Monday, 26 January 2009

VOR: The Ten Zulu Report, Leg 4 Day 8

Ericsson 3 faces 50 knots of wind, on leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race, from Singapore to Qingdao, China. Image copyright Gustav Morin/Ericsson 3/Volvo Ocean Race.

"While the breeze might have eased where they are (for a while), it’s still body slam time out there. The priority will remain boat preservation."

by Mark Chisnell

Seven boats raced up the west coast of the Philippine Island of Luzon. Four stepped out into the Luzon Channel. Three returned to shelter, damaged. Two waited until conditions abated. One sailed on.

In a move that was either reckless or brilliant, Bouwe Bekking and the salty old sea dogs aboard Telefonica Blue brought their boat through a truly evil 36 hours in the South China Sea, to take a commanding lead of Leg 4.

And with the MacGyver challenge over for those battling to repair damage - all six boats still racing are now sailing again - this is the run down on the seven involved in the horror movie:

Telefonica Blue - has held the lead since Telefonica Black pulled out to change to her storm trysail at 05:30 ZULU yesterday. Blue was the first to sail out into the Straits, in a move that Guy Salter, Media Crew aboard Ericsson 4 described as, ‘either a stroke of leg winning genius or complete stupidity (if the boat breaks!)’.

It now appears to be a move of genius, as Bouwe Bekking reported that they had ‘survived the worst part of the storm’ early this morning. They now have a commanding lead of 70 miles.

Ericsson 3 - has been in second place since Telefonica Black damaged her hull and turned back south for shelter at 10:15 ZULU yesterday morning.

They held back in as much shelter as they could find until the 16:00 ZULU Position Report yesterday afternoon, at which time it seemed that Telefonica Blue was managing the conditions and progressing across the Strait – then they followed.

Ericsson 4 - has been in third place since Telefonica Black’s hull damage yesterday morning. There’s been nothing from the boat, since Guy Salter sent his email yesterday afternoon, recording their cautious passage up the coast. Ericsson 4 waited about another four hours in the shelter of Luzon before following her sistership out into the Straits. No damage reports have been received, but then, they don’t usually tell us anyway...

Telefonica Black in 50 knots of wind near the Philippines, on leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race, from Singapore to Qingdao, China. Image copyright Mikel Pasabant/Telefonica Black/Volvo Ocean Race.

PUMA was the first of the four boats to restart.

PUMA - broke her boom while in the lead at 02:00 ZULU yesterday morning. But she won the Macgyver challenge and was the first to restart of the four boats that sought shelter with damage, hoisting sail and heading north at 22:30 last night to take up fourth place on the race track, after 20 hours of repair work.

A disappointed and exhausted-sounding Ken Read, described the failure as ‘devastating’.

Delta Lloyd - they turned back from the Luzon Strait at 07:15 ZULU yesterday morning with a badly damaged mainsail, and suspended racing three hours later (meaning they can accept outside assistance, but must stop for at least 12 hours). They anchored in the same bay as Green Dragon for repairs – about 20 miles north of where PUMA fetched up. And once the sail repair job was done, they resumed racing at 09:10 ZULU this morning, in sixth place.

Green Dragon - was the first to suffer damage when they broke their forestay before the storm. Things then went from bad to worse when a major structural component (a ring frame) in the bow shattered yesterday morning at around 08:30 ZULU, and they suspended racing soon afterwards.

Skipper, Ian Walker described the damage to a (very busy) Amanda Blackley. And Walker subsequently wrote of their repair plans from their anchorage in Salomague Bay. The repair seems to have gone well, and they also restarted this morning at about 08:45 ZULU, in fifth place.

Telefonica Black - suffered the most serious damage with a crack to the hull, while leading the race. After heading for shelter to assess the damage, she formally retired from Leg 4. The boat is now motoring to Subic Bay to find the necessary resources to try and get themselves to the start line for the Qingdao in-port, or the start of Leg 5.

Maximum Wave Height data from the boats competing. Image copyright Volvo Ocean Race.

While conditions have certainly moderated since yesterday, I’m a little suspicious of some of the wind data coming off the boats, as Guy Salter said - the wind instruments at the top of the masts take a pounding. Bouwe Bekking reported Telefonica Blue’s as broken in his most recent email - although their data makes the most sense, with a wind speed (TWS in the Data Centre) in the mid-teens, blowing from the north-east (TWD) – perhaps they have the spare up.

But while the breeze might have eased where they are (for a while), as you can see from this graph of Maximum Wave Height (MAX_WV_HGT), it’s still body slam time out there. The priority will remain boat preservation, especially with gaps of 30+ miles between the boats - no one has any reason to push it.

There was huge pressure on the leaders to keep going

One thing we do know - the wind has shifted to the east since yesterday, and all four of the boats in the Luzon Strait were comfortably making course to Taiwan. The one strategic move of the last 24 hours was Telefonica Blue’s decision to tack eastwards at about 16:30 ZULU yesterday, sailing for five and a half hours before going back. They did it to protect the boat, according to Bekking in that same email. But it’s also kept them out of the Taiwan Strait. The wind there will keep funneling down from the north-east. Whereas to the east of the island, the wind should veer, rotate anticlockwise, and allow a much faster sailing angle.

The real race out there at the moment is amongst those who have completed repairs and are now trying to get to Qingdao asap. This was at the top of Ian Walker’s concerns. The reason is that there are 30 knot north-easterly winds forecast in the Yellow Sea on the 29th – visible in today’s Predicted Route chart showing the weather and boat positions for the leading four in three days’ time.

Based on my experience of walking around Qingdao, looking for a restaurant that was open (it’s Chinese New Year), a strong north-easterly is not something you want to go sailing in. If they break more gear, or have to pull in again for shelter, then the timeline to prepare for the in-port race is going to start to get very tight.

This was always the biggest strategic issue with Leg 4, and the reason why everyone was so focused on getting the boat to Qingdao in one piece. An awful lot of points can slip away if you miss out on Leg 4, the Qingdao in-port race and Leg 5 with its two scoring gates.

And that’s why we’ll all be talking about each skipper’s decision to sail on into some brutal, boat breaking conditions for a long while to come. I’m sure everyone is going to have an opinion – but in reality, I don’t think we really expected everyone to sit in the lee of Luzon and wait it out together, did we?

There was huge pressure on the leaders to keep going and maintain the advantage they had fought so hard for - just listen to Ken Read here in comparison to this clip. And once the leader had gone, others felt bound to follow. It was only when the tail-enders – the Ericsson boats – saw the results, that the alternative became not just worthy of consideration, but a no-brainer. With everyone else but Telefonica Blue out of the race, there was nothing to be gained by following, and everything to lose.

Ian Walker wondered a few days ago - when the waypoint at South Rock Light was set - if the fleet needed saving from itself in this way. And the answer it seems is yes. But race officials can only do so much – otherwise the boats wouldn’t be out there at all. Ultimately it has to come down to the guys on the boats to make the tough decisions – that’s the sport, that’s what the race is about.

But I’ll give the final word to Bouwe Bekking, who has probably earned it…

"I was really angry when some of the competitors suggested to cancel racing... If the organisation had given in, all the slogans about how tough this race is could have been thrown out of the window".

Current positions on Leg 4:
1. Telefonica Blue
2. Ericsson 3
3. Ericsson 4
5. Delta Lloyd
6. Green Dragon
RTD Telefonica Black

Volvo Ocean Race

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