Gladwell's Line: Volvo Ocean Race enters the Theatre of the Bizzare

Rob Salthouse takes a bearing of Puma Ocean Racing off the starboard horizon onboard Camper
Hamish Hooper/Camper ETNZ/Volvo Ocean Race©

The fleet in the Volvo Ocean Race has split into three directions, all bound for an unannounced destination.

Hopefully the on-board navigators have got the code deciphered correctly, but from the current fleet positions one could be excused from believing that two had got hopelessly lost and and the other three had stuck together - some within sight of each other in the hope that one of them knows where they are going, and if not then they will all be wrong.

Now entering its sixth day, the fleet is eventually headed for Abu Dhabi, however before that they will all meet at an undisclosed port, be loaded aboard a secure ship, transported to a point within a s 24 hour sail of Abu Dhabi, and then offloaded for the leg to restart.

For the first part of Leg 2, 80% of the points will be allocated, and for the second part 20% of the points will be awarded.

All the above is in name of security and the need to avoid capture by Somali pirates who operate halfway across the Indian Ocean.

Navigator Will Oxley keeping an eye on the radar in the Nav station onboard CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand during leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Cape Town, South Africa to Abu Dhabi, UAE. (Credit: Hamish Hooper/CAMPER ETNZ/Volvo Ocean Race)
Hamish Hooper/Camper ETNZ/Volvo Ocean Race©

The difficulty for fans is that organisers insist on issuing position reports which claim that one boat or the other is in the lead, by a very small margin, often expressed in decimals of a nautical mile - when the fans have no idea where the race is headed and can't make their own assessments.

Trust us, we know what we are doing is the name of the game. Maybe they do, but then comments like the following are made on the bottom of an official report: 'The waypoint used to calculate the distance to finish data on the Volvo Ocean Race website was changed prior to the 1900 UTC position update on Friday December 16 and may have caused some anomalies in the positions for that specific report.' Oh really? At least they let us know afterwards.

High level positions showing the fleet heading east with Groupama moving south and Team Sanya breaking to the north

We know from the previous leg that race organisers use a method of calculating the leader by taking the Great Circle radius centred on the finish point and the first boat touched by that radius is the leader, and so on. We prefer to use weather routing to predict which boat has the shortest distance to sail to the finish in the predicted weather for the next six days or so. This method takes account of tactical moves made by the boats which may cost some initial distance, but positions them for a fast ride further down the leg.

When both methods give the same outcome, the outcome will usually be as predicted - when not, you have a discussion point. Usually the weather routing method is more accurate for reasons we saw on the first leg, when the official method proclaimed that Groupama was hundreds of miles in the lead, but the weather routing method could see the light winds that were ahead of her - and surprise, surprise Groupama lost her lead very quickly when the predicted weather systems cut in, a few days later.

Low level positions showing the fleet heading east with Groupama moving south and Team Sanya breaking to the north

The issue at present is that we can't use the weather routing system to tell the leader (which is logically the one to finish first at the destination, rather than the one that happens to be closest - because the end point of the leg is unknown, except to organisers and crews.

The new game for fans of the Volvo Ocean Race is to work out the interim destination, by flying over the Indian Ocean, using Google Earth to try and spot a place with a port that could be used for a stopover - consistent with the direction of the competitors and outside the reach of pirates.

Our guess is Diego Garcia, but there are other options being floated by the guessing fans.

Latest leaderboard showing Abu Dhabi in the lead - Volvo Ocean Race