Mark Chisnell – Leg 7 Preview – A Classic StageBlog
Leg 7 from Newport, Rhode Island to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal is just 2,800 miles and this trans-Atlantic crossing is to ocean racing what L’Alpe d’Huez is to the Tour de France – a classic. The whole idea of racing yachts across oceans started back in 1905, when the hard-driving, three time America’s Cup winner, Charlie Barr, won the Kaiser’s Cup on the schooner Atlantic. He did the crossing in just over 12 days – which is no disgrace in a monohull even now – but I think our fleet will manage it a little quicker.
Riders of the Storm Track
In all the leg previews so far we’ve featured the idea of crossing or transiting along climate zones. This is the last chance I’ll get before we quit open ocean racing for the coastal variety, but I don’t see any reason to do it differently this time. The start lies firmly in the storm track, the belt of east-going low pressure systems that would normally – along with the Gulf Stream – dominate the opening tactics of Leg 7.
The low pressure systems and the Gulf Stream are both headed for Europe, just like the boats, and ought to promise a fast ride east for the first half of the course. Just like the Southern Ocean, only in the North Atlantic and often just as cold, or even colder. Sounds great, huh?
Ice, Ice Baby
Before we look at the actual forecast (and come crashing back to earth), it’s worth noting that the Race Officials have set up some exclusion zones, in particular an ice limit line that will mark the northern boundary of the race course. The idea of the ice limit is to keep them away from the Grand Banks. This is where the cold water of the Labrador Current – which carries the ice down from the Arctic – meets the warm water of the Gulf Stream. It’s notorious for fog and bad storms, as well as icebergs. In fact, The Perfect Storm of movie and book fame happened right here.
High Pressure Sandwich
The Gulf Stream, low pressure systems and Grand Banks fog are the classic elements that usually open a trans-Atlantic from New England. But the forecast for 18:00 on 17th May, just after the start on Sunday actually has a fair bit of high pressure in the North Atlantic – as we can see in Pic 1, courtesy of the wonderful MagicSeaweed.com. A western high is centred on Nova Scotia, ridging north towards the Arctic and south down the eastern seaboard of the USA towards the Caribbean. Meanwhile the Azores High is a fair way north, and centred over the Bay of Biscay.
There is an area of low pressure wedged between the two, and this is forecast to sit immobile – about a third of the way across the North Atlantic – and slowly fill. A second, smaller low is forecast to form south-east of Cape Cod by Sunday, but again, it’s relatively static. It doesn’t look like anyone is going to be riding any big eastbound storms on this leg, rather the navigators will be trying to pick their way from one weather system to the next – a bit like hopscotch.
Target: Gulf Stream
When the start gun goes, it looks like the fleet will initially be racing into some easterly headwinds blowing around the top of the Cape Cod low pressure. They can use these to get going towards Newfoundland. The goal is to get out into the main east-going flow of the Gulf Stream, while dodging the counter-currents and eddies that are trying to take them back to Cape Hatteras.
The next problem will be to cross the ridge of high pressure and some very light air, before they can get into the breeze from that second mid-Atlantic low. Remembering that the wind circulates anti-clockwise around a low pressure in the northern hemisphere, the favourable westerly wind is to the south of the centre. But the shortest, great circle route will be to the north of the centre.
High Road or the Low Road?
We also need to be aware that this low is filling and the breeze slowly dying as they sail through its influence. And it looks like the wind will disappear from the north of the centre before it fades to the south. The navigators are going to have to decide (once again), whether they prefer stronger breeze from a better direction, or a lot less miles to sail. The decision to go north or south of the low may well dominate the first couple of days of sailing.
On many legs, a major decision like this would probably be decisive – and so it may be. Unfortunately, there are going to be plenty of other opportunities to win or lose it, long after they have made the decision to traverse north or south of the low. The final third of the race is complicated by the fact that Lisbon lies right on the northern border of the north-east trade winds and to get there, they will have to negotiate the Azores High.
Now, I don’t want to spook the herd or anything, but in a week’s time, the Azores High is forecast to be centred due west of Scotland. Check out Pic 2 from 19th May at 21:00, that’s next Tuesday evening, when it’s ridging south all the way to North Africa and taking the wind out of the vast majority of the eastern side of the North Atlantic. There is a band of north to north-easterly trade winds flowing down the Iberian Peninsula to bring them home, but to get there, they are first going to have to cross hundreds of miles of mostly windless desert…
Let’s hope the forecast changes!
It probably will; let’s be clear, this is a week away and a lot can happen in a week, and not just with the weather. Just ask Nick Clegg and Ed Milliband.
I’d expect to see Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s skipper, Ian Walker keep a very tight grip on Dongfeng Race Team on this leg. The French-Chinese boat with a six point deficit are the only realistic threat to the overall leader, with Team Brunel a distant 10 points behind in third. In fact, unless there’s some major gear failure on either of the front two boats, most of the interest now comes from the fight for the final place on the podium. Team Brunel are fending off Team Alvimedica and MAPFRE who are tied in fourth three points behind the Dutch.
So it’s still Ian Walker’s race to lose, and while a relatively benign Atlantic forecast reduces the chances of dropping the mast or breaking a rudder; the chances of getting stuck in one of the many windless potholes that will pit this particular ocean over the next week will probably be praying on his mind.
See you back here next Tuesday and we’ll find out if that forecast turned out as bad as it looks. Make sure that you sign up for the newsletter if you want to receive the predictive routing part of my Blog.