The first eight days have been filled with more excitement and tighter racing than anyone could have anticipated. Up until Saturday morning, Leg One has left the fleet with few tactical options and therefore has kept everyone tightly packed as one unit of seven boats. It has been one series of short course, dinghy style tactics with each boat trading tacks and gybes with one another. Everyone has been forced the same direction and, therefore occupying the same body of water. Every boat has lead, every boat has trailed. Back and forth racing the likes of which this race has never seen.
As the fleet left the Mediterranean, the fickle nature of the Med proved that even the most historically accurate weather models have their limitations. There was not a degree on the compass from which the wind failed to blow over the first thirty-six hours of the race as the fleet worked towards Gibraltar. Other than SCA who was willing to take a risk against the Southern Spanish coast (a risk which gave them a 7nm lead over the fleet), the boats were stuck to one another in a game of Snakes and Ladders. Everyone had their hero moments and their zero moments as they battled the tail end of a trough, a trailing ridge, and the leading edge of another, stronger trough, as they passed through the Strait. They all left the Med in a pack separated by merely seven miles with Alvimedica in the middle of that pack.
Crossing that next trough was always going to be a big decision for the fleet. It showed signs of strengthening shortly after the race start meaning the fleet would have to battle fierce seas and strong winds to reach the beneficial NW shift on the back side. The challenge was in finding the balance between sailing at a lower angle (more northerly course) to arrive at the shift first and sailing more to the south to maintain leverage on the fleet. SCA sailed too low and quickly lost the miles they had gained via their move at Gibraltar and Alvimedica slid into the top two by maintaining a conservative, but smart, middle-of-the-road approach. The fleet crossed the front in thirty knots of wind, found the NW shift, and began the trek southward.
The next few days were dominated by sailing along the African coast. The NE trades proved to be quite elusive as the normally stable high pressure system over the Canaries was compressed against that shoreline by a strong cold front in the mid-Atlantic. There was no alternative but to play the shoreline and so all boats continued their pack mentality and headed that way. You have to get quite close to the African shoreline to enable yourself to play the sea breezes effectively and, during Day Three, Alvimedica had a period of twelve hours playing those winds perfectly. They were able to open up the largest lead of the race to this point (12nm), however, the winds were quite fickle and one area of light winds proved costly and everyone slid by. It was something which had happened to everyone else at one stage or another; it was simply our turn. By the time we got back into decent pressure, we had lost all that we had gained and had to settle for a mid fleet position as the crowd pushed towards the Canaries with Dongfeng leading.
Typically by the time the fleet reaches the Canary Islands, the NE trade winds have begun to blow. Those trades were there, but much weaker than normal due to the aforementioned front and compressed high. Thus, with no solid route to work west and begin to set up for the doldrum crossing, the fleet continued to play the coast and stuck together as one collective unit. Alvimedica had a few inefficient hours of sailing which cost them dearly at this stage and found themselves nearly ninety miles back from Dongfeng. They had no alternative but to simply follow the crowd in front and wait for the next tactical option to open up.
That option finally arose the morning of October 19th (Day Nine). As the fleet worked their way southwest towards the Cape Verde Islands, they were cruising nicely in champagne sailing conditions. Twenty hours of over twenty knots of boat speed would surely put a smile on anyone’s face regardless of their ranking. This was the case for the fleet as they finally found the trades and began to collectively push westward. We still sat at nearly one-hundred miles behind Dongfeng, but they suddenly made the aggressive move south, splitting the islands. This is a route which can find you in phenomenal pressure, so long as the angle is favorable. If you get the angle wrong, you must thereafter sail in a lifted mode and lose some very valuable miles in a very short period of time. Island driven wind accelerations are fantastic, but dramatic wind shadows await those who get caught on the leeward side of the islands. Dongfeng had to gybe numerous times to avoid those shadows and fell into dramatically weaker winds than the competition.
In an attempt to not let Dongfeng get too far ahead, Vestas and Mapfre had followed through the islands and also suffered (although a bit less than Dongfeng), while Abu Dhabi, Brunel, Alvimedica, and SCA all went north and made big gains. Now, with a big lateral split amongst the fleet and starboard tack close to perpendicular to the rhumb line to Fernando, the scheds are beginning to look a bit like a roller coaster. Sail on port, and you’re sailing more directly towards the next mark. Sail on starboard and you lose miles on paper (indirect route), but you will also be setting yourself up for a narrower band of the light air commonly known as the doldrums.
Caused mainly by the the convergence of the SE trades at around 6 degrees north and the NE trades in which the fleet finds itself currently, the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), or “Doldrums,” is a large area of light winds and often dramatic weather. It is here where most hurricanes and tropical storms in the Atlantic are born and it is this band that the fleet must cross next. The fleet is now spending their time looking at satellite images and weather models to gauge the most strategic area to cross. Sail too far west and you’ll be sailing more upwind when the SE trades arrive in two days time. You’ll have a much narrower crossing, but will be sailing many more miles and have a relatively slow angle to Fernando. Stay too far east and you’re crossing will be wider (slower), but you’ll ultimately sail less distance and will exit the doldrums with a much faster angle towards the Brazilian island.
It has most certainly not been a textbook leg thus far and definitely not a textbook Volvo Ocean Race. Last race we watched as Groupama and Telefonica sailed this leg hundreds of miles apart from one another with the winning strategy not clear for days. Now we have a fleet of one-design boats who only now are beginning to have the meteorological options to enable each boat to explore different strategies. Only after nine days are we getting away from short-course dinghy tactics and entering a different realm of excitement; true ocean racing. It has only just begun.
Courtesy of Anderson Reggio and Team Alvimedica