Volvo Ocean Race - Groupama 4 makes fast headway

Groupama Sailing Team get hit by a wave on their port side, during leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama 4 remain at the front of the fleet on the eleventh day of racing in leg five, from Auckland to Itajai, at the 1300 UTC report today.

With less than 400 miles to go to reach Cape Horn, Groupama 4 is making fast headway towards South America, but the crew will have to link together a series of gybes before they make it through into the Atlantic. The sailing conditions have considerably improved and, if things pan out as they should, Franck Cammas and his men will be Cape Horners from daybreak local time, or early afternoon on Friday (European time).

Making landfall on the Chilean coast is already part of the programme and before sunset this Thursday the Andes cordillera will appear over the horizon! This will be the first land they've seen since setting out from Auckland, after twelve days at sea, nine of which have been particularly lively… Groupama 4 is in tip-top condition and the crew is benefiting from a slight ‘let-up' to lengthen their stride, without forcing either the machine or the men.

'It will be daybreak in about half an hour's time: right now, for the first time in a long while, we're sailing with 25 knots of WNW'ly wind, on considerably flatter seas. It's a lot less violent down below and on deck. We're beginning to slip along smoothly with a lot more sail up, even though we aren't carrying everything aloft again yet. We're heading towards the southern tip of South America, but not directly towards Cape Horn, since we'll have to gybe several times along the coast, a session which will probably start tonight. The north-westerly wind is set to kick back in with a punch and we should be able to make out land this Thursday afternoon (local time). It's very beautiful down here so we'll be able to do a spot of tourism…' indicated Franck Cammas during the noon radio session today.

The austral depression has done some damage and just half the fleet are still in a position to get the best out of their VO-70s. Groupama 4 has managed to negotiate this latest storm without mishap, despite it picking up very messy seas. Indeed, it was still making its presence felt this morning when it caused Abu Dhabi to crash tack with the sails backed and the keel on the wrong side… which just goes to show how violent the Pacific has been (and still is). It's the ability to temper this speed-safety ratio, which has been a real plus for the two leaders, who haven't sought to impose their authority at the head of the fleet and are simply focusing on sailing gently, without putting too much pressure on their machines.

'We've tried to get our bearings in the rough weather in terms of the way we trim the boat and we're being sparing with her, whilst making fast headway. We've tested the different sail configurations. At times, it's reminiscent of multihull sailing, where you have to make headway gently, really bearing away, with the sails depowered and hence not sailing the boat flat out. On the whole, we tend to carry more sail up forward whilst putting reefs in the mainsail, as we're doing at the moment under masthead gennaker. We've always tried to slip across the waves gently and the helmsman has to really play around with the wheel so as not to slow down too suddenly and not accelerate too fast. You're considerably less protected on a VO-70 than on a trimaran like Groupama 3! You're one or two metres lower down on a monohull, and it's a bit like being the leeward float on a multihull… We've put up a wall of sails in front of the helmsman to protect him, but he gets the full force of it dumped on top of him.'

Two years ago, Franck Cammas passed by these same places during the Jules Verne Trophy and the South Pacific wasn't quite the same then. A lot of this was down to the fact that monohull and multihull sailing are very different…

'Compared with the Jules Verne Trophy, the Pacific has been a lot tougher this time. With a multihull, the period of bad weather rolls through a lot quicker… On Groupama 3, we had just as big a depression before we made Cape Horn, with 40 knots of breeze, but that only lasted a day. Here, we remained with the system for longer (eight days) in very heavy seas, because the depression wasn't really moving. It remained very static and we were at the back of it too! We had cross seas and the waves only dropped below seven metres yesterday evening… There have been some very tough times, especially at night, as we're traversing the area later in the season and there is almost as much darkness as daylight. We haven't really been frightened at any point, but it was stressful for a long time: you gradually get used to getting slammed by the sea, though we did go into a broach twice…'

The end of this fifth leg is far from over though as there are still over 1,800 miles to go after Cape Horn before the crews reach Itajai. As such the duel between the Americans and the French is only just beginning and there are a number of strategic opportunities on the cards over the coming days. Initially it will be important to find out what the separation is between the two boats as they exit Drake's Passage. A delta of over fifty miles, as was the case at noon this Thursday, would be a bonus, though it certainly wouldn't be enough to guarantee a result. Indeed, after a quick climb with the wind on the beam, there will be another depression to negotiate offshore of Argentina and very likely some upwind conditions and light airs as they approach Brazil.

'Like any rounding of Cape Horn, it's both legendary and a deliverance! It's the end of the hardest section of the Volvo Ocean Race. We'll finally be able to climb northwards, towards milder latitudes and, most notably, the seas will become flatter and more organised. From Isla de Los Estados, life will change radically, as will the level of comfort aboard. The conditions will alter drastically, because we're not gearing up for a high speed dash to get to Cape Horn. There are going to be a series of gybes, the effects of land and there will be a strong north-westerly wind (35 knots), easing after the rock. It's not certain that we'll still be leading on exiting Drake's Passage! However, it's not a deciding factor to be leader: what matters is to make it back into the Atlantic with a boat in her absolute prime and with a crew which is in great shape.'

Standings on 29 March 2012 at 1300 UTC
1. Groupama 2,279.3 miles from the finish
2. Puma 52.3 miles astern of the leader
3. Telefonica 379.1 miles astern of the leader
4. Camper 1,236.8 miles astern of the leader
5. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing 1,447.8 miles astern of the leader
6. Sanya DNF.

Martin Krite on the bow, preparing for a sail change, onboard Groupama Sailing Team during leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Auckland, New Zealand to Itajai, Brazil. (Credit: Yann Riou/Groupama Sailing Team/Volvo Ocean Race)

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