Volvo Ocean Race: Telefonica and Groupama 4 scrapping along the Strait

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper Ian Walker at the helm during leg 3 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Abu Dhabi, UAE to Sanya, China.

After a night of close-quarter scrapping for the lead, Telefónica (Iker Martínez/ESP) and Groupama 4 were by 1000 UTC today just five more hours from passing Horsburgh Lighthouse and exiting the stressful Singapore Strait.

Martínez was leading Franck Cammas’ French boat by just 1.4 nm.

But before they are set free of the traps that have been causing a three-day headache for the skippers and navigators, the leading duo have to negotiate a 30 nm corridor of just two and half miles imposed by the shipping lanes protecting the entrance to the port of Singapore. The port tack reach parallel to the lane should take approximately five hours.

Five of the fleet have been compressed to 10.5 nm, separating Telefónica and Groupama who are neck and neck, from Ian Walker’s Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in fifth place. Sanya (Mike Sanderson/NZL), however, is now in deficit by 144 nm for sixth place.

Onboard the leaders, the mood is tense. Groupama 4 and Telefónica have been as close as 20 metres apart overnight, near enough for conversation, but none was had. The two crews ignored each other but for a brief luffing match when Groupama 4 tried to pass Telefónica to windward as the pair lay almost becalmed. The wind filled in from the windward side and a short luff was all that was needed from Telefónica to ensure that Groupama’s move was unsuccessful.

Not quite within shouting distance, but certainly in sight, is third placed PUMA’s Mar Mostro (Ken Read/USA) 2.5 nm behind. On Sunday, Mar Mostro had pulled to within a few hundred metres but a tangle with a fishing net cost them an hour or so while it was unhitched. Meantime the wind had faded and PUMA’s immediate chance was gone.

The inshore gamble for CAMPER (Chris Nicholson/AUS) 10.4 nm back in fourth clearly did not pay off this time. Overnight, the team had two close encounters with shipping, altering course several times. One ship was so curious to see a highly branded racing yacht that they weighed anchor and turned on their massive floodlights. Feeling like prisoners who had escaped from jail, CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand raced on by, when a call from the ship’s crew echoed out, offering them a cool beer. The offer was declined.

The Malacca Strait has provided a very interesting tactical game for CAMPER and Ian Walker’s Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. 'We are closer to the leaders than we have been since day four, and we have had great fun trading places with CAMPER in the last 24 hours,' Walker said. 'We finally got past them yesterday evening after a day spent chasing hard, only to lose the place back when we became becalmed before the onset of the land breeze,' he added. Walker is not looking forward to the final upwind part of Leg 3 to China, with some rough conditions certain of the coast of Vietnam. 'Now is the time to be checking things over, doing any small maintenance bits and other chores before the sea conditions deteriorate,' he explained.

Meanwhile, Team Sanya’s crew were downbeat as they trailed the leaders by 144 nm. 'I cannot describe the feeling on board at the moment. The word frustration doesn’t quite do it justice,' wrote MCM Andres Soriano. 'I think it is safe to say that there isn’t a soul on board who wouldn’t rather be sailing upwind in 30+ knots right now,' he said.

Once the fleet reaches the small group of islands 150nm off the Malaysian coast, they will head north through the South China Sea towards the finish in Sanya on a 450 nm beat in a building monsoon. Telefónica’s navigator, Andrew Cape, is expecting conditions that suit Telefónica very well. Game continues to be very much on.