Volvo Ocean Race - Groupama closes in on leg leader

A high-pressure weather system ahead for Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing during leg 7 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Miami, USA to Lisbon, Portugal.
In the Volvo Ocean Race, Groupama (Franck Cammas/FRA) have closed to within 11 nautical miles of leg leader Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (Ian Walker/GBR) as the wind fades for the final 300-nm push to the finish of this Atlantic leg from Miami in the United States, to Lisbon in Portugal.

In the path of the fleet lies a no-wind ridge around 200 nm wide and running more or less north/south. It’s a fairly unusual feature in this part of the world and the entry and exit points for this penultimate stumbling block could be the leg decider. The bets have been placed and the fleet has split accordingly, committing to their strategies.

In the south, and shaving the corner towards the finish, are Groupama, Telefónica (Iker Martínez/ESP) and Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand (Chris Nicholson/AUS). In the north are Abu Dhabi, Puma Ocean Racing powered by Berg (Ken Read/USA) and Sanya (Mike Sanderson/NZL). It will be around midnight when the fleet will be in the lightest winds as they reach the centre of the ridge.

Speaking on a live video call from the boat this afternoon, Puma skipper Ken Read commented that he thought the south was looking promising and that Groupama’s positioning in particular was 'sweet'. Abu Dhabi’s watch leader, Rob Greenhalgh said today that his team had already chosen their entry point to the north some days ago.

Tonight has the potential to be a ‘hero to zero’ situation, where an element of luck is certainly involved. The team that reaches the Portuguese trade winds on the other side of the ridge first will have a huge advantage, however there is one final obstacle still to overcome. The finish line is set in the River Tagus, close to Lisbon’s harbour entrance. The river is narrow with a strong current, which will add a final element of complexity to what has not been a straightforward dash across the Atlantic on the 3,590 nm seventh leg.

Already the breeze is down to around 11 knots as the fleet reach towards the coast with as much canvas as they can set: full mainsails, genoa staysails and large code zeros. At 1900 GMT Groupama were 10.4 nm behind Abu Dhabi in second place. Puma had remained static in third place (+14.6 nm), but sailing a knot faster than the Emiratis, while Camper, sailing faster still, had gained a mile and risen above Telefónica to occupy fourth place (+26.1 nm).

Telefónica, the current overall race leader were 28.4 nm off the lead, with Sanya 13 miles astern and 41.5 miles adrift of Abu Dhabi.

Camper skipper Chris Nicholson summed up the play when he said, 'It’s one where you should keep your enemies fairly close. It will go down to the wire, but there’s still an awful lot to play out.'

The first boat is expected to cross the finish around 2200 GMT on Thursday, with the possibility of the entire fleet finishing with an hour of each other.

Volvo Ocean Race website