Volvo Ocean Race - Groupama 4 first to pass Central Ice Gate

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama 4 continue to lead on the seventh day of racing in leg five, from Auckland to Itajai, at the 1300 UTC report today.

Franck Cammas and his men were the first to pass the Central Ice Gate and have been diving down towards Cape Horn since midnight, which is still some 2,000 miles away. Groupama 4 is maintaining her separation in front of the Americans and further boosting her lead over the Spanish, whilst the New Zealanders have decided to make a pit stop in the Chilean port of Puerto Montt.

The pace has picked up again now that Groupama 4 is no longer limited by ice gates. Indeed it's set to increase still further at around 2300 UTC, once the WSW'ly breeze (35 knots) backs round to the South-West again from noon on Sunday, easing to 25 then 20 knots after daybreak (local time). There is sure to be a difficult phase due to the sea state, but from Monday morning (European time) we can expect to see speeds in excess of 20 knots, or even 22-25 knots. The reasons for this are that the sailing conditions will gradually become more manageable and equally the wind will be more favourable at the front. As a result the leader will always be a step ahead and should therefore manage to extend her lead over her rivals.

For the New Zealanders, this leg is a turning point in the race. Their structural issue with the forward bulkhead still hasn't been contained. As such Chris Nicholson has decided to head due East towards Puerto Montt, around 2,400 miles away, so as to ensure that Camper is nice and sound to round Cape Horn, as well as to reduce the stresses on the hull thanks to a route with some less harsh weather conditions. This deviation makes a podium place in Itajai inaccessible for now, and they might even leave fourth place to Abu Dhabi, which hasn't had luck on her side since starting out from Auckland a second time. Indeed the Emirati boat is currently tangled up in some light airs, which are filling the void left by the huge depression the leaders are going around. Furthermore, she won't really be able to power up again until Monday evening, with a most likely deficit of over 1,000 miles…

In this way, it's just the three Juan Kouyoumdjian designs left in the running for a podium place in Brazil right now. However, there is still a long way to go with 4,000 miles yet to cover, two thirds of which will be in a strong breeze! After keeping a tight rein on their steed over recent days, the crews will be able to ride flat out. Indeed, as they arrive at the northern edge of the austral depression which heralds their descent towards the Antarctic peninsula, the three leaders will benefit from a favourable north-westerly wind from lunchtime on Monday, which will be much less cold, less violent (25-30 knots) and less tortuous, as the seas will gradually become more organised. As a result there is no longer anything barring the way to Cape Horn, but they will have to be on the alert again as they approach land…

Indeed, the depression, which was wilting as it dropped down towards the Antarctic, has been reinvigorated as it's compressed against Graham Land. The upshot of this is that from noon on Tuesday, Groupama 4 and her two pursuers will once again get slapped by 35 to 40 knots of established westerly wind! This means that the ride through Drake's Passage on Wednesday promises to be very violent with very heavy seas and squalls of over 50 knots… Franck Cammas and his men have a dilemma on their hands then. One option would be to make very fast headway on Monday, and even sail more than 600 miles in 24 hours in ‘reasonable' and ‘manageable' conditions (eight-metre waves, 25-30 knots of wind, one reef in the mainsail and storm gennaker). Like this, they'll be able to show their pursuers a clean pair of heels, as conditions will be a little less favourable behind.

After all that though, would they be quick enough to get round Cape Horn before noon on Wednesday, which is when the front associated with the revived disturbance in the Amundsen Sea is due to track across Drake's Passage? Right now things are far from clear-cut. Either they should avoid going too fast over the next few hours, or they should go pedal to the metal to get past the dodgy area before the austral storm hits. In the first scenario, the three Juan K. designs would probably be tightly bunched at Cape Horn. In the second scenario, Groupama 4 would benefit from some excellent conditions to climb up towards Brazil, whilst her two pursuers would have to ease up to let the worst of the austral gale roll through… Response from noon on Monday!

Standings on 25 March 2012 at 1300 UTC
1. Groupama 4,029.3 miles from the finish
2. Puma 47.9 miles astern of the leader
3. Telefonica 120.4 miles astern of the leader
4. Camper 298.4 miles astern of the leader
5. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing 935.9 miles astern of the leader
6. Sanya retired from the leg.

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12

Groupama Sailing Team website