Volvo Ocean Race Leg 5 - Groupama not taking any chances

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Auckland, New Zealand to Itajai, Brazil.
In Leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race, the four leaders sailed past the first virtual ice limit mark in a south-westerly wind which is built to over 30 knots, gusting to 45 knots. As such, the sailors are hunkering down somewhat, though they're still maintaining speeds close to 20 knots. Franck Cammas and his men have decided not to take any chances on this 800-mile section of the racetrack…

The peak of the austral storm, which is sweeping across the South Pacific, is expected to hit on Saturday evening (European time), whilst the centre of the depression will be close and the second virtual ice limit mark (47°S – 130°W) will be within sight. The breeze is then likely to exceed 40 knots with gusts in excess of 50 knots beneath the squalls.

However, the violence dished out by the elements should only last for a few hours, since the disturbed system which has been climbing up from the Antarctic over the past couple of days, will then drop back down to the South as it slowly fills. Fortunately the worst of this squall is likely to roll through during daylight hours, which is good news whilst the new moon is providing no light during the short six-hour nights.

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Auckland, New Zealand to Itajai, Brazil. (Credit: Yann Riou/Groupama Sailing Team/Volvo Ocean Race)

As a result, the race strategy has dramatically altered since Thursday, when the leaders entered the zone to the North of the ice limit. The primary objective for all the skippers and their crews is to come out of this depression unscathed. This isn't just true for the gear, with 5,000 miles left to cover, but above all for the men who are already scarred by the accumulation of fatigue, together with the cold air and icy water, which is constantly surging across the deck.

The latest positions show that Groupama 4 isn't really gunning it right now as the focus is on preserving the boat. In this way, Franck Cammas and his men have lost a bit of ground in relation to the New Zealanders, which equates to around ten miles in half a day. However, the same is true for the Americans and the Spanish, who have also eased off the pace.

In these extreme conditions, the aim is to remain in contention. If Camper maintains her current pace, which at times is over two knots faster than her rivals, she's sure to stretch out an even bigger lead over the next 36 hours, but that shouldn't be in excess of a hundred miles by Sunday morning. Indeed it's at that point that the boats will be able to bend their trajectories around to the South-East and Cape Horn. The wind will remain in the South-West to West, whilst easing to 25-30 knots, so there's a spot of reaching on the cards after the second virtual ice limit mark. Then early next week, the final sprint for Cape Horn promises to be very quick with a north-westerly breeze of 20-25 knots.

The Race Management for the Volvo Ocean Race took the decision earlier this week to move the ice limit 2° further North, after icebergs were spotted to the North of 50°S. As a result, the risk of encountering growlers is very low, but it's the biting cold of the wind coming up from the Antarctic which is proving harder for the crew of Groupama 4 to bear. Indeed the sea temperature stands at 5°C, with an air temperature bordering on 3°C at dusk, and most importantly, a true wind of over 35 knots which is generating an apparent wind on deck of over 60km/hr. In short, it feels intensely cold and there's nothing down below to really warm you up, with the exception of a few hours where the engine's on to recharge the boat's batteries.

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Auckland, New Zealand to Itajai, Brazil. (Credit: Yann Riou/Groupama Sailing Team/Volvo Ocean Race)

Constantly showered by spray and dumped on by the waves, whilst marinating in air saturated with humidity, Franck Cammas and his men are awaiting Wednesday's passage around Cape Horn with a real sense of deliverance! In these brutal conditions at the Antarctic ice gates, the cold numbs the bodies, which are particularly sensitive to impact, making every manœuvre extremely tiresome. This weekend will be the worst of the Volvo Ocean Race for all the crews.

It's worth noting here though that the crew of the Chinese boat have decided to head back to New Zealand after the starboard rudder stock sheered right off, leading to a major leak which the crew of Sanya has since contained. Finally, the Emirati yacht isn't being favoured by the weather conditions. Lamenting a 475-mile deficit, Abu Dhabi wasn't able to hook onto the same austral depression as the others and will have to negotiate a zone of light winds this weekend.

As such their chances of catching up with the leading group are pretty slim…

Standing for the 5th leg from Auckland - Itajai 23 March 2012, 1600 UTC

1. Camper 4,945.5 miles from the finish

2. Groupama 9.1 miles astern of the leader

3. Telefonica 31.7 miles astern of the leader

4. Puma 45.0 miles astern of the leader

5. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing 479.6 miles astern of the leader

6. Sanya heading back to New Zealand with rudder damage.

Groupama website
Volvo Ocean Race website