Mark Chisnell – Leg 8 Preview – A Tale of Two Race TracksBlog
The first of the two European legs that will conclude this edition of the Volvo Ocean Race is 647 nautical miles long. Apart from the corner on the north-western tip of Spain, it’s a straight-line drag race north from Lisbon, Portugal to Lorient, France – in fact, the course splits quite neatly into two sections pivoting around that corner.
The first section will be a coastal race northwards from Lisbon to Cape Finisterre and the north-west corner of Spain. After rounding this famous headland, the fleet will head off on the second section; across the Bay of Biscay, aiming for Lorient, which sits just short of the north-west tip of Brittany and France. The Bay of Biscay can be as rough a piece of water as you will get anywhere in the world, and this second half of the leg will be much more like an open ocean race than the coastal-orientated first section.
So, given that the 24-hour record for these boats is 550.82 nautical miles, no one will be expecting Leg 8 to last more than a couple of days. Of course, that record was set by Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing on the approach to Cape Horn, and we aren’t expecting conditions quite like that…
It’s All About the Weather
There’s not much point talking about climate zones when we’re looking at a 647nm drag race. This one will be all about the weather on the day and – although I’m writing this five days out – I think we already have some sense of how this is going to shape up.
Anyone residing in Northern Europe is probably aware that we’re currently experiencing a rather brisk phase of June weather – that’s polite talk for… we’re getting the living daylights beaten out of us by low pressure systems. The good news is that the one going through today and tomorrow is the last for a while.
The Azores High will soon reassert itself and start to push north. The next couple of lows that come spinning across the Atlantic will be much weaker, and they won’t be able to push the high pressure aside to reach the Atlantic coast of mainland Europe. Cue the much heralded but rarely seen British heatwave. Or not.
By the time of the start of Leg 8 on Sunday at 13:00 (all times are UTC), the Azores High pressure zone is forecast to be centred off the tip of southern Ireland, stretching south almost to the Caribbean, and north to Scandinavia. If we look at Pic 1 we can see what this will mean for the local Portuguese weather chart (all weather maps courtesy of the marvellous www.magicseaweed.com).
We’ve marked Lisbon and Lorient on the chart, and as you can see, we’re not expecting much wind for the first section of the race. A bubble of the dominant high pressure over the Iberian Peninsula is killing the gradient wind all the way along the Portuguese coast to Spain. There is wind to the north, where the main Azores High is compressing around the north-western tip of Spain and creating a strong easterly wind blowing across much of the Bay of Biscay.
The problem is going to be getting to that easterly breeze, as this pattern is going to hold for a while. Take a look at Pic 2 from Monday 8th June at 9pm – about 36 hours after the start. The easterly is starting to spill around the corner of Spain, out of the Bay of Biscay and down the Portuguese coast. If the forecast is correct, this will be the first time the fleet will see more than 4-6 knots of gradient wind on this first section of the race track – fortunately, gradient wind isn’t all that she blows.
The race determining factors in this first section will be the thermal effects along the coast; the sea and land breezes created by the different rates of warming of the land and the sea. Whoever plays those effects best should lead the race to Finisterre.
Long, Tough Ride
After that, it will be an entirely different race track, the easterly breeze blowing across the Bay of Biscay will leave them with an upwind beat all the way to Lorient. And given that it’s blowing up to 40 knots in that forecast, it’s going to be a long, tough ride to the finish.
Despite its short length, this leg looks like it will have a lot of variety, with a very tactical opening section along the coast of Portugal in light winds, with complex transitions to sea and land breezes to negotiate. Followed by a grit-your-teeth-and-hang-on ride across the Bay of Biscay to the finish in Lorient.
The points are still on the board, and we’ve seen that while Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing have a big lead, it doesn’t take much for it to evaporate. On Leg 8, it’s quite possible that someone could get dropped and lose a lot of miles in one of the sea breeze transitions. And it’s equally possible that gear failure could be a factor across the Bay of Biscay, as everyone drives hard in what will be a short, intense couple of days of racing.
Ian Walker and his merry men were fortunate to only lose a point to the chasing Dongfeng Race Team in those final miles into Lisbon. After that scare, it will be interesting to see if Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing play it differently – damage limitation mode, or loosen it up and sail their own race? I’ll leave it to you to predict, and see you back here next Tuesday to find out how it played out.