Monday, 12 March 2012

Rough ride south puts battered sea legs to the test


Just part of the boat: the Inmarsat / Thrane & Thrane kit on Abu Dhabi 
Credit: Nick Dana/Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race

Groupama romped home on Saturday night with a healthy lead over the chasing pack. The French are the first to beat the Spanish to the top slot. 

It’s a difficult call to start rating the legs as each one brings its own challenges. But seeing the drawn faces of the crews as they pulled into the dock told a story of its own. And when I asked them directly how the leg was, I got a similar tale from all. Too long and hard was the consensus. 

This was by no means a straightforward leg, one where they could just leave dock and head directly for the next port of call, Auckland. 

Raging gale
A raging gale in the South China Sea threw up a dangerously confused wave state in its shallow waters, so Volvo race management took the unprecedented decision to let the fleet start on time with a short coastal race, but then suspend sailing and have the teams dock back into Sanya until the storm abated.  

Due to tricky offshore conditions Puma fell into a light wind zone behind a headland and ended up 45 minute behind the fleet.  That meant restarting the leg that much behind the pack. How frustrating was that?!

Steep seas
Once on the way, teams complained of a horrendous wave state, made worse by having to sail upwind into the steep seas. 

It was like constantly driving too fast over speed bumps in a sports car for days on end. 

The crews were battered from the outset. Many suffered from seasickness for the first time in their lives, such was the testing conditions.   

Trade winds
Simply turning south towards Auckland was not option. The trade winds they were looking to carry them to New Zealand were blowing a lot further east than expected. 

This resulted in a week-long drag race east. They knew that the faster and further they sailed east, the more wind and better angle they’d have on the sleigh-ride south - like swimming away from the riverbank to get into the faster flowing water in the middle. The teams realised early on that they’d have to ration their food for a longer leg then expected.

The only joker in the pack was Puma. Due to their late start out of Sanya they trailed the fleet through the South China Sea and the Strait of Luzon. When you’re behind and see little gain from just following the pack you start to look for alternative routes. 

Opposite direction
And when I say alternative routes I don’t generally mean the opposite direction - but Puma literally turned north. This radical move meant sailing hundreds of miles further then the other teams.  

The great thing about this fairy tale story is that you only need a little more wind to go a lot faster. This was the formula that rocketed Puma from dead last to second just behind Groupama. A position they held until the finish. 

The exceptional demands of this leg required the fleet to weigh some difficult decisions. The Solomon Islands forced half the fleet to cut the corner and sail headlong through the archipelago in the pitch black, dodging reefs and wrecks.

Tightly bunched
You’d have thought that by the end, after 6,000 nm and so many obstacles the boats would’ve been scattered across hundreds of miles. But apart from Groupama, they were tightly bunched. 

Puma clinched second, which was a nice prize after her poor start. And Telefonica and local team Camper had a fight to the finish with only 93 seconds between them. It was amazing to see them all sail in so close together. It only shows how evenly matched they are.

The ability to sail fast and hook into better winds was the key to this last leg, which according to Ian Walker, skipper of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, called for immense focus and dogged perseverance.

Look at computer
"If you know you've got legs on everyone else it's pretty easy - you just stay near them and you chip away and you gain miles, and every time you look at the computer you've gained on the opposition and you keep the stress down. 

“It's a bit harder if you're leaking miles. That forces you to take risks, which is not something you want to do because you're sailing against the best in the world and inevitably you come unstuck. 

“You don't what to go spearing around taking risks because then you're just gambling and that's not what we're about. 

Keep it tight
“It's tough to keep it tight, keep battling away and wait for opportunities, but that's what I thought we did on this leg."
 
Ian’s insight sheds some light on how the teams have come to rely on satellite communications. The FleetBroadband 150 and 500 deliver all their weather data, position reporting and crew comms. The crews now just treat the kit as part of the boat, almost as blas√© as the hotel phone on the bedside table. 

The six boats now have only a few days before they are back racing. The next leg will see them sail headlong into the Southern Pacific and onwards to Cape Horn. It’s already getting late in the season to be sailing that route. We will see yet more testing conditions and the first really cold sailing. 

Mark Covell

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