Volvo Ocean Race - Telefonica leads the charge

Joao Signorini on the helm and Xabi Fernandez on the trimmer onboard Team Telefonica during leg 8 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Lisbon, Portugal to Lorient, France.
In the Volvo Ocean Race, Telefónica (Iker Martínez/ESP) is leading the charge not only towards the finish of Leg 8 in Lorient on Friday but straight towards the centre of a particularly nasty north-Atlantic depression. Groupama (Franck Cammas/FRA) faltered briefly, allowing Puma Ocean Racing powered by Berg (Ken Read/USA) and Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand (Chris Nicholson/AUS) to overtake.

With around 800 miles to go before the fleet will need to gybe – a tricky maneuver at the best of times - the worst of the weather is yet to come. Gusts of over 40 knots and swell of six or seven metres is expected, but as yet the fleet is showing no sign of easing up. The pressure is on for the leaders and no one is going to back off unless it’s really necessary.

'We’ve thrown a rock on the accelerator so that no one can take their foot off and driving the boat is pretty exciting right now,' said Ken Read, skipper of Puma Ocean Racing powered by Berg. According to Read, the weather has a Southern Ocean feel to it. 'We are heading for a bashing,' he said today in a live interview from the boat. With a fractional code zero headsail set and one reef in the mainsail, Read said the waves were just starting to build, something for which the Bay of Biscay has a notorious reputation.

Though the conditions are likely to bordering on a seamanship and survival situation, there is still a race to be won, and the stakes are high. Groupama’s overall lead could easily topple and with extra pressure on the rig and sails, it is a fine balance between being competitive and being prudent. 'You always worry about things, but you can’t worry too much,' cautioned Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper Ian Walker, currently in fifth position. 'We are still racing and we still have to get to Lorient as fast as we can.'

Sail changes in heavy conditions are expensive. With everything stacked as far aft as possible and only one person going forward into the galley at any one time, controlling the possibility of a nosedive is paramount. A slow sail change or a wipe-out could easily cost leaders Telefónica their 4.6 nautical-mile (nm) margin in a matter of minutes.

Former race winner and skipper of sixth-placed Sanya, Mike Sanderson, says it’s the heavy airs downwind sailing that makes the Volvo a ‘must-do’ race. 'It’s with an air of excitement and with nervousness that we go into this,' he said. 'To be honest, I think every skipper would be lying if they said they look forward to it. It’s anxious times.'

At 1900 GMT, Telefónica was averaging 25 knots of boat speed, 4.6 nm ahead of Puma, and 9.9 nm ahead of Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand, both of whom have overhauled Groupama.

Skipper Chris Nicholson and his men were slightly to the west of the leading trio and, with miles still to catch up they were pushing flat out.

'We have the right sail configuration going into this low, and when we need to change, it will be a pretty quick change,' Nicholson said. 'We have to push hard to keep the pressure on these guys. We will judge it at the time if we need to back off, but for now, we will keep the hammer down.'

As the pace continued to heat up, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing were just shy of 30 nm off the lead while Sanya, who were struggling to be competitive against the newer boats, were trailing 50.3 nm behind in sixth place.

The next day and half could be make or break for the leaders. It is forecast to be an extremely windy night and it will be necessary to stay in one piece and as well as staying fast. The finish in Lorient could be as early as Friday midday.

Volvo Ocean Race website