by Vincent Borde and Caroline Muller
Franck Cammas and his nine crew have crashed headlong into the Doldrums: since 0400 hours UT this Tuesday morning, the tradewinds have given way to stormy squalls. However, the first phase of this passage through the `tunnel' is going rather well with the crew maintaining the same lead of 660 miles over the reference time and the exit from this zone scheduled for this evening...
Already in sight of the Doldrums last night when the skies on the horizon were striped with lightning and the rolls of thunder were audible in the distance, Groupama 3 finally hit the zone around 0400 hours this Tuesday. At the time there was still a little crescent of a moon to light up a seascape in the throes of a major reshuffle: massive cumulonimbus heralding rains and gusts of wind, a short chop coming at them head on reminiscent of the first signs of the SE'ly tradewinds blowing across the equator, flying fish in search of a breath of air before getting caught up in the trimaran's trampolines, a heavy, oppressive atmosphere coloured by a torrid, wet heat.. one can feel it approaching, one can feel it almost upon you and then already it is snapping you up! The Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone is an octopus playing with its prey, trying to ensnare you in its tentacles, alternating between calm spells and flurries of wind, harsh changes in temperature, torrential rain and blazing sunshine...
The way out's over here...
However, the `dark side' of the Doldrums has its weaknesses: in order to find the way out into the Southern hemisphere, it is necessary to compromise with the squalls, to momentarily distance oneself from the course, adapt the sail area to the erratic breeze and dodge the shaded zones and the areas without wind. Navigator Stan Honey, finally back to his old self after his migraines, has been racking his brains... in a tunnel along 29° West. Groupama 3's trajectory has been incredibly pure from Madeira to the narrowest and least active point of entry in this mass of clouds. And so far this Tuesday afternoon, the results are conclusive: though she has indeed slowed, the speed of the giant trimaran has never dipped below fourteen knots!
"Last night there was a lot of lightning in the sky and we saw the cloud masses on the radar. We didn't suffer from too many gusts in the squalls: instead the wind eased slightly as it shifted round. The manoeuvres are simple, but we're on the look-out and the stand-by watch is on deck... The weather window is proving to be more favourable than during our first attempt a year and a half ago. We're set to have another three or four hours at a reduced pace of 15-16 knots, but we have just 3° of latitude (180 miles) to traverse before we hit the SE'ly tradewinds and hence a steadier wind, albeit it in close-hauled configuration... We're going to exit the zone this evening!" confirmed Franck Cammas at the midday radio session.
As such the Doldrums is proving highly cooperative and at this rate, the crossing of the equator may well be done and dusted before Wednesday 1550 hours UT, which would mean a switch of hemispheres in under six days... This would amount to at least six hours better than on Groupama 3's previous attempt in January 2008 (6d 6h 24'), but above all a bonus of more than a day in relation to the reference time set by Bruno Peyron on the Jules Verne Trophy!
"There's not too much cloud in the sky: we weren't able to take a shower, but the crew is on deck in boxers! There's an intense tropical heat here... We've changed season. This lunchtime we're sailing under full mainsail and solent. Stan is looking at his charts and his satellite images in a bid to escape the Doldrums as quickly as possible: the forecasts over the medium term for negotiating the Saint Helena High have been fluctuating quite a lot over the past few hours. If we manage to maintain our lead over Orange 2, who had an exceptional run between the equator and the Cape of Good Hope, that would be superb in itself!" concluded skipper Franck Cammas.
Cammas - Groupama