Volvo Ocean Race – Groupama 4 trundle along

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama hold an 83.7 mile lead on the fifteenth day of racing in the second stage of leg four from Sanya to Auckland at the 1600 UTC report.

The course towards Auckland is calling for some slight detours so the pace is slow as Groupama 4 continues on her way to the West of New Caledonia. There are two reasons for this change of heading: a south-easterly breeze which isn't terribly steady and the need to cover the three ‘western' boats. At a subdued pace since the end of the weekend, Franck Cammas and his men should find renewed drive from this Monday evening.

As media man Yann Riou on Groupama 4 reported this Monday morning: 'the days are tending to become a little monotonous'. And we can well understand this sentiment since Franck Cammas and his men have been on the same point of sail for over a week! Seven days heeled over on port tack, in a breeze varying between 8 and 25 knots, where the only manœuvres involve shifting the stack of sails longitudinally and switching from the J1 to the J2 genoa, then back to the J1 or the Code 0… In short, in the stifling heat of the equator, without the possibility of really opening the hatches to get some air circulating down below, the atmosphere aboard the French boat (along with the others) is both sticky and heavy. It'll be another three to four days before the tropical heat fades as a result of a more temperate austral autumn offshore of New Zealand.

Let's not forget that the six VO-70s are still between 10° and 15° South, which is between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn, whilst the equinox of the austral autumn (20 March) isn't for another fifteen days. This means that the sun is virtually directly above them at noon, local time, and the humidity rate is bordering on 90%! As a result, the evaporation levels are intense in the Coral Sea and the succession of cloud masses to the North of New Caledonia are leading to rain squalls and, most importantly, lighter ESE'ly tradewinds. Groupama 4 was the first to be affected by this at the beginning of last night (local time) and her speed dropped to less than seven knots for nearly six hours… And yet, her easterly position in relation to the rest of the fleet is again bearing fruit. Early this Monday afternoon, they were benefiting from around twelve knots of easterly wind, whilst nearly all the rest of the fleet were sailing in a SSE'ly air flow!

This unforeseen cloud attack has forced the Spanish and the New Zealanders into a tack to reposition themselves along the course of the leader of this fourth leg. Indeed, even the Americans have been affected by this mass of rain. As such the current scenario is very favourable for Franck Cammas and his men, who can slip along towards the Belep Islands (Pott and Art Islands) some 150 miles ahead, so as to carve out a big curve to the West of Nouméa. Groupama 4 is probably going to pass between 100 and 200 miles offshore, so as not to be too affected by the high landforms of New Caledonia.

Having rounded the island of Outre-Mer, Groupama 4 is probably not going to switch back onto the direct course. Not looking very pronounced, a depression is forming along the trajectory leading to New Zealand, which is expected to result in light, fluky winds all around the zone… As such it will very likely be necessary to drop down due South, even though the last 300 miles are probably set to round off with boisterous south-easterly headwinds. Behind the French boat, their pursuers don't really have any other choice than to same the same track. From tonight (UTC time), it is expected that the whole fleet will fall into line behind the French locomotive. Puma will be in the position of tender, less than a hundred miles behind, then Telefonica and Abu Dhabi will be in contact around 150 miles further back, followed by Camper nearly 200 miles astray. Meantime Sanya will probably have to catch the next train...

Given that there are over 1,300 miles to go before the leaders reach Auckland, will this 8 to 15% differential be enough to ensure the French boat wins an Oscar? It's not certain as the calms which will settle into place to the North of New Zealand may also shift westwards and ensnare the leader. In these French waters, 'The Artist' will favour the island of Art, but Franck Cammas hasn't yet written the whole scenario for this action-packed fourth leg. The script hasn't yet gone in for the kill in this latest hunt, though the pack are set to regroup. As such, will the focus revolve around each team's ability to strike out for a stage win (at the risk of losing their way) or rather the need to ensure their podium seat so as to limit the damage in terms of points in the overall ranking?

Standings at 1600 UTC
1 : Groupama 4 some 1,334.5 miles from the finish
2 : Puma 83.7 miles astern of the leader
3 : Telefonica 133.2 miles astern of the leader
4 : Camper 169 miles astern of the leader
5 : Abu Dhabi 173.2 miles astern of the leader
6 : Sanya 254.1 miles astern of the leader

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Sanya, China to Auckland, New Zealand. (Credit: Yann Riou/Groupama Sailing Team/Volvo Ocean Race)

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Sanya, China to Auckland, New Zealand. (Credit: Yann Riou/Groupama Sailing Team/Volvo Ocean Race)

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