Volvo Ocean Race: Camper leads but navigational nightmare ahead

Adam Minoprio and Mike Pammenter grinding a reef into the mainsail onboard Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand during leg 6 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Itajai, Brazil, to Miami, USA.
Hamish Hooper/Camper ETNZ/Volvo Ocean Race©

The lead three boats in the Volvo Ocean Race are sailing at speeds well in excess of 20kts, as they enjoy the Tradewinds, having exited the Doldrums.

Using the routing function of www.predictwind.com!Predictwind.com, Camper sailed by Emirates Team NZ has a small lead of 50 minutes over Puma Ocean Racing, with overall race leader Telefonica just 10 minutes behind the US flagged entry.

That is a slightly different outcome than the instant system used by Volvo Ocean Race, which has Puma in the lead by just 1.7nm over Camper with Telefonica 6.0nm off the lead. The other two boats, Abu Dhabi and Groupama are over 100nm behind the lead trio.

A further point of difference between the two calculations is that the Predictwind prognosis is based on arrival time a the next waypoint, Eleuthera Island Light a waypoint en route to the finish at Miami, while the VOR positions are taken to the actual finish and are based on who is closest in terms of distance. Predictwind is a finish time calculation, based on weather over the next six days on the route options to be sailed by the yachts.

Who is in front of the fleet is a mere bagatelle at this juncture. The real issue for the crews and navigational teams will be to pick the correct approach to Miami.

Four routing options for Camper - Leg 6 at 1800hrs on 02 May 2012 GMT
As can be seen from the Predictwind options for race leader, Camper - using four weather feeds (the competitors only have two available) - there seem to to be three options further out into the Atlantic Ocean and away from the Caribbean islands, or inshore and take what comes off the South American coast.

The third option, favoured by two of the feeds (one a standard feed, that may be available to the crews on the yachts, and the Predictwind GFS model) shows an island weaving course as being the best option for the remaining 1800nm to the Light.

Normally navigators would opt for the most direct route, but keeping an eye on the courses and boats either side. However the islands and their effect on the breeze are highly unpredictable - and could be a high risk option.

Certainly all crews will be well aware of the gains made by Puma in particular on the first week of Leg 4, where a radical piece of weather routing paid a big dividend - enabling them to haul back a lead of 280nm in just two days. That will be top of mind for the two trailing boats, who have less than half that amount of deficit and six days in which to do it.

Zoom view of three lead boats Leg 6 at 1800hrs on 02 May 2012 GMT
Given the proximity of the boats - they must be within sight of each other, it is likely that they will match race to the finish, however to get the advantage of the best course they will have to make a break towards the South American coast before lining up to pass between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Somehow passing between Haiti and Cuba doesn't seem to be a serious option at this stage. But memories of Leg 4 and the option (probably the best, in hindsight) to pass between mainland China and Taiwan, will still be fresh.

Meanwhile the latest report from Volvo Ocean Race has it that Telefónica are poised to pounce on any mistakes by Leg 6 leaders Puma and Camper as the top three power towards the Miami finish line in close formation, while behind them a second great battle develops.

At 1300 UTC on Wednesday (six hours prior to the Predictwind calculations) Puma Ocean Racing powered by Berg held a lead of three nautical miles (nm) over Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand with around 1,900 nm to go, says VOR.

Overall leaders Team Telefónica were less than four nm further back in third and navigator Andrew Cape said the Spanish team were enjoying the trade wind sailing and 'smoking along at 20 knots'.

'It’s lovely sailing here,' Cape said. 'We’re right into the trades, we’ve got 18 knots of breeze and we’re all in sight of each other.'

Cape said the Telefónica crew would do everything they could to close down Puma and Camper over the next 24 hours of fast straight line sailing before the weather scenario got more complicated.

Roberto Bermudez De Castro, checking an email delivered onboard CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand during leg 6 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Itajai, Brazil, to Miami, USA. (Credit: Hamish Hooper/CAMPER ETNZ/Volvo Ocean Race)
Hamish Hooper/Camper ETNZ/Volvo Ocean Race©
'The last 1,000 miles are going to be tricky but that’s still a long way off,' he said. 'We’re just trying to get back into second, overtake Camper. For now it’s a drag race and we’re just trying to go as fast as possible.

'We’re right in there with the leading pack and feeling good about our chances.'

The tussle between Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Franck Cammas’ Groupama sailing team was on a knife edge after the French team eased past Walker's crew and establised a narrow advantage of less than one nm.

'The race is developing into two great battles,' Walker said today. PUMA, Telefónica and Camper at the head of the pack and ourselves neck and neck with Groupama.'

Walker said he was comfortable with Abu Dhabi’s positioning despite losing out when Groupama made gains by sailing hotter angles overnight.

'We are happy to have some (lateral) distance between the boats at this stage. Being further south will hurt in the short term but maybe it will be an advantage in a couple of days' time.

'The weather ahead looks very mixed and there still remains every possibility that the fleet will park up in light wind between here and Miami. Until then we need to try to stay as close as we can to the lead pack and hope something opens up for us.'

Walker said the warm weather and lack of rain on this leg had made personal hygiene a challenge and with '11 very smelly men desperately in need of a shower', a bottle of shampoo was being kept in easy reach on deck in the hope of a rain shower.

According to Walker the team’s arrival date in Miami was the crew’s main preoccupation along with the diminishing levels of fuel for the generator and food for the crew.

'Conversation on board is fixated largely on the ETA into Miami which is fluctuating by up to 48 hours, food rationing and whether we will run out of diesel or not,' he said.

'I am confident we will be alright on all fronts but we are in ‘power save’ mode and the already sparse daily rations have been thinned down a bit more to create some food for Tuesday and Wednesday.'

Groupama skipper Franck Cammas said he was delighted to be back in touch with Abu Dhabi having made gains after a fast passage through the Doldrums.

'We got quite a lot of miles back (in the Doldrums) so we are happy,' he said. 'We were 12 hours behind entering the Doldrums and we now are less that six hours behind.'

Cammas said he was eying up opportunities to make further gains on the leaders when the trade wind sailing came to an end in the next 48 hours.

'The wind should drop in two days time,' he said. 'We are happy to have unstable systems ahead and a break in the trades, because where there are light winds, there will be options. If there is very unstable wind and we could get back on track.

Cammas said the Groupama crew remained 'calm and focused' as they tried to fight their way back into contention.

'The atmosphere is good,' he said. There is no tension and we still hope to come back and do something good in this leg. Even though the fight is 100 miles apart, it’s still a fight.'

With his boat now undergoing repairs in the United States after having been shipped from New Zealand to Savannah due to damage on Leg 5 in the Southern Ocean, Team Sanya skipper Mike Sanderson said he was relieved to be making progress towards rejoining the race in time for the PortMiami In-Port Race.

'It’s been very odd -- it doesn’t feel like I’m doing the Volvo Ocean Race at the moment,' Sanderson said. 'It’s been much nicer since the boat arrived. I talk to the guys there at least a couple of times a day which is great, and much more refreshing. It feels like we’re back in the campaign.

'The sailors have been putting in a lot of effort in the gym and we’re just looking forward to getting back into the race.'