the east and into the English Channel. But while Telefonica Black was sticking to her guns this morning, it looked like Green Dragon was cashing her chips in and rejoining the main bunch – at a loss.
We’ll pick it up from where the Start info left off, with the fleet heading at pace across Galway Bay. The wind was out of the north-east, the course was south-west – downwind in big breeze and we know only too well that Ericsson 4 loves these conditions.
No surprises then, when Torben Grael and his team held their lead past the Aran Islands and out of the bay. But at this point the tactical options opened up and Green Dragon took a hitch out to the west, offshore. The FleetBroadband Express reported some big squally rain clouds coming through at this point, and the Green Dragon crew found themselves a beauty that put them into the lead for the 19:00 Position Report.
Ericsson 4 and PUMA were both a mile behind as Green Dragon returned to the bunch off the Kerry Head Shoal, just north of Dingle. Another mile back were Telefonica Blue and then Ericsson 3 - casualties at this stage were Telefonica Black (we already know that the boat and crew really don’t go well in these conditions), and Delta Lloyd, who had taken a route much closer to the shore.
Sailing south from Dingle, the tactical options and the race track slowly tightened as the fleet turned to round the south-west corner of Ireland. The forecast in the Leg 8 Preview was that the breeze would back (rotate anti-clockwise) from the north-east to the north overnight, and it did. At the same time, the fleet was gradually turning from a southerly to a south-easterly course for the Fastnet Rock, as they rounded Dursey Island and then Mizen Head.
These two things ensured that the fleet kept a relatively open wind angle (TWA), but the proper downwind sailing ended with a final gybe south of Dingle Bay. Ericsson 4 swung a little wide here, taking a track a bit more west of the others, a move which cost them their second place between the 19:00 and 22:00 ZULU Position Reports. The reason was referred to by Ian Walker - a wild gybe in 35 knots of breeze. The Dragon stuck it, PUMA and Ericsson 4 didn’t - depicted more fully by Ken Read, in this later email.
Green Dragon rounded the Fastnet Rock in the lead at 22:46 ZULU last night, with PUMA five minutes behind her. Telefonica Blue, Ericsson 4 and Ericsson 3 all followed in the next five minutes, with Delta Lloyd and Telefonica Black half an hour behind. Walker was pretty impressed to find spectator boats by the Rock at midnight local time – it’s a surreal spot in a breeze, with the lighthouse swirling over your head and camera flashes firing.
Once they were around the mighty Fastnet, the tactical options opened back up again, with the forecast and the choices much as we described in the Leg 8 Preview. The low pressure system that’s been generating the potent northerly breeze is indeed centred over south-west England - as forecast and visible on this image of the race course and weather at 07:00 ZULU this morning.
There’s not much breeze anywhere close to the south coast of England, between the western tip (Land’s End) and Portland Bill. In contrast, there’s plenty of breeze on the French coast of the Channel, further from the centre of the low pressure. It’s also a westerly, rather than the north-westerly the fleet has at the moment, so as they turn eastwards up the English Channel, they will maintain a wide wind angle (TWA), and will almost certainly start gybing again.
The big question overnight was how to set-up to make that turn – a quick turn to hug the coast meant sailing the shortest distance, while a slow turn more to the south that eventually skimmed past the Cherbourg Peninsula should provide the strongest breeze. Green Dragon made her intent clear from the outset, the two Ian’s, Walker and Moore, took off for the Scilly Isles.
Initially both Delta Lloyd and Ericsson 4 went with her, while PUMA, Ericsson 3, and the two Telefonica boats took a more northerly, direct course towards the tip of south-west England. But overnight, around 02:30 ZULU there was a change of heart, with Telefonica Black dropping south to join Green Dragon, while Ericsson 4 and Delta Lloyd re-joined the main bunch.
Obviously this shook up the leaderboard - the northern group was steering much closer to the direct course and so was favoured in the Distance to Finish (DTF) calculation. Green Dragon started to slip down the rankings at the 01:00 ZULU Report due to this.
Telefonica Black took a real hit when she altered course to join the Dragon an hour or so later, compounding her boat speed issues. But aboard Telefonica Blue, Bouwe Bekking was very happy that they were hanging with the big dogs downwind in a breeze.
If we take a look at the Predicted Route image with boat positions and weather for 19:00 ZULU this evening, the routing still thinks the best option is to stay well away from the English coast, and line up the northern tip of the Cherbourg Peninsula before turning eastwards.
However, at the time of writing, the Dragon appeared to be having second thoughts about it, and had been steering a little north of east to close back up to the main pack. So far, she’s taken a loss, but she was still a few miles further off the coast than the others, and may still enjoy stronger breeze. Telefonica Black meanwhile, was headed for the beaches of France, committing to the southern route big time.
We will have to wait to see how this plays out, but I suspect the whole fleet will probably end up not far north of the Cherbourg Peninsula one way or another. The question is whether the extra miles involved in the wider turn will be paid back by the better wind speed. But I think they are all going to end up on the French shore by this evening, as the wind eases everywhere in the English Channel tonight.
The wind should continue to rotate anti-clockwise through today as it eases, getting very light overnight – ending up in the south and perhaps as low as five knots. At least the direction is a good one to power them along the French coast. Tonight will be dominated by trying to stay in the breeze and avoid foul tide, and this time tomorrow, we should find the fleet battling their way towards or through the Dover Strait.
Volvo Ocean Race