Mark Chisnell – And They’re Off – Leg 1 Week 1Blog
Girl Power into the Lead
Scary Spice may be doing a pretty dreadful job on the UK’s X Factor, but it was Girl Power all the way in the opening round of the Volvo Ocean Race. Team SCA’s navigator, Libby Greenhalgh hit one out of the park, with a gorgeous move that saw them first out into the Atlantic.
The action opened on Sunday evening (12th October) with the fleet bunched together on starboard tack, in a solid south-southwesterly breeze. The wind was coming from a little low pressure system centred near Lisbon (Pic. 1). MAPFRE were leading, with Team SCA just on their hip (to windward and astern) and in third place.
The sun went down, and the breeze backed a little more to the south and dropped. Team SCA and Dongfeng Race Team both tacked to port, everyone else stayed on starboard with the Straits of Gibraltar about 100km to the west – a narrow funnel that heavily influences the wind on both the northern and southern shores, further complicated by the roaring current.
Lights, Cameras… Action!
Dongfeng Race Team then tacked back to stay with the bunch, and by 22:00 on 12th October we had the first serious split of the race (Pic.2) – yay, action! The separation opened fast – as it tends to do when boats are on opposite tacks. Two hours later, when Team SCA tacked back to starboard off the coast of Spain, the main pack were on port and about 40km away, and closer to the coast of Africa.
At this point, Team SCA were in the lead and smoking – they had picked up a north-westerly off the coast, presumably a night-time drainage wind from the land, and had turned it onto a big gain on the leaderboard (Pic 3). They were still well separated from the fleet though, and a gain is not in the bank until you can close down the leverage (leverage is the distance you are from the opposition, measured perpendicular to the course to wherever you want to go next).
It got pretty ugly for the next few hours. Team SCA were first to suffer as they hit a hole off of Gibraltar and sat, stuck with no wind. Fortunately for Libby and co., the rest of the fleet had seen on a previous leaderboard report that Team SCA had made big gains off Spain. Unsurprisingly, they wanted some of that action, and proceeded to close the leverage down by sailing over to the girls… then sailed off the cliff in the dark… and into the same windless hole. Oh well.
In this instance, natural justice prevailed… and first into the hole was first out. After a rollercoaster of gains and losses on the leaderboard, Team SCA got it going and escaped to the west, as the fleet took their turn in the parking lot.
Dusk ‘til Dawn
It took almost till dawn before everyone got moving, but by 05:00 on Monday 13th, Team SCA had turned their gain into a proper lead – they had closed down the leverage and got their boat between the fleet and where they wanted to go (Pic 4). Nice work, Libby – backing your insight, and turning a position in the middle of the pack into a 15km lead, after gambling on a separation of 50kms. This move could win the $1,000 B&G Navigator’s Prize for this leg – way to go, girl.
Unfortunately, from there it unraveled a little for Team SCA. The low pressure I mentioned earlier was still blocking the trade winds from setting up. And it was this low that was controlling the strategy for the exit from the Straits and into the Atlantic.
If we go back to the first general weather image (Pic 1), we can see that the low pressure system trails a weather front from its centre, out to the south-west, and behind that front the wind switches to the north-west. Once into the north-westerly, the teams would be reaching on starboard tack, and the miles are easy money. So there were big gains to be made by the boat that broke through the front first – the question was… how to get there?
Annoyingly Perfect Hindsight
It maybe that hindsight is perfect, but it seemed a reasonable bet that the south would pay – the weather image shows stronger breeze to the south. But coming out of the Straits, Team SCA put the hammer down and went due west, rather than keeping the boat more on the wind, like the rest of the fleet.
The leverage slowly opened and by 11:40 on Monday morning (Pic 5), Team SCA were west-northwest of the pack behind them, eventually setting up to leeward of the fleet, as everyone settled onto port tack in the south-westerly wind ahead of the front.
It was the boats to windward and to the south that won this one – today’s final fleet image from 22:00 Monday night (Pic 6) shows Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing moving into the lead as the fleet negotiated the front and finally started to head south in the northwesterly wind.
Of course, they still aren’t in the trade winds and it doesn’t look like they will be until they are south of the Canary Islands, so there’s everything to play for in the coming days…. but that’s it for this week. I’ll see you back here next Tuesday to see who handled the next hurdle best.