Ryan O’Grady, a veteran follower of the Volvo Ocean Race and a top amateur sailor, is providing regular insight and analysis on the 2011-’12 Volvo Ocean Race for SailingWorld.com. To get the full picture of this dynamic race, follow the racing in our Finish Line forum, track the fleet, and catch up on the race with O’Grady’s previous Volvo Voyeur blogs.
Here we are again. This leg wasn’t supposed to be this long.** In fact, when the teams finally reach Auckland on Sunday (Auckland time), the crews will get only two days off before the schedule of Pro-Am’s and In-Port races kick in. Most teams will also be running out of food by Friday, so every extra hour to the finish is painful in more ways than one. Shore crews will have barely enough time to fix damage done to boats and sails on this leg, so let’s hope everything else is in good order before the Southern Ocean leg looks to break boats and people. For us avid race watchers, though, the extra time on this leg is going to be one extraordinary chess match. Some teams have been beautiful, and some teams have been bold. In this leg, as in life, it’s hard to be both bold and beautiful at the same time. Let’s examine the beautiful first, before turning to the bold.
Groupama Sailing Team– Finally, the French have sailed an almost flawless leg. Early on, skipper Franck Cammas and navigator Jean-Luc Nélias recognized the significance of getting north and east into the new breeze, but opted to sail fewer miles than PUMA to get there. The lateral separation between themselves and PUMA was turned into forward gauge as soon as the boats were able to turn south. Groupama has led ever since, and she has been able to use her leverage to always be able to sail to the favored side of the racecourse. Groupama is also far enough south now to avoid the light air trap that is going to catch Puma and Telefonica. More on that shortly. Short of a major breakage, the French will be the first team into Auckland.
**Team Telefonica- **A week ago, the Spanish team was over 200 miles to the west of both Groupama and Puma and faced with the looming threat of having to sail through the lee of the Solomon Islands. Through superior boatspeed, the Spanish were always able to stay on the same line of latitude as the French and have been waiting patiently for the right wind angles to convert their western leverage into forward progress. In the last 36 hours, they have been able to do just that. While PUMA has been mired in windless squalls, Telefonica has been plowing along in much better pressure and wind angles, gaining over 60 miles on PUMA to capture second place. Making matters worse for PUMA is that Telefonica is now 65 miles further south, sailing 3 knots faster, and coming up to PUMA’s line. If Telefonica can maintain their current speed over the next 18 hours, they should also avoid the light air trap and finish in second place. After watching this leg, no one should be surprised to see Telefonica continue to dominate this race. Iker Martinez’ team and Andrew Cape’s navigation have been second to none. They are confident and patient, making the impossible possible on a regular basis.
PUMA Ocean Racing Powered by BERG- Ken Read and his crew have done all they could to win this leg. Starting with a major deficit, navigator Tom Addis has had the boys sail a much longer course than everyone else, going around and outside the fleet. The strategy had mostly paid off, right up to the last 900 miles. PUMA’s gamble was always to be furthest north and east before beginning the run south. Going north saw PUMA pull to the top of the leaderboard, but the team waited about 6 hours too long to pull the trigger on going south. This gave Groupama the advantage they needed to take over the race. A second, however, still would have been a good reversal of fortune for this team that has had bad luck follow them around the world. Unfortunately for PUMA, bad luck has better VMG than their boat, and the two converged in a series of windless holes over the past 36 hours. Amory Ross explains the carnage that followed: “We had Groupama in front of us almost exactly on our path paving the way. We could look at their wind readings each 3 hours and determine if we wanted to continue down this path, go higher or go lower – all depending on what we saw with the weather and what we saw in their performance. All a no-brainer right? Then came two squalls from hell. Complete “sucker” rain squalls with zero breeze in them. In the middle of last night. We were cruising along minding our own business when on the radar appears a blob of green the size of the Texas. No way around either of them. We were gobbled up twice over a 6-hour period. And, we have the proof to show for it. The dreaded sched. The one you know is coming and is going to be really bad news. Two scheds in a row that showed us sailing about half the speed of our competitors, all because we were drifting for a good chunk of that 6 hours…in pouring rain, in the middle of a black night.” Making matters worse for PUMA now is that there is more light air coming and they have no choice but to sail through it. This may open the door just enough to allow CAMPER to sneak through, too. Right now, PUMA is only 10 miles further south than CAMPER, with 50 miles of east-west separation between them. In the next 18 hours, there appears to be a 4-knot difference in windspeed favoring CAMPER. PUMA is going to have a major battle on their hands to keep third place. Right now, my hunch is that CAMPER will overtake PUMA and beat them into Auckland by less than one hour. This is based on the current GFS weather model run in Expedition navigation software with CAMPER given a slight boatspeed allowance for upwind sailing. Based on earlier experience, CAMPER’s sweet spot is medium to heavy air upwind sailing, and the 36-hour forecast has them beating into 20+ knots of breeze to finish.
PUMA needs to do something to change their luck if they have any hope of breaking out of their rut, and I think I have the answer. Back in the 2009 race, Green Dragon had a miserable leg coming into Boston. Team CEO Jamie Boag learned that in Chinese mythology it was bad luck to have a dragon without an eye. In an attempt to reverse the team’s fortunes, they had a party and painted red eyes on the dragon graphic on the boats hull. The result? A third place finish into Galway and a huge boost of morale. Maybe the PUMA team needs to take one of their off days and paint the black cat Puma red instead.
Leg 4 should finish late Friday night into Saturday morning US time. As the fleet approaches Auckland, the tracker on the Volvo website should go live to bring up to the minute action to the world. It’s going to be worth a look. My models have the top 4 teams finishing within 2 hours of each other, and the battle for third will be in full swing.