Volvo Ocean Race - Groupama 4 in attacking phase

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 6 - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama 4 are on the thirteenth day of racing in leg six, from Itajad, Brazil to Miami. Offshore of the Virgin Islands, the wind has virtually died away as a zone of calms has moved into the area since Saturday morning and the exit isn't easy to locate. However, Groupama 4 has still managed to reduce her deficit in relation to the frontrunners and her positioning further to the South may enable her to slip beneath a patch of light airs... Despite this, Miami is still a very long way off seemingly, as this sixth leg is set to round off in very light airs.

Between Saint Martin and the Virgin Islands, the Anegada Passage is marked by a reef topped by a lighthouse, which goes by the name of Sombrero! It's this football-style dummy move that Groupama 4 is aiming to attempt to get around the barrier of calms by quickly flicking to the South. The trajectory adopted by Franck Cammas and his men is now thirty miles further South than the three leaders, which are on the point of extracting themselves from a zone of calms, which stopped them in their tracks this Saturday morning. The breeze is a long way off stabilising, not solely for this weekend but right the way to the finish in Miami, the ETA is shifting back with every passing hour...

'There was 120 miles of lateral separation on Friday afternoon between Puma and Camper, whilst they were in contact with each other two days ago! And now they're back together again... We're in the North-East corner of the Antilles and now we have to set a direct course towards Miami, but that translates as having the wind right on our tail: as such we've had to link together a series of gybes and the weather models aren't in agreement. Some are proposing the North, another the West, but there's nothing in between. As a result it depends on the navigators and whether they're introverts or extroverts, and whether the skippers are attackers or defenders. It's going to be a bit like a game of Russian roulette because the situation is complicated. It's favourable for a comeback by Groupama 4 and Abu Dhabi, but there are some miles to be squandered! Indeed, the weather is also set to deteriorate with rain, storms and wind shifts all due to form part of the scenery: essentially it's an open door to an organised mess... It's interesting for a navigator like me, though I do prefer it when you can control your own destiny, which doesn't appear to be the case here: it's hard to choose between one option and another,' indicated Jean-Luc Nélias, Groupama 4's navigator.

There is no fast track to Florida then and it will all come down to little moves in the centre or big strikes down the outside along the touchline. In fact the playing field is limited by the archipelago of tropical islands, the Virgin Islands and the Bahamas, with the halfway line level with the Tropic of Cancer: the wind is pushing them along on both sides, but in the middle there is virtually nothing over the coming days. As such there would appear to be two strategies of attack: counterattacking on the left wing with Groupama 4 and Abu Dhabi; hooking around on the right wing with Puma, Camper and Telefonica. For now, it's a even match as the Americans have had to keep an eye on the Spanish dribblers and the attempt to undertake them by the New Zealanders, whilst the French and the Emiratis were taking a detour to strike out to the South.

In this way, the strategy is geared around slow progress towards the goal as the playing field is peppered with wind holes, even though the breeze is tending to establish itself this Saturday afternoon with between five and ten knots of northerly wind. Franck Cammas and his crew are into the attacking phase as they hunt down a 'corner' beside Puerto Rico, where a north-easterly breeze of around a dozen knots is in the process of settling into the zone. In contrast, the three leaders are aiming for the Turks and Caicos Islands, which are certainly closer to the direct route, but are riskier as the wind is tending to die to less than six knots in this area. As such the tacticians are really under pressure because there is no clarity in the situation until they reach the 'penalty area', which is bordered by the island of Eleuthera (North of the Bahamas), one of the last course marks before Florida.

As such, whilst the final result looks set to be decided after extra time, as the fleet aren't likely to make Miami before Thursday morning (or later), things are sure to conclude with a series of shots at the goal to split the five pretenders to victory in this leg. The tactical combinations aren't easy as a barometric swamp is forming over the Tropic of Cancer, with a light to moderate easterly breeze to the South and a very light westerly air flow to the North of this imaginary line. The climb along the Bahamas, which equates to 500 miles, promises to be very random, as nobody knows how these successions of depressionary minima will pan out the further along the track the boats get. This Saturday morning, it was certainly very slow going. Groupama 4 is far from being offside though, with a deficit of just sixty miles or so in relation to the American leader, and her lateral separation leaves her with an opportunity to control her adversaries... For now then, the referee certainly isn't about to blow the whistle for the end of play.

Standings on 5 May at 1300 UTC
1 - Puma 948.0 from the finish
2 - Camper 22.7 miles from the leader
3 - Telefonica 28.4 miles from the leader
4 - Groupama 65.8 miles from the leader
5 - Abu Dhabi 84.4 miles from the leader

Groupama Sailing Team website