Volvo Ocean Race - Telefónica close in on Groupama 4

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 7 - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Whilst Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12 team Groupama 4 is still leading in the seventh leg, from Miami to Lisbon, they are having to keep an eye on Telefonica, to leeward, Puma astern and Camper to windward… However, the main focus is on being the first to hook onto the front, which is just ahead of their bow.

Ultimately, it would seem that the fleet aren't going to skirt the iceberg zone. Indeed the ideal trajectory is quite a way below the ice exclusion zone to the South-East of Newfoundland. However, it's the tail of a fairly insignificant depression, which is dropping down from Labrador, that all the crews are seeking to latch onto over the coming hours, so as they can link up with a little more pressure from the South-West. Intriguingly, even though the lead Groupama 4 gained on exiting the tropical disturbance has melted like a growler in the Gulf Stream, her position at the head of the fleet is particularly favourable. Indeed, it's to the East that the wind is steadier and the boat that makes it there has a good chance of opening up a lead.

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 7 - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12

So what's happened over the past 48 hours? On avoiding the centre of tropical storm Alberto offshore of Charleston on Monday, Franck Cammas and his men were able to make good their escape, stretching out a lead of as much as 70 miles at one point. However, as they made headway East, the wind eased progressively: Groupama 4 stalled a little in a south-westerly wind of around ten knots, whilst the chasing pack finally extracted itself from the meteorological chaos with nearly eighteen knots of breeze. The fleet of pursuers then fanned out behind them to reposition themselves according to a new weather phenomenon: an oblique front across the Atlantic, associated with a small depression, which is deepening offshore of Labrador.

So why not follow the same course then? The reason for this is that some crews, such as the Spanish and the Emiratis, have decided that it's better to go fast, even if this leads to some separation to the North (30 miles further North than Groupama 4). Others meanwhile, like the Americans and the Chinese, have stuck to the wake of the French boat so as not to take any risks and wait for their moment to shine. Finally, the New Zealanders (40 miles further South) are hoping to latch onto the wind from the front more rapidly. In fact, this particular weather system has an oblique configuration between Newfoundland and the Caribbean, and it's shifting across to the East at nearly twenty knots. As such, it is closer to the boats at its ‘tail' rather than at its ‘head'. Everyone is seeking to line themselves up to hook onto its three to five additional knots of breeze, which will enable them to switch on the turbo the earliest…

The outcome of this present affair has considerable bearing as the speed differential is set to reach two to three knots, and any crew which doesn't manage to catch hold of the front will end up in a more westerly (wind on the stern) and less consistent breeze.

With a stronger wind, the sailors will be able to gain ground to the North, without losing power: currently making headway at 34°N, offshore of Bermuda, the competitors will be able to trace a long straight wake across the Atlantic in some perfect conditions, with a long south-westerly swell to surf along for at least three days. As a result, there is bound to be a lot of tension aboard the boats not to miss the high-speed train, which could really give the helmsmen a fantastic ride. If everyone enters the system, there aren't likely to be any major hierarchical upsets, but if some don't manage to hitch onto a wagon, the situation can only get worse. There probably won't be any significant options to be had, but it will be vital to give it their all!

Positions at 1300 UTC on 23/05/2012
1. Groupama 4 – 2,617.7 miles from the finish
2. Telefónica – 3.8 miles astern of the leader
3. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing – 26.3 miles astern of the leader
4. Puma– 32.9 miles astern of the leader
5. Camper – 49.7 miles astern of the leader
6. Team Sanya – 59.8 miles astern of the leader

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