Volvo Ocean Race - Groupama escape the Doldrums

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 6 - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama 4 are on the tenth day of racing in leg six, from Itajad, Brazil to Miami. Offshore of Kourou's satellite launching station in French Guiana, Groupama has escaped what ended up being a fairly cooperative passage through the Doldrums, which has enabled her to move up into fourth position to the detriment of Abu Dhabi. However, her deficit of around eight hours in relation to the three leaders means that it was a little later in the day before she too hit the tradewinds. However, her separation of a hundred miles behind Puma should stabilise before beginning to come down again as the fleet approach the West Indies.

With 2,000 miles still to go before they reach Miami, the fleet has been sailing in some steady tradewinds of around 16 to 23 knots since the early hours. As such the pace has picked up considerably and the three leaders, who were the first to hit this fresh breeze after the Doldrums, have been able to extend their lead over Abu Dhabi, now in fifth place, and Groupama 4. However, this average tempo of nearly twenty knots isn't set to last. Indeed the easterly breeze will die away slowly as they make their approach on the Caribbean between now and Thursday evening, at which point the five VO-70s will gradually slow up. Furthermore this drop in speed will affect the front of the fleet first of all.

Their slight delay in powering up at the start in Itajai has disrupted Groupama 4's launch into this Brazilian orbit a little, however ultimately this Florida-bound leg has been split into three sections. The first stage wasn't a favourable one for Franck Cammas and his men, who didn't enjoy the same weather conditions as their rivals and fell a bit behind on the journey up to the equator. After clearing the Doldrums last night, it would seem that the second stage in the tradewinds of the northern hemisphere may enable them to get back in contact with the others. Indeed, from the latitude of Martinique, the wind is expected to ease to below fifteen knots, or even less, and the first to feel the effects of this will be the leaders. As a result, it's highly likely that there will be a compression of the fleet along the Caribbean arc.

Finally, the third stage, between Saint Barth and the Bahamas is shaping up to be a complicated phase for all the navigators: a weak anticyclone is forming offshore of Florida, causing a break in the tradewinds, as well as an accumulation of tropical clouds between Guadeloupe and Cuba. This new configuration is set to cause the VO-70s to stall from the latitude of Barbados, where the tradewinds will create a lowly fifteen knots of breeze during Thursday lunchtime (European time), and even less than that as they approach Guadeloupe, where the wind will ease to just a dozen knots or so, before really becoming lethargic offshore of the Virgin Islands.

The question on everyone's lips relates to how to tackle the end of this course. It's certainly hard to anticipate since a windless zone is forming to the North-East of the Antilles arc and in this light easterly breeze, the inside lane through the islands is likely to alternate between the effects of a thermal breeze, a strengthening Venturi, wind shadows and local currents, depending on the time of day. As such there are a lot of different choices possible for the final 1,000 miles before making landfall in Miami! A zone of calm conditions also seems keen to lounge around the Bahamas this coming weekend…. Targeting the veins of breeze when the wind is set to ease to less than five knots looks like a seemingly impossible task.

As such, in this veritable labyrinth, where certain options may end up in a dead end, Groupama 4 will have to find Ariadne's thread within the navigation charts. The initial focus will have to be on speed, but heading will also be key so as any stalling can at least be tackled with a good angle in relation to the wind. Franck Cammas and his crew have opted to swerve to windward and Abu Dhabi is currently 50 miles further West. This choice has been dictated by the fact that, for now, the tradewinds are packing more of a punch to the East, which would suggest that a trajectory outside the Antilles arc would be more favourable. Distancing oneself from the West Indies and hence the direct route is also about taking a punt that the compression of the fleet will open up the strategic options for the final sprint, which may well be completed at a snail's pace…

Standings on 2 May at 1300 UTC
1 – Puma 1,939.3 from the finish
2 – Camper 3.0 miles from the leader
3 – Telefonica 6.6 miles from the leader
4 – Groupama 107.7 miles from the leader
5 – Abu Dhabi 111.9 miles from the leader

Groupama Sailing Team website