Volvo Ocean Race - Groupama prepares to tackle the Doldrums

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 6 - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Volvo Ocean Race team Groupama 4 are on the eighth day of racing in leg six, from Itajad, Brazil to Miami. Racing along the north coast of Brazil, the fleet is still being pushed along by some north-east to easterly tradewinds of around fifteen knots. However, it will be necessary to tackle the Doldrums this Monday evening and though the stalling isn't likely to be very significant, it may enable Groupama to reduce her deficit considerably.

It is always an uncertain zone as there isn't a lot of weather data for this area, any information there is, isn't very accurate and it varies considerably over time. The Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) isn't very developed to the North of Brazil, but the cloud masses are sizeable and very mobile. However, when you talk about clouds in this area, this is synonymous with a shifty wind both in terms of strength and direction. And at the equator, amidst the considerable marine evaporation, the very high humidity rates linked to the Amazon jungle and the semi-arid climate of the North-East of Brazil, thermal exchanges have a massive impact. As such the Doldrums remains a very volatile phenomenon, which cannot be accurately defined and above all shifts location rapidly without warning.

At noon this Monday, some hefty cloud masses were lining up to the North of the fleet, between 1°N and 5°N, with a tendency to stretch out towards French Guiana. As a result, the navigators are seeking to slip underneath it as far as the mouth of the Amazon, before bending their trajectories round to the North-West to hook back onto the tradewinds of the northern hemisphere. However, there is bound to be some stalling throughout tonight (local time) once all the boats are across the equator. The easterly tradewinds will then die back to around ten knots or so for nearly 200 miles, increasing in strength locally at times, according to the zone of calms and squalls. In this way, the next 24 hours are going to be vital for each of the crews: leader Puma is in a favourable position to leeward, but the Americans will also be the first to enter the patch of light airs.

Telefonica and Camper have the benefit of sailing together and should in part be able to make up their deficit of around thirty miles. Abu Dhabi, slightly off the pace, hasn't been benefiting from the same breeze over the past few hours and its deficit in relation to the frontrunner is increasing with every standing, though it too should be able to close on the front of the pack. As for Groupama 4, she's been losing miles since this Monday morning due to her more southerly position, which is dishing out less consistent tradewinds and a less favourable angle in relation to the wind. However, this expected compression of the fleet offshore of Belém is a good opportunity for Franck Cammas and his men to hook onto the same system and the same weather conditions as the rest of the fleet.

Indeed this could be the moment they've been waiting for to sail in an identical breeze, so as to be able to exploit Groupama 4's true potential in downwind conditions. To reduce the delta to less than fifty miles would be a great result for Franck Cammas and his crew, not just in terms of boosting team spirit, but also because some new strategic opportunities are coming to light as they approach the Caribbean. The atmosphere is one of high tension aboard the French boat as all the crews know that from 5°N, the ENE'ly tradewinds are pumping out nearly twenty knots of breeze for at least two days. As such it's going to be vital to be in contact in order to be able to take part in the great escape after the Doldrums.

This is all the more important given that the Antilles-Bahamas arc isn't shaping up to be an express route to Miami. Indeed there will be a break in the Caribbean tradewinds offshore of Puerto Rico at the end of the week. The positioning in relation to this confetti of tropical islands looks far from simple, as the trajectories are very open to avoid the wind shadows caused by the land masses and benefit from the Venturi effect in the channels. As such it's going to be important to keep the pressure on for the next 24 hours as things could pan out any old how whilst there are still over 2,700 miles to go to reach Miami…

Standings on 30 April at 1300 UTC
1 – Puma 2,612.1 from the finish
2 – Telefonica 30.7 miles from the leader
3 – Camper 39.7 miles from the leader
4 – Abu Dhabi 86.5 miles from the leader
5 – Groupama 141.7 miles from the leader

Groupama Sailing Team website