Volvo Ocean Race - Groupama 4 attack upwind conditions

Day 5 - Groupama 4 in leg 7 - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12 team Groupama 4 has conceded some ground on the fifth day of racing in leg seven, following a climatic upset offshore of Newfoundland: the formation of a zone of high pressure over the Labrador Current is generating a north-easterly headwind, which has modified the strategic tone of the race. The whole fleet has quickly repositioned itself to the North as it awaits the arrival of a Canadian depression over the course of the weekend.

As the spring draws to a close, a major clean-up is going on in the Atlantic! The ocean has had its surface broken by numerous fronts, which are gadding about the sea from the Bering Strait to Newfoundland, from Greenland to Bermuda, from the Shetlands to Madeira and from Scotland to the Caspian Sea… whilst the Azores High has vanished into thin air, whilst high pressure is settling over Saint Pierre & Miquelon. And we won't even mention a tropical storm reforming over Florida. In short, the situation is very chaotic and the weather models are becoming muddled with a multitude of depressionary minima, which are forming and dissipating, merging or disappearing, whipping up their whirlwinds at the mercy of the polar air dropping down or a burst of heat… There's little isobaric gradient, which means that the atmospheric pressure is pretty constant (between 1006 and 1020 hPa). However, if there are no hills or valleys, there is no contour and hence little or no wind…

Two days ago, it seemed certain that the fleet wasn't going to flirt with the ice exclusion zone offshore of Newfoundland. However, the scenario has turned on its head now since the bulk of the fleet are ultimately likely to pass within 200 miles of its most southerly tip, along the edge of the cold Labrador Current. Indeed, this barometric stagnation has led to a dramatic change in less than a day and a half: the only way through to the East transformed into a dead-end when the front slipping along towards the Azores powered up faster than forecast, leaving behind it a zone of calms. Those pursuing Groupama 4 and Telefonica then managed to benefit from enough breeze to reposition themselves to the North, in order to get around a zone without a lot of wind, and scoop their trajectories around to reposition themselves in front of the former leaders…

Day 5 - Groupama 4 in leg 7 - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12

'In concrete terms, the backrunners have become the frontrunners! Through the southerly option, we were hoping to hook onto a front, but it slipped through our fingers. We then had to change our plans and the backrunners, who already knew that they weren't going to be able to take the course out to the East because of their delay, snatched the advantage. Whilst we were in a fairly light wind, they latched onto a westerly breeze: it's pretty frustrating, but you just have to accept it. We're now in the same breeze as our rivals and we know that a lot of things are going to happen between now and the finish in Lisbon. The Spanish are opening a door to us too as they haven't opted for the same trajectory as the bulk of the fleet. From this Friday, we're going to be attacking some upwind conditions with a great deal of tack changes and some opportunities are bound to result from that. Furthermore, making landfall in Portugal is often complicated: for now nothing's set in stone…' commented Erwan Israël this Friday morning.

In fact the fleet are on a beat this Friday afternoon, racing along the edge of a zone of high pressure positioned over Newfoundland (a rather unusual phenomenon at this time of year): the north-easterly wind remains moderate at around fifteen knots and the crews are going to be champing at the bit for a good day before the breeze picks up as it backs round to the North-West. Already the navigators have a difference of opinion over how to tackle this headwind: Abu Dhabi, Puma and Groupama 4 are heading North again to hunt down this shift, whilst the New Zealanders on lead boat Camper are continuing eastwards to cover the Spanish. However, there is sure to be a great deal of weaving about on the cards as a succession of tack changes will punctuate the watches as they await the arrival of a new disturbance rolling in from Canada, which will finally enable them to lengthen their stride. There isn't likely to be too much hierarchical upheaval over the coming hours, despite the slight separation, both laterally (Telefonica is 50 miles further South) and longitudinally (Groupama 4 is 40 miles further West than the leader).

Patience is going to be the order of the day over this next phase then, as everyone will be in the same ‘boat' on the same option (climbing North). However, concentration is also going to be important because sailing upwind in a medium breeze is the New Zealanders' strong point. It isn't until midway through the weekend that the situation will become clearer, once the new disturbed system reorganises the Atlantic, propelling the fleet into a steadier south-westerly wind for Pentecost. In the meantime, Franck Cammas and his men will have the arduous task of clawing back some miles on the leaders, whilst keeping an eye on the Spanish who, in this headwind, don't appear to be very well positioned to threaten Groupama 4 at the start of the weekend.

Positions at 1300 UTC on 25/05/2012
1. Camper – 2,058.3 miles from the finish
2. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing – 11.3 miles astern of the leader
3. Puma– 18.8 miles astern of the leader
4. Telefonica – 26.2 miles astern of the leader
5. Groupama 4 – 39.5 miles astern of the leader
6. Team Sanya – 71.6 miles astern of the leader

Day 5 - Thomas Coville, watch captain on board Groupama 4 during leg 7 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12

Groupama Sailing Team website