ROUTE DU RHUM Playbook 2014

So weather news for the start of the Route du Rhum 2014 is that the first 24-36 hours are going to be pretty lumpy and upwind in 25+kts.

SURFACE

This is due to a well formed low pressure system that is passing over the north of the British Isles, with an associated cold front on its southern side that the fleet must cross. The Azores high pressure system (HP1) is also well formed, stable and is currently positioned over the Azores, helping create strong trade winds to the south.

The teams will be crossing the cold front early tomorrow morning, and will experience strong upwind conditions (gusting 40+kts) in the English Channel tomorrow afternoon/evening.

ENSEMBLE ROUTE

Ensemble routing showing the 3 different options. Split 3 North, 12 Middle, 5 South.

There are then 3 options for the skippers to choose from once crossing the front on Monday and they all centre very heavily around the activity and movement of the Azores high pressure (HP1) over the coming days.

Option 1 is the northerly option, and is the ‘upwind hog’ route. As you can see from the ensemble routing above for the IMOCA 60’s, only 3 of the 20 routings have the Northerly option paying. This northerly route will ONLY work if the trades don’t come in as strong due to an unsettling of HP1, AND if this coincides with a strong low pressure system forming off the north American coast. Creating Westerly, not Southerly winds in the North Atlantic allowing the teams to get south later. This is by far the riskiest option of the lot and crucially only has it paying over the southerly or rhum line options by an hour. Huge risk, for minimal reward. Hopefully someone will take the flier for our interest, but don’t expect it to be a favourite.

NORTH ROUTE

Northern option. Risky for little reward, but lets hope someone tries it.

Option 2 is the middle of the road, or the ‘rhum line for rhum’ route, and is one most boats will follow at least initially. The GFS 1.0 ensemble forecast of yesterday afternoon has this play currently favoured with 12 of the 20 routings heading this way. This option has the Azores high moving very far West towards the coast of America, allowing the skippers to point their bows almost directly at Gaudeloupe while still passing to the East of the high pressure in downwind conditions. After crossing the front on Monday, this is the safest most conservative route by a long way. Sailing less distance, AND still with the option to go south without losing too many miles if more accurate forecasts later give HP1 moving back East.

MIDDLE ROUTE

The heavily favoured option, conservative and flexible whilst sailing the least miles.

Option 3 is the southerly route, or the ‘sunshine happy holiday’. Here the boats would look to slide down the corridor between the coast of Portugal/Morocco and to the East of the Azores high pressure (HP1). These forecasts have HP1 staying located over the Azores rather than heading West as in Option 2. Currently with only 5 of the 20 routings taking you this way, it again is a riskier option as you will be forced to commit early on to sailing more distance, with less ability to adapt your routing to the changeable forecast if needed. It will however be the most enjoyable ride, so expect some skippers to commit to this route early in the hope to make the most of the gains if it pans out this way.

SOUTH ROUTE

HP1 is unsettled but stays at the Azores, leaving corridor open for southerly route. Downwind, sunshine and gets warmer quicker, expect some skippers to commit to this early.

So what should we be looking out for on the tracker?

Well following the location of the Azores high is going to be the biggest player for all the fleets here. A disbanding of HP1 favours the northerly route, a maintaining, stable HP1 moving West towards America favours the rhum line route and HP1 staying over the Azores favours the southerly option.

What we know for certain is the first night will be a long slog upwind on port for all the boats.. Getting away cleanly will be the primary objective for all the skippers here. There will be a huge amount of boats out on the water creating a lot of funky chop, which added to the tide which will be underneath them for the first 5 hours could cause a pretty nasty sea state. Finding a nice lane to get ripping along for the first 3 hours could be tricky, but hugely beneficial if you can get it. Expect the best skippers, especially in the packed Class 40 fleet, to be doing everything they can to achieve this.

START TIME

When the boats tack on Monday will give us a big indication into which option they will take.

We will get an indication on which option the skippers are looking to follow by when they choose to tack on Monday. A tack in the early hours of Monday would suggest the southerly route, where as a tack late Monday afternoon/evening would be for the Northerly ‘upwind hog’. Expect in the big fleets like the Class 40 a bit of cat and mouse action going among the lead boats as the skippers position themselves not only to the latest weather files, but crucially themselves amongst the fleet as well.

