Sunday, 7 June 2009

VOR: Leg 8 Preview - It Won't be Easy

Volvo Open 70s at the dock under gloomy skies on Leg 8 start day in Galway. Image copyright Rick Tomlinson/Volvo Ocean Race.

by Mark Chisnell

Leg 8 - it’s different, as different as a mountain stage of the Tour de France is to the final time trial; as the Dakar Rally is to a MotoGP race; as the marathon is to the 400 metre hurdles. We can forget the climate zones, the trade winds and sub-tropical highs, the doldrums and storm tracks. The 1250 miles from Galway on the west coast of Ireland, to Goteborg, in Sweden, are going to be about the weather.

Well, that and the heat of the sun (if you’re one of the tens of thousands in Galway, you’re allowed an ironic chuckle at this point) driving local sea and land breezes, and, of course, let’s not forget the tidal flow. Ericsson 4’s navigator, Jules Salter certainly wasn’t forgetting the tides in the navigation briefing that he did with Team Ericsson’s meteorologist, Chris Bedford. Salter’s not the only one who’s been digging out the tide tables for the Irish Sea, English Channel and the North Sea, but I hope he had more luck than I did - my collection of tidal charts is filed away so safely, even I can’t find them.

Fortunately, I think I’ll have a chance to make a trip to the local chandler before it becomes important, as the first 24 hours of Leg 8 should be straightforward enough. The latest analysis from Race Forecaster, Matt Sanders has the fleet departing Galway Bay in a freshening north to north-easterly breeze. That should make for a spectacular lap of the ‘sausage’ course set right off the beaches of Salthill, before the fleet heads west out of Galway Bay.

Once the fleet is out into the Atlantic, the wind speed could be hitting over 30 knots in the gusts, and it will be a fast downwind blast to the southern tip of Ireland. The fleet has to tuck into the coast a little longer than it might otherwise, because the race instructions insist that each boat leaves Fastnet Rock to the south - should they get there before sunset, this will definitely be a photo op.

The famous lighthouse will be going past the opposite side of the boat to that familiar from the classic, biennial Fastnet Race, but hopefully no one will get confused and head for the Isles of Scilly.

The breeze through this first section of the race is being controlled by the movement of a low pressure, currently centred over the south-west of England. It’s bumping up against the high pressure that has provided such gorgeous weather in Galway all week, and moving it off to the north-west.

The behaviour of these small lows can be quite hard to predict, and when you combine that with the fact that the race course is very close to the centre of the low, it’s not going to take much for the crews to get conditions considerably different to those forecast. So you can treat my predictions from here with a large degree of scepticism.

In theory, by the time they clear the Fastnet Rock, probably late Saturday evening, the wind is forecast to have shifted round to the north. That would make for a straight-line, hammer-down race across the Irish Sea, with the ‘big gear’ up – all the sail area they can handle. The breeze will continue to back (rotate anti-clockwise) into the north-west as they approach Lands End on the Cornish coast of England.

I think they should get there sometime after sunrise on Sunday morning, where the tide will be running eastwards (with them), until about 08:00 GMT. But at that point, the centre of the low pressure will be waffling around that very same, south-western tip of England. So the breeze inshore could be very light, compared to a little further south and west, as they turn to the east, and head up the English Channel.

This set-up could make for some interesting choices. The shortest route to Dover would normally involve tucking into the English coast, and playing the tides and wind shifts on the headlands. But the breeze is forecast to be stronger on the French side of the English Channel all through Sunday, as well as continuing to back, that is, to shift round and blow from the west, as they sail eastwards up the Channel.

We might see the fleet gybing down the Channel, and perhaps favouring the French coast. At best, the breeze might hold up over 15 knots for most of Sunday on the French side – but there’s no doubt that the general tendency for the wind speed is down. And because there will be quite a lot of cloud around, I doubt there will be much help from any sea breezes. So things will definitely slow up through Sunday, but they ought to make reasonable progress up the Channel, and be approaching the narrow neck between Dover and Calais overnight Sunday-to-Monday.

At this point, things start to get well tricky. Firstly, they have to stay clear of an exclusion zone off Dover, then another off Rotterdam, before completing the Delta Lloyd Gate Race - a six mile lap off Rotterdam. And all the time they are doing this, the breeze will be getting lighter. In fact, by sunrise on Monday morning, there may not be much at all, and I think the boats will definitely be digging out the tide tables for the coasts of Northern France and Holland in the battle to reach the Rotterdam loop.

It’s getting too far ahead for any kind of speculation now, but the hope is that the wind will fill in from an easterly direction late on Monday afternoon, driven by a new low pressure approaching from the south-west. If it does, it will push the back markers towards the leaders, and make for a tight wind angle up the North Sea. The last part will make Team Telefonica happy, but not the Green Dragon crew.

I’m not about to make any predictions beyond this point, except that with a bit of luck, this easterly will get them all the way to the Baltic, for the final sprint round to Goteborg, on Sweden’s west coast. It was a very similar leg to this – La Rochelle to Goteborg – that saw one of the closest-ever races finishes in 2001-02, when the top five boats crossed the line within seven minutes of each other.

There’s a good chance we can expect more of the same this time around – no one will be getting much sleep. And I have a horrible feeling that may include me.

Volvo Ocean Race

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