Volvo Ocean Race – Groupama claw back mile after mile

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 6 - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama 4 are on the eleventh day of racing in leg six, from Itajad, Brazil to Miami. Making an average speed of over twenty knots for the past 24 hours, Groupama has managed to move up to fourth place as she continues to claw back mile after mile on the head of the fleet. Furthermore, the expected stalling by the leaders from this Thursday afternoon could enable Franck Cammas and his men to come back in contact within 48 hours' time. To achieve this the crew will need to successfully negotiate the light winds around the Antilles arc.

'Since last night we've been making good progress in a more stable wind of 20-25 knots, but there are some squalls around. We've had the entire sail wardrobe aloft, but we're going to enter a flukier breeze from this afternoon, where we're sure to have to hoist the spinnaker. We'll keep an eye on what the leaders are up to, because there are some decisions to be made about which course to adopt over the coming hours...' indicated Franck Cammas at Tuesday's lunchtime video conference.

Basically, the tradewinds of the northern hemisphere are nicely in place as the week draws to a close and after a rather laborious climb along the Brazilian coast and a fairly inactive Doldrums, the tempo has shifted up a gear: an average of over 23 knots for several hours and 495 miles devoured in one day for Groupama 4 (from midday to midday European time). At the head of the fleet, the three leaders haven't been letting each other out of their sights since the Doldrums, some two days ago now, with a delta of between one and twenty miles between Puma, Camper and Telefonica. Each of them is attempting to shift across either to the West or to the East, but these minor options aren't scoring any significant points. Everyone is seeking to benefit for as long as possible from these conditions, which are perfect for slipping across a relatively smooth sea and a fairly steady easterly breeze of over 20 knots.

The navigators know that the situation will change very soon since the tradewinds will fade from early this Thursday afternoon (local time), dropping to around a dozen knots, then ten knots tomorrow night. The speeds of over twenty knots, which have been recorded over the past few hours, will thus fade to around fifteen, or even a dozen knots, as the breeze is also set to shift round to the South-East. The helmsmen will have to find a good compromise between heading and speed in order to maintain an optimum trajectory for passing to the North of the Caribbean arc.

Right now, there are no options up for grabs: Abu Dhabi attempted to shift across to leeward on Wednesday, with the supposed aim of traversing the centre of the Antilles archipelago (beside Martinique), but the weather forecasts have changed and are no longer very favourable for this sprint down the inside lane. The current trend is more indicative of a big parabola course to the North of the Virgin Islands so as to avoid the wind shadows and a zone of light airs beside the Mona Passage (between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic). An accumulation of tropical clouds is expected over the area on Friday evening, creating less than five knots of breeze...

'We mustn't get burnt on an extreme option, but we know that the wind is going to drop away right across the zone. There will be a few opportunities to be had, even if they are just slight position shifts. We're already happy to have caught up with Abu Dhabi as we were frustrated by this first week, watching everyone getting away from us, without being able to do a thing about it. However, we've already seen the situation being turned on its head in previous legs and the end of this leg will unfold in light airs so anything's possible!'

In fact it's over this final 1,000 mile section (of the 4,800 miles to cover between Itajai and Miami) that the standing will be decided. The three top spots will be the first to be settled of course and both Groupama 4 and Abu Dhabi have a chance of catching up with the current leaders, since the latter's position, some 50 miles to leeward, will also benefit from this compression of the fleet. The end of the course promises to be action-packed then as the Bahamas will be in the clutches of a depressionary minimum. As a result there may even be some light headwind to contend with to make it into Miami! The upshot of this is that the ETAs have been shifted back considerably and are now scheduled for Wednesday evening or even Thursday morning...

Standings on 3 May at 1300 UTC
1 - Puma 1,430.4 from the finish
2 - Camper 4.6 miles from the leader
3 - Telefonica 18.7 miles from the leader
4 - Groupama 111.8 miles from the leader
5 - Abu Dhabi 145.7 miles from the leader

Groupama Sailing Team website