Volvo Ocean Race: Camper lead, but is Puma about to pounce?

The windward rudder cuts through the sea. PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG during leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Sanya, China to Auckland, New Zealand.

Camper and Groupama have extended their lead on the Volvo Ocean Race fleet, pushing east as Puma gambled their chips on the arrival of a northerly breeze forecast to fill in in the next 48 hours.

At 2200 UTC on 24 February Ken Read's men on Puma Ocean Racing had slipped to 273 nauctical miles behind leg leaders Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand but were banking on better winds coming their way.

Volvo Ocean Race organisers use a system of an on the water snap shot of the distance to sail to Auckland as a determinant of the race lead.

Sail-World uses the routing function of www.predictwind.com!PredictWind to calculate finishing times of the yachts which takes into account the winds and weather that the individual boats will experience on their way to Auckland.

Accurate weather is only really available nine days out - and Sail-World's placings are based on a realistic waypoint positioned north of Vanuatu.

Volvo Ocean Race positions - Leg 4 Day 5 showing Puma well astern and to the north

Under this system, Camper is leading from Groupama with Abu Dhabi in third place. (Volvo's system has Team Sanya in third overall being closer to New Zealand, but doesn't see that she will have lighter winds to traverse.
Surprise is that overall race leader, Telefonica is fifth using one of the two weather feeds which are employed by PredictWind, and is sixth place on the basis of time to finish, using data from the other feed.

On the water Puma is shown as being 200nm behind the Spanish entry skippered by Olympic and World Champion Iker Martinez.

Puma’s radical northerly route has seen them closing in on Japan rather than the Leg 4 destination of Auckland and Volvo Ocean race says that Ken Read’s crew could be the first to benefit from the fresh breeze expected to sweep across the fleet over the weekend.

Predictwind.com sees it rather differently, and Ken Read and his crew should be about to hit the elevator in winds of over 19kts and carry these almost all the way down the Pacific.

The other competitors will also have the benefit of stronger breezes, but later than Puma.

Volvo Ocean Race - Leg 4 Day 5 - Camper’s shot at the breeze - from the same feed as Puma showing Camper sailing in a wind half the strength of that enjoyed by Puma. However the US entry has sailed a lot of extra distance to obtain the fresh winds.

Volvo Ocean Race - Leg 4 Day 5 - Puma hits strong winds in 12 hours time

According to an interview from Camper skipper with Newstalk ZB's Peter Montgomery, Camper expected to 'hitting the tradewinds in 30 minutes'. From the predicted windstrengths, Camper will be in a breeze of 10 knots, and won't really get into the breezes averaging 15 knots plus for another two days. Puma will have been clocking down the back straight in winds five or more knots stronger for two days at that point.

Watch leader Craig Satterthwaite onboard Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing during leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Sanya, China to Auckland, New Zealand. (Credit: Nick Dana/Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race)

According to Volvo Ocean Race reports, Andrew Cape, navigator on Iker Martínez’s fifth placed Team Telefónica, believes Puma are far from out of contention on this leg having made their breakaway move after being close to the Spanish overall race leaders the previous day.

'They were next to us yesterday when we were in the light winds,' Cape said. 'They chose to go north to await the breeze and, it’s interesting, once they get the breeze they are looking for they will be on course and going quite well, but they have some catching up to do.'

Cape said that the fleet’s north easterly track towards the trade winds could continue for a good while yet making the current Distance To Finish rankings meaningless at the moment.

'It’s all about your positioning in relation to the coming breeze,' he said. 'There’s still a lot of things to be ironed out but we are just doing the best with what we’ve got.

'With the low pressure situation off Japan everyone has chosen to go north away from the rhumb line to wait until the trade winds are established again which could mean we have to sail another thousand miles east.

Cape acknowledged that to be racing away from the finish line must appear counterintuitive to the casual outside observer of the race.

'It looks pretty stupid and is really pretty stupid but it’s the best way to get to New Zealand, unfortunately,' he said.

Justin Slattery and Adil Khalid moves the stack onboard Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing during leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Sanya, China to Auckland, New Zealand. (Credit: Nick Dana/Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race)

Puma Ocean Racing have been picking their way through a myriad of tiny Japanese islands and had to delay their first turn east to clear a newly formed volcanic island but are now heading east parallel with the fleet.

'When we finally found the penultimate shift to start our long trek east, we had to wait for five miles to avoid tacking through a microscopic volcanic summit called Taisho To -- only two years old,' wrote Puma MCM Amory Ross.

'By any measure we are still doing the right thing for our particular set of circumstances,' Ross said. 'Tom (Addis, navigator) and Ken (Read, skipper) have worked tirelessly to decode the forecasts. The computer models don’t tend to lie.

'So we will just have to wait this one out and see what happens,' Ross concluded.

Franck Cammas, skipper of second-placed Groupama sailing team said his main focus was on getting east as quickly as possible to be well positioned against the fleet when the breeze became more favourable.

'At some point the wind will come from the north,' Cammas said. 'We don’t want to be too south to be amongst the first to get it.

Rob Salthouse gives the thumbs up to the bowman during a sail change CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand during leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Sanya, China to Auckland, New Zealand. (Credit: Hamish Hooper/CAMPER ETNZ/Volvo Ocean Race)
Hamish Hooper/Camper ETNZ/Volvo Ocean Race©

'All the fleet except Puma are following an average route east. Puma went north to look for that new wind before the other ones. It may pay tomorrow or after tomorrow but, they have surely invested a lot.'

With reaching conditions still to come in the still more than 4,500 nautical miles to Auckland, which could favour the French boat and help them close down Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand, Cammas said he was happy with second place at this point.

'We feel comfortable reaching, especially compared to Camper,' he said. 'We are happy not to be far from them. The good reaching boats for example Telefónica are still a bit behind and that’s not a bad thing either.

'Traps must be avoided, though, and yes if we manage to stay in touch with Camper we will be delighted to be in that position when we reach more stable winds which should favour us.'

While happy to have regained the lead on their homecoming leg, Camper have been unable to shake off second-placed Groupama who are in clear view on the horizon.??

'Herein lay the first frustration of today,' wrote MCM Hamish Hooper in his report from the boat. 'As severely frustrating as a mosquito in your ear, is the small green dot of Groupama on the horizon. Again, like a mosquito, they are unlikely to go away easily.'

Skipper Chris Nicholson takes a bearing of Groupama on the horizon onboard CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand during leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Sanya, China to Auckland, New Zealand. (Credit: Hamish Hooper/CAMPER ETNZ/Volvo Ocean Race)
Hamish Hooper/Camper ETNZ/Volvo Ocean Race©

Skipper Ken Read takes advantage of some downtime for a quick nap at the Navigation Station while Jonathan Swain gets dressed for his on-watch in the background. PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG during leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Sanya, China to Auckland, New Zealand. (Credit: Amory Ross/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race)

Phil Harmer driving as the sun set onboard Groupama Sailing Team during leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Sanya, China to Auckland, New Zealand. (Credit: Yann Riou/Groupama Sailing Team/Volvo Ocean Race)