Mark Chisnell – Leg 8 Report 1- Half-Way DoneBlog
Leg 8 of the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race is just 647 nautical miles long, a drag race north from Lisbon in Portugal, to Lorient in France. It’s a more-or-less straight-line charge northwards that splits into two sections at the north-west tip of Spain.
The teams have just completed the first section up the Portuguese coast to Cape Finisterre, and Team SCA has done a terrific job in the dominant conditions of lighter wind and flat water. Now the game has changed completely though, and they have sailed out into some seriously rough conditions, facing a heavy upwind beat in 30+ knots most of the way to the finish.
Let’s start with an overview of the weather, since the big picture is a largely static situation for much of this short leg (and not far off what we described in last week’s preview). At start time the Azores High was centred west of Ireland, dominating the North Atlantic. The clockwise circulation around the bottom of the high was creating an easterly or north-easterly breeze across Spain and France.
A few small and slow-moving low pressure systems were and still are hovering around the south and west of the Azores High, like moons to a sun. The one that’s important for this leg started out from North Africa, and has been steadily moving northwards to now cover much of the Iberian Peninsula. It’s a pretty weak trough, and has set up a generally light, and mostly northerly wind down the Portuguese coast.
The clockwise (easterly) circulation around the bottom of the Azores High is now compressing against the anticlockwise (also easterly) circulation around the top of this low pressure, and creating a strong north-easterly to easterly wind blowing across much of the Bay of Biscay.
So much for the overall set-up. The fleet set off westwards from the start in the Tagus River and we’re going to pick up the action at the first corner, where the Portuguese coast turns northward and the tactical options started to open for the fleet. If we look at Pic 1 from 18:20 on the 7th June – just a few hours after the start – we can see the fleet set up on starboard tack in the light northerly that the forecast was predicting.
Team Vestas Wind (welcome back!), Dongfeng Race Team and Team SCA have all made efforts to protect the right, or eastern side of the fleet, and were set up on that side; with Team Brunel, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, Team Alvimedica and MAPFRE all favouring the west or left of the fleet.
Set the Random Dial to 10
After this, the wind swung round to the east over the next couple of hours allowing everyone to make good progress on a reach. And then at 21:00 they hit a storm cell or two, with thunder, lightning and some big wind shifts and very different breezes just a few miles apart – it got random out there, people. The fleet did a starburst in response and the effect a few hours later was a pretty big split.
Take a look at Pic 2 from 02:30 on the 8th June, and we can see the three boats that were already favouring the east have committed heavily to that side (although Dongfeng changed their minds a couple of times… not like them). While the other four stayed in a tight group, and ended up about 16 miles to the west. The conditions were still very shifty – as you can see from the tracks – but the wind was mostly from the north and north-east as forecast, and as light as 3-4 knots.
I would imagine that by this point, Ian Walker (skipper of overall leader Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing) wasn’t feeling that happy with one of his major opponents (Dongfeng Race Team) all the way on the other side of the race course – particularly with conditions set to 10 on the random dial. And this was – unsurprisingly – the moment of maximum leverage, soon after, the four western boats decided to take a wind shift back in towards the coast.
It was also the moment when Team SCA got their big break. At about 05:00 on the 8th June they picked up a westerly breeze that no one else saw for an hour or two. Suddenly they were reaching straight up the coast, while everyone else was still working their way upwind.
We can only assume that the westerly came from under one of those thunder clouds, because there’s no real explanation for it on the pattern of isobars. We can see the big picture in Pic 3, with the light northerly blowing down the coast, and the breeze steadily increasing and shifting towards the north-east, as they get closer to the top corner of Spain.
By Pic 4 at 07:30 on the 8th June, Team SCA had built a 5 mile lead over the western pack, and dropped the two boats on their side of the course, with Team Vestas Wind and Dongfeng Race Team now relegated to fifth and seventh.
Normal Service Resumed
The westerly didn’t last for long, and soon enough normal service was resumed with the north-easterly, and then the northerly and it was back to upwind mode. If we look at Pic 5 from 14:30 on the 8th June, we can see that conditions have finally settled and we have some regular upwind zig-zags in the boat tracks.
Team SCA stayed cool and extended from out front, but Team Vestas Wind also made the gains now. When they closed back up with the western pack of four, they were behind. They chose to take the eastern or coastal side of the fleet, and then proceeded to pass all four boats as they all headed for the shore on port tack.
Playing the Shore
There were two reasons for the coastal side working from this point onwards. If we go back and look at Pic 3 again, you will see that the wind doesn’t just increase as the boats go north, but it also veers, shifts to the right from northerly, to north-easterly. This wind shift will favour any boat that’s positioned to the east of another. The increasing breeze going north also favours the leaders, as they will see more breeze from a better angle first – it’s the old rich get richer rule.
It was clear that the coast was the place to be, and everyone spent the rest of the day and early evening tacking up the coast in a shifty north to north-easterly breeze that kept building as they got further north, and closer to the gale blowing across the Bay of Biscay.
So if we look at Pic 6 from 1:30 this morning, 9th June, we can see the results of the tack-fest. No surprise to see another nice set of gains for both Team SCA and Team Vestas Wind, both extending from the pack – the rich getting richer. Behind them, a cigarette paper wouldn’t fit between MAPFRE, Team Brunel and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing.
Everyone was now settled onto starboard tack, and they were all heading for Cape Finisterre and the corner. We can see that Team SCA already have over 20 knots of breeze from the north-east – and there’s lots more to come…
In Pic 7 from 05:00 this morning (9th June) we can see the fleet all following Team SCA’s lead up to Cape Finisterre, and out into the Bay of Biscay. The breeze has built to over 30 knots. We can only imagine the massive change in sea state, as they stepped out from the protection of the land and into the waves that have been building all the way across the notoriously rough Bay of Biscay. The teams have been reporting close to 40 knots and 8m waves – yikes.
The final set of data from this morning shows another split developing, check out Pic 8 from 12:40 today. While Team SCA and Team Vestas Wind have led out into open water – with Team Alvimedica and Dongfeng Race Team following them – the other three have all headed east to play the shore.
Apart from the issue of why, and which side will pay, this presents a massive problem for overall leader Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. They now have the two boats closest to them on the overall leaderboard going in opposite directions, and they can’t cover both of them…
What Happens Next?
If we zoom out to the bigger picture in Pic 9 from 9:40 this morning, we can see the wind arrows picking out that strong north-easterly all the way across the Bay of Biscay. It’s about 350 miles to the finish, so there’s plenty of room for some leverage if the teams choose opposite corners.
But will they? Are the three boats on the coast going all the way, or just looking for a short-term slingshot into the Bay? If you want to know the answer to that question, you’ll need to sign up for the newsletter at the top of the right hand column, and B&G’s Deckman software will pronounce a verdict for you.
Don’t take your eyes off this one, it’s going to be a fascinating couple of days. I’ll be back here next MONDAY (note the change of schedule) to preview the final leg.