Go South! – Leg 1 Week 3Blog
West was Best!
We left the fleet a week ago just as they ran slap bang into the wall of the Doldrums. On the afternoon of the 21st October, the front row were lined up west to east, left to right; Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, Team Brunel, Dongfeng Race Team, MAPFRE and Team Vestas Wind – as we can see in (Pic 1).
We’ve said several times before, but it bears repeating that traditional wisdom favours the west when entering the Doldrums, and so the smart money was always on Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Team Brunel exiting first. And so it turned out.
The Gate Opens
The gate opened and Ian Walker and Bouwe Bekking’s boats shot out of it overnight on the 22/23rd October (all times are UTC). We can see in (Pic 2) that they are just about side-by-side in the south-east trade winds. Behind them, the main pack now constituted Dongfeng Race Team, MAPFRE, Team Alvimedica and Team SCA – all still wallowing in Doldrums weather and playing cloud roulette.
The really interesting thing was the escape of Team Vestas Wind – up to third place and matching the speed of the lead pair. They were the most easterly boat going into the Doldrums – almost 150 miles away from the eventual leaders. Skipper Chris Nicholson and navigator Wouter Verbraak either sold their souls to the devil or played a blinder in the clouds. I can’t remember the last time I saw boats escape like this from both edges of the fleet – but then, this is the Doldrums and while you have to play the percentages, anything can happen.
Trade Wind Bliss
While it was blissful trade wind sailing for the front three, the rest of the pack struggled until later on the 23rd. In (Pic 3), we can see that they were all finally moving by late afternoon. By then the gaps were big: Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing led the front-runner of the straggling pack, Dongfeng Race Team by 164nm – that was the real cost of the Chinese team’s broken rudder way back north of the Cape Verde Islands (read last week’s blog to find out why).
In all the talk of exiting the Doldrums, the other consideration that’s always mentioned is the lateral separation east to west. Once the boats get out into the south-east trade winds, they are all headed to the island of Fernando de Noronha (FdN), which they must leave to port. In theory, the further east a boat is positioned, the wider and faster the reaching angle in the south-east trades, and the faster it can go.
Team Vestas Wind Test
The huge separation between Team Vestas Wind and the two leaders gave us an opportunity to test this theory as they raced to FdN. In (Pic 3) the lateral separation east to west between Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Team Vestas Wind was 120nm. And Ian Walker’s men had a 101.4nm lead over Chris Nicholson’s team. Fast forward to the moment when Walker and Co. go around FdN…and we see the situation in (Pic 4).
It was now just before 2pm on 24 October, a little bit less than 24 hours later. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing was rounding FdN in first place to put the first points on the board, with Team Brunel just 18nm behind them. But look at the gap to Team Vestas Wind in third place, it’s down to just over 60nm. Chris Nicholson has gained 40nm in less than 24 hours because of his more easterly exit from the Doldrums. In fact, Nicholson has gained a third of a mile for each and every mile that his boat was positioned to the east of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing.
Just for the record and the nerds – Ian Walker has been here before, he pulled the same move in 2008-09 when Green Dragon was the most westerly boat into the Doldrums and led at FdN. The difference was that back then, his boat was a lot slower than most of the others, and they couldn’t hold it to Cape Town…
No Time to Samba
The leaders might have rounded FdN and got a brief whiff of a Brazilian paradise, but this leg ends in South Africa. To get there, they have to deal with the St Helena High. In (Pic 5) it’s just before 10am on the morning of the 26th October – Sunday morning to you and me – time for a lie-in and a cappuccino. Not so for the strategy teams aboard the boats, they have a massive headache on their hands and it’s got nothing to do with Saturday night.
The St Helena High stretches across most of the South Atlantic. The distinct area of high pressure is visible both through the loop of the single isobar, and the anti-clockwise flow of the wind around it (it goes the other way in the Southern Hemisphere). Oh yes… and the complete absence of any wind in the middle.
It’s this massive hole in the wind that dominates the strategy from FdN to Cape Town. The traditional route is to head south down the coast of Brazil, skirting the edge of the high and staying in that north to north-easterly flow down the left-hand edge.
Eventually, the boats will get far enough south that they will be within reach of a low pressure system moving from west to east. They will pick up the new fresh breeze from the low and – if they get the breaks and do it right – they can ride that wind all the way to Cape Town.
The Road to Hell
So the theory goes – it’s never as simple as that in practice. Fast forward another day to midday on the 27th October, Monday lunchtime and we can see the situation in (Pic 6). The leading three boats – Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, Team Brunel and Team Vestas Wind – have all had to gybe.
The reason was that as they sailed south they were moving relative to the centre of the high pressure, and going from a north-easterly breeze to a northerly wind. If they had continued on port gybe, the slowly shifting wind would have forced them straight into the centre of the high pressure. On the road to hell, game over. So the leaders gybed, while the rest of the fleet were still on the good shift and hammering into them. Result – we had some serious compression and the stress-o-meter went into the red.
A Decisive Moment?
The next 24 hours were all spent in the red zone – it was pick-a-lane time once again. Let’s have a look at the most recent data available in (Pic 7) at 09:40 on the 28th October. Take a look at those tracks as all seven boats played the wind shifts in their efforts to get south, and avoid getting sucked into the centre of the high pressure and ending up parked.
Opinions clearly diverged aboard the leading three boats about how close they can fly to the centre. Working the western side really hard is Team Vestas Wind, with Team Brunel over on the eastern flank – almost two hundred miles to the east! Now that’s what I call leverage…Meanwhile, Mr. Conservative, Ian Walker is back to playing the fleet down the middle aboard Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing.
In the second row, Team Alvimedica and Dongfeng Race Team are backing Walker’s judgement and following his line. While in the third row, Team SCA and MAPFRE are both looking to the west to get them out of the cheap seats.
What Happens Next?
A very good question this week…. and I’ll see you back here next Tuesday to find out.
Oh, all right. I’ll give it a stab.
A small low pressure is spinning up just off the coast of Argentina and heading east from the mouth of the River Plate. It’s going to push the high pressure east with it, creating a band of wind between the two opposing pressure centres (shown on this chart). It’s this band of wind that will provide an escape route to the south and into the path of a much bigger low pressure that will allow them to finally head east.
It’s all going to be about the timing and the speed of passage of the low. The new, stronger breeze will come from the west, that will give the initial advantage to Team Vestas Wind and they should start to close the gap. Aboard Team Brunel, they are relying on the low pressure moving faster than Team Vestas Wind, so the new breeze gets to them before the chasing boats do. Once they are in the same wind, they should hold any lead that they still have as everyone heads south-east.
I think the leading pack will compress again, but I think that fast-moving low means that Team Brunel will still hang onto the #1 spot, chased by the Emirates, and then Team Vestas Wind. And none of that may count for a hill of beans in the long run, as the forecast shows high pressure locked down over Cape Town for the foreseeable future. There’s no simple route into the finish. This one is a long way from over.
See you back here next Tuesday.