Volvo Ocean Race - Groupama dive due west

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 6 - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama 4 are on the seventh day of racing in leg six, from Itajad, Brazil to Miami. Whilst the fleet is distancing itself from the Brazilian coast in readiness to tackle the fairly inactive Doldrums around the equator, Groupama hasn't managed to reduce its deficit in relation to the leaders due to the tradewinds favouring the frontrunners. However there is still an opportunity for this to happen tonight, when the head of the race encounter a more uncertain weather zone.

Nothing's any good: the delta racked up at Cape Frio some five days ago, continued to increase before seeming to stabilise at around a hundred miles, only to start climbing again early this weekend to over 130 miles. It makes difficult reading and doesn't relate to Groupama 4's performance, nor the racing skills of Franck Cammas and his men, but rather a succession of meteorological micro phenomena. Accumulating during the climb up the Brazilian coast, the slight separation of some thirty miles or so off Rio de Janeiro, was transformed into 100 miles off Salvador de Bahia to culminate at 133 miles as the crew were approaching Natal!

'I've come down below because it's very hot and there isn't a gram of wind up top. Right now though, the breeze has picked up to six knots again so we're happy! At the front of the pack though, the leaders are escaping this rather inactive zone and are set to accelerate. As such we're expecting them to extend their lead even more… It's a severe punishment for us, even though we messed up the start of the leg a bit, and since then we haven't had a solution for making a comeback. It's very frustrating because it's going to be a very long race and we can see that there's a fine match going on ahead of us and we're not part of it… Beyond the points we may lose in the overall standing, it's not much fun on a day-to-day basis. We're trying to keep the delta as low as possible as anything could happen before the finish in Miami: the closer we are to the head of the fleet, the more opportunities we'll have. We should finally be out of this ‘tunnel' this evening…' indicated Charles Caudrelier on Saturday afternoon.

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 6 - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12

The reduction in the strength of the tradewinds offshore of Natal meant there was a chance that the crew of Groupama 4 could partly make up its deficit, but the effect of the compression only proved to be short-lived since the south-easterly wind picked up at the front of the fleet to reach over fifteen knots. Meantime, Franck Cammas and his men were floundering in a breeze of just a dozen knots. The upshot of this was quickly reflected on the racetrack: the frontrunners' lead increased by a further thirty miles by the end of a slightly more dynamic night. Indeed the tradewinds are settled firmly in place now at around twenty knots and the whole fleet has rounded the North-East tip of Brazil: the field of options is somewhat wider as a result since the South American continent can no longer influence the trajectories.

And this Sunday is synonymous with a few openings since the five VO-70s have opted to gybe, but each one at a different time. There are two reasons for this move across to the West: the equatorial oceanic current reaches nearly two knots to the North of Brazil, pushing the boats towards Guyana; the tradewinds have gained intensity offshore of Fortaleza to reach 22 knots, whilst they're only kicking out around fifteen knots just a hundred miles further North. The first to gybe was Abu Dhabi, then Camper, but this manœuvre was more geared around positioning in relation to the American leader than a genuine option.

In fact it was the leader Puma who was first to make a move, followed by the Emirati boat in the early hours, then Telefonica, who was thus able to close on the New Zealanders. With Camper, the Spanish are the furthest North of the fleet now. And with a deficit of over a hundred miles, the crew of Groupama 4 have also opted to dive due West, which should enable them to make up a few miles over the coming hours, as the tradewinds are more consistent to the South. However, this shift to the West by the fleet is also linked to the position and scope of the Doldrums: the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) is narrower and less active around 40° West. As such there will be another series of gybes before tonight (local time), in order to take a perpendicular route across this zone of squalls and calms from Monday. It's this equatorial factor which may enable Groupama 4 to get back into the thick of the action because after that the north-easterly tradewinds will be settled in for the duration until the fleet reach the Caribbean islands.

Standings on 29 April at 1300 UTC
1 – Puma 3,029.6 from the finish
2 – Camper 9.3 miles from the leader
3 – Telefonica 9.8 miles from the leader
4 – Abu Dhabi 46.6 miles from the leader
5 – Groupama 116.7 miles from the leader

Groupama Sailing Team website