Volvo OR: The Ten Zulu Report, Leg 1, Day 3

Telefonica Blue returns to racing after pulling in overnight to make repairs at the start of Leg 1 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2008-09

They’ve busted down the gates and broken free, but not before a night of sweat, stress and toil was done. The fleet’s struggle through the Straits of Gibraltar has been as tough as anticipated, with some long, straight and wide passing lanes. So I was half right – Ericsson 4 got clear of the Straits of Gibraltar with a decent amount of her lead still intact, but her sistership didn’t.

At 10:00 ZULU this morning, Ericsson 4 was leading the fleet south, with the gang of four – PUMA, Telefonica Black, Ericsson 3 and Green Dragon on her tail just over ten miles behind. So I’m eating half a portion of humble pie, with the rest in the freezer for later. Now for the what, when, how and why – or at least, those bits of it I can figure out.

The easy part is the fate of Telefonica Blue, their rollercoaster ride continued with a sickening swerve into the pit lane. They finally decided (or finally decided to tell us that they had decided) to stop last night to fix the damaged steering.

The boat spent the night in Algeciras, on the western side of the Bay of Gibraltar. The rules require a minimum 12-hour stop, and they didn’t need any more time for their shore crew to fix the problem. They re-hoisted the mainsail at about quarter past six (GMT) this morning, and headed out to where they suspended racing, re-starting at 06:53 GMT. But with the rest of the fleet out in the Atlantic with good breeze, Bouwe Bekking is going to see his deficit to the rest of the fleet grow substantially before he gets his machine up to speed.

(l-r) Xabier Fernandez and Pepe Ribes attempt to repair steering damage to Telefonica Blue which occured shortly after the start of leg 1.

Dial back to where we left the fleet yesterday morning, and Telefonica Black tacked back to the north pretty much as soon as I’d typed the words and Cameron had posted the story – leaving the fleet to go south seemed pretty suspect as a strategy. In the end, with just a single exception (Team Russia, who went down the middle once the breeze filled in), the whole fleet transited the Straits on the northern shoreline, rounding the famous rock and passing the mouth of the Bay, where Telefonica Blue pulled in to the pits.

By early afternoon, the two Ericsson boats were well into their transit of the Straits – and then the brakes came on. The breeze dropped to a desperately soft, three to four knot southerly, while the chasing pack held a much stronger westerly – although they were beating upwind.

At the 16:00 GMT report the gap was closing, with Green Dragon down to 23.4 miles behind Team Ericsson (3 and 4), and PUMA right behind her. These two were paired up, with the two Telefonica boats also close together, just to the north of them. But it didn’t take long for conditions to deteriorate for everyone, and by the 19:00 GMT report the world’s fastest mono-hulls were wallowing around like T-Rexes in a tar pit ((late) Summertime Blues).

I checked the current readings in the Data Centre for last night (click here) then go to the Data Tables Tab, Environment Table, click on Edit and choose the variables CUR_RATE and CUR_DIRN, then click save – soon (hopefully) we’ll be able plot these in a graph.
Telefonica Blue officially suspended racing having reached landfall near Gibraltar last night to undertake repairs to the steering gear they damaged soon after the race start in Alicante.


Struggling round the Rock

Green Dragon found themselves up against a knot and a half of adverse current. It looks like they headed for the shore (where the current runs less strongly in shallow water) after both PUMA and Telefonica Black, allowing this pair to close the gap. At 19:00 last night all three boats were together, struggling to get round the Rock (which drops steeply into deep water, leaving nowhere to run and nowhere to hide from the current) in a light southerly breeze.

The situation wasn’t much better for the two Ericsson boats the other side of the Straits. They found themselves in the light north-east to easterly breeze that we talked about yesterday, gybing downwind, wondering whether to go north-west or south-west to find the freshening northerly that was predicted to come through. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they both headed north-west to look for a northerly, out into the Atlantic.

Meanwhile the group (PUMA, Green Dragon and Telefonica Black) that had been pinned behind the Rock of Gibraltar got the full ‘Get out of Jail for Free’ card. The breeze freshened to 10 and then 15 knots from the east, and they were off – gybing downwind through the Straits. By the 22:00 Position Report they were clear into the Atlantic and flying, and they must have thought when they saw the data that they had found the passing lane.

All the boats that were out into the Atlantic had the forecast north-east to easterly wind, but the chasing pack had about 10 to 12 knots, while to the north, the Ericsson boats were still struggling in light air. Wind is power, wind is speed, and Team Ericsson were getting mowed down. And when they received that 22:00 position report they knew it.

What happened next was one of those random rolls of the dice that sailing (and sport in general - try Googling Manchester United, Champions League Final and Teddy Sheringham) can produce. Ericsson 3 made what was apparently the smart tactical move – they gybed south towards the stronger wind, and the boats that were smoking past them. But Torben Grael and Jules Salter – strategic decision makers aboard Ericsson 4 - earned the big bucks, held their nerve and waited another full hour before they turned to the south. Why did they wait? Perhaps they will tell us later today …

Ericsson 4, Straits of Gibraltar, Volvo Ocean Race, Leg 1

Ericsson 3 joined the pursuing group right on the 01:00 GMT position report, just in time for the whole lot of them to trip into tar pits again. Ericsson 3, PUMA, Telefonica Black and Green Dragon, all four boats within a mile and a half of each other in the early hours of the morning, and no one was going anywhere fast, enveloped in light air.

Escape into the Atlantic

And now, off to the west, Ericsson 4 did the escape into the Atlantic thing, like a U-Boat giving a pack of destroyers the slip. Their breeze gradually strengthened and backed (shifting to the left, looking into the wind). That’s a lift, in sailing terminology, and it allowed them to gybe and head south-west. For PUMA and co. the wind did finally fill in, and by dawn they were all up and running, headed west, with not much more than a couple of miles between second and fifth.

(l-r) Bouwe Bekking watches on as Xabier Fernandez and Pepe Ribes attempt to repair steering damage to Telefonica Blue which occured shortly after the start of leg 1.
, the game now shifts to the Doldrums, and how to line up the approach for the thinnest section, as we talked about in the Preview for Leg 1. It’s a question of when to get west, and how to steal a march on the others while doing it. And at the 07:00 position report, we had already seen the first moves in this game.

The tight four of PUMA, Telefonica Black, Green Dragon and Ericsson 3 are all within a couple of miles of each other, and presumably if they don’t have a visual, they will be tracking each other on radar. Even so, they all waited till after the 07:00 position report to gybe and head south, perhaps hoping to steal a march on Ericsson 4. But Torben and Jules are all over it, and less than an hour later they had also gybed and turned south.

And that’s how we find them at 10:00, picking wind shifts (Green Dragon and Ericsson 3 gybed again just before the Position Report), headed south-west and downwind. It could be as much as another day before they hit the trade winds, and little gains made through this period could lock in once they get going in the north-easterlies. This morning’s run of the weather routing through Deckman for Windows shows the optimum course going down the coast until just after the Canaries, when there’s a chance to get west.

What else can I tell you? Team Russia have some water coming in around the keel – there was a reference to it in last night’s email off the boat. And Ian Walker’s email from Green Dragon yesterday morning also talked about Tom Braidwood (who was the project manager for the construction) … ‘working full time to rectify our keel issues.’ Nothing