The first night will most likely be the hardest part of the race for the ULTIME class, certainly the most stressful. In particular for one man, a certain Mr Yann Guichard, where dockside rumours have it that he might struggle to tack the mighty 40m Spindrift alone and will be trying to gybe around instead to preserve the boat. The Spindrift story is going to be a fascinating one for us to follow, here’s hoping he can keep it all together and simply demolish the fleet.

In the next update we will take a look back at the start – who’s got their nose in front, and who’s fluffed it. As well as looking in more detail as to how the skippers will deal with the Azores high pressure, with more accurate forecasts at our disposal.

Till then,

H

VOR Leg 1 – Ice gates and getting South

The big news of yesterday was the introduction of an ice gate by Race Director Jack Lloyd. Designed to take away the temptation for the teams to dive deep south in the search for better pressure and a better angle to Cape Town. The Ice Gate is placed at 42 deg South between 20W and 10W, seen on the screenshot below.

ice gate and cape town

The Fleet, the ice gate and Cape town. With a rough outline of the fleets routes over the next few days

Over the past few days the weather models are now in better agreement, giving a more reliable forecast and therefore more reliable routing options for the teams. This allows them to commit to a certain path to dive South, although how far South is still unclear. In the screenshot below is an ensemble routing of GFS 1.0 deg, at 0600UT this morning. The top of the red box depicts the ice gate, to be left to Starboard. I made it into a box so it is easier to see.

The addition of the ice gate reduces the options for the teams, which is good news for the front runners and bad news for the teams behind. What we will likely see is the fleet sailing along this ice gate in order to be as far south as possible, in order to make the most of the left shift on Saturday afternoon.

Ice gate ensemble

Ensemble routings, GFS 1.0 deg, 0600 UT 29th October 2014. Almost all the routings are still taking the boats south of the ice gate to be left to Starboard. (Top line of the red box shown here)

An ensemble GRIB is a really useful tool for gaining confidence in a weather model and its reliability. Ensemble GRIBs are currently only available through the American GFS weather model, and gives the end user (i.e. the navigators on board) the breakdown of the 20 different forecasts that make up the end GFS forecast we all normally see, downloadable via Squid or uGRIB etc.

Once we have all 20 breakdowns we can then do routings on each one, as you can see in the screenshot above. If the routings are scattered, you have little confidence in the forecast, and therefore the best option is to stay middle of the road. To be conservative and with the rest of the fleet until the model becomes more aligned.

If the forecast is debating between two options, split with 10 routings going South and 10 North for example, then you know one of two scenarios are going to play out. Or like now when every single one says to get South within the next 100nm, you can be confident that this is the way to go. Over the last week Dongfeng and Alvimedica seem to have played this conservative, middle of the road game well, and in doing so have made gains on the front trio.

getting south

Fleet gybing South over the next 100nm

It is interesting to note how DFRT and Alvimedica made these gains. In the last blog I spoke about trying to cut the corner to Cape Town, sailing closer to the Saint Helena high, in lighter winds, but sailing less distance. Over the last few days we saw Abu Dhabi and Brunel make big gybes out to the West, accepting the loss and that they had gone too close to the High Pressure. This allowed the others to eat into their lead. It must have been a painful call for the navigators on board, sailing almost exactly 180 degrees the wrong way to Cape Town! Mapfre and SCA appear to have gone too far West, and paid the price for sailing too far. Who would be a navigator?!

Capture

SCREENSHOT – Fleet before they head South

We are now perhaps into the final plays of Leg 1 and its good news for us fans that we have 5 boats back in contention. Dongfeng and Alvimedica need the others to make mistakes and for them to time their gybes over the next few days perfectly to take the lead, but a podium is on now if they get these next decisions right. Alvimedica seem to have found some great pace over the last few days it is worth noting.

So keep an eye on the boats gybing South over today, and then crucially when they time their gybes back to the East to not infringe the ice gate, that is the major decision over the next few days. The boats out West are coming in hot, with Brunel currently leading the way to the East. If Brunel can make their shortcut stick (not gybing West as much as Abu Dhabi did) then they could hold the lead for the next few days. What is exciting for us is that with 6-8 days to go, the race is now a 5 boat contest!

H

VOR Leg 1 – South Atlantic Tactics

So the fleet are around the little island archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, the last waypoint before arriving in Cape Town. In this blog I will be looking through the options ahead for all the teams, some potential short cuts, the traditional options and what to look out for on the tracker, as well as where the next potential passing lanes might be.

I have had a few questions asking why the teams didn’t turn hard left at Fernando and head straight to Cape Town, so explaining this seems like a good place to start.

At the moment the teams are sailing in the South Easterly trade winds. Which would mean a dead beat all the way to Cape Town if they wanted to sail this more ‘direct’ route. This is Option 1 in the playbook. While it is the shortest distance to sail, it basically never works due to the Saint Helena High pressure (HP1) system normally located off the West coast of South Africa. See Abu Dhabi’s track if they took the northerly option (blue) below.

IMAGE 1

Abu Dhabi north vs south options

Option 2 (in pink) is the stock option, the traditional route, and has many alternatives and subtleties but is the option all the teams will be taking this time around. That is to head south in the Easterly trades, skirting to the West of HP1 and hooking into one of the low pressure systems rolling around the southern ocean and riding it all the way to Cape Town, ideally!

Now of course it will never be quite that easy! There will be a trough, ridge or other roadblocks along the way or a stalling or accelerating of the low pressure system that will cause the navigators to make minor or some major adjustments to their trajectory as they make their way south. And once they hook into a low pressure, they will then also be fighting to stay ahead of the front. This is all where it gets really interesting again for us.

IMAGE 2

So looking at Option 2 in more detail. What the teams will be looking to do as they head south is to time their arrival at the St Helena High to arrive on its Western side. They will then sail into its center, creating the nice gybe arc in the constant left shift (in a similar way that they all passed the High Pressure system at the Canaries), and then gybe back to re-position themselves on the southern side of the high as the wind shifts back to the right. Then the game is to hang with it as long as possible, and not get eaten up by the approaching ridge.

So what to be looking out for on the tracker at the moment?

Well the interesting thing here for us is how the teams set up East to West. Rather like as they set up East to West for crossing the doldrums, but this time they are lining up to position themselves on HP1.

IMAGE 5

Teams setting up East to West for arrival onto HP1.

Vestas and Abu Dhabi are a good example of this differing of opinions. Vestas setting up to the West will be sailing more cracked, faster but be sailing more distance. This move suggests they are setting up for HP1 being more West. Abu Dhabi sailing further East, will be sailing more upwind, but also sailing shorter distance in total. They will be expecting HP1 to be moving back East more than Brunel and Vestas. However this is also the safer option for defending the teams behind, so maybe this is having an effect too.

It really is a difficult game for the navigators at the moment with forecasts too unreliable to do the perfect trajectory, but where they position themselves now will have a big effect later. If you sail to far East now, you could end up sailing VMG downwind to get to the Western side of the high, or worse end up sailing to the North of it, upwind. Sail to far West and you would get swallowed up by the ridge quicker and miss your ride to Cape Town..

So over the next few days keep an eye on the teams and their trajectories south. While straight line reaching might seem a bit boring on the tracker, it actually, on close observation is giving us some real insight to the teams’ thinking on how they will be approaching this last 10-12 days of Leg 1. As they close in on the moving target of HP1, and the forecasts become more accurate, they will all be fine tuning their trajectories. Changes of course means lost time however, so they will all be trying to use the wind shifts and increases and decreases in the breeze to do these changes as efficiently as possible.

Next time I will be looking at how the teams approach HP1 more specifically, once we have better and more accurate forecasts. With perhaps some predictions on who has positioned themselves the best to be able to stay ahead of the ridge the longest too!

Keep tracking and get in touch for any questions,

H

VOR Leg 1 – Doldrums for dummies

Last week the race was all about VMG downwind sailing, with Dongfeng being the star performer. After DFRT took the lead, they shortly lost it again 36 hours later after hitting something in the water and losing their rudder. 2 hours later they were up and running again with the spare in. Impressive stuff. What I liked most about this video below is Charles’, concise and clear leadership in the situation, made more impressive doing it in his second language. And how as soon as that rudder was back in, the main was being hoisted to get going in the right direction again, not a second was wasted.

Cape Verde’s was the next obstacle and it looked like all the boats came out in the wash fairly even to how they came into it in terms of distance to finish. Crucially however they were set up East to West for very different approaches into the doldrums. The boats who went through the islands, Dongfeng, Mapfre and Vestas all struggled to make good value ‘Westing’ in after their passage through these remote, mid Atlantic islands. Therefore paying a higher price to get West than Abu Dhabi or Brunel who went West before them at a much better CMG (course made good). This meant that while it looked good initially for the southern trio, it was only ever a short term gain.

Screenshot 1

Southern option looking good for Dongfeng initially

As I type now the boats are crossing the Intertropical Convergence Zone, the ITCZ, the doldrums, ‘le pot au noir’. It is an infamous place to sail for all seafarers and in times gone by sailors have got stuck here for days. With stories of sailors going crazy in the heat and disorientation.

Teams will be hoping their decision on where to cross, East to West, will be the right one, and also for a little bit of luck I am sure! Traditionally ‘west is best’ here, so expect Abu Dhabi and Brunel to do the best out of this. On the tracker they certainly seem to be making better progress than their eastern counterparts.

Saying that however, the race isn’t over for those out East. The doldrums seem more settled and not as wide to the East as normal, and crucially the South Easterlies are well formed to the South of the ITCZ meaning the traditionally risky Eastern approach is less so this time around. If Dongfeng, Mapfre and Vestas therefore can break through the doldrums at the same time as Abu Dhabi and Brunel, they will have a much better/faster angle to Fernando de Noronha, the next waypoint of the course, compared to Abu D and Brunel who will be sailing more upwind.

Screenshot 2

Game still on as they race South towards Fernando de Noronha

Because of this my latest routing at the moment actually has Dongfeng leading Abu Dhabi at Fernando de Noronha by less than 2nm, just a few minutes. Meaning the race for the lead would well and truly be on for the last 3,400nm as they drag race to the finish in Cape Town, traditionally in big 24hr record breaking conditions.

Bear in mind though that routing and GRIB weather forecasts that I have used are pretty unreliable in areas such as the ITCZ where clouds can give zero wind, or 25kts where 4 knots are forecast. If current leaders Abu Dhabi get stuck this afternoon under a newly forming cloud, which will suck all the breeze from underneath it, into it, they could easily get trapped for 2 hours, and pop out of the doldrums in 5th or worse, a really nerve wracking time for the teams, and for the navigators as well, but great for us!

All the navigators will be downloading satellite radar images of the cloud formations that could pass ahead of them to try and avoid this, but it is not a truly scientific and precise art! I am sure they will be silently crossing their fingers down at the nav station and be feeding Neptune their favourite food items on board as a sacrifice for a safe and speedy passage!

In the next blog I will talk more about the St Helena high, the traditional routes and potential short cuts available to the teams. For now, keep an eye on who can nudge themselves South the fastest and get out of the doldrums first. And be aware the teams to the East will have a nicer angle after the doldrums, even if the teams to the west look more advanced along the road for now.

H

VOR Leg 1 – Getting South, and West…

So the start of the mighty Volvo Ocean Race is well and truly under way now and I have to admit I have been a bit of an addict since the start, watching, reading and listening to every bit of media that comes off the boats! Some of the content is just fantastic and it makes interesting viewing too as there is a lot we can learn from the pictures and videos sent off the boats about how the sailors are sailing the boats. This photo here for example shows how much emphasis Dongfeng are putting on stacking their gear. Coiled ropes on deck, and piling up the stack twice the height of the guard wire. Losing a sail over the side in the practice ‘Leg 0′ is clearly not phasing them as they push the boat as hard as they can now that the race is on proper.

Image 1

Stacking hard in the flat water with the stack twice the height of the guard wire

There has also been lots of talk about the watch systems being run on board, and how the role of skippers and navigators will fit in. From this screenshot from on board Mapfre you can see Nicolas Lunven, navigator on board Mapfre, getting stuck in on the bow in a sail change. In years gone by I am certain some navigators barely ventured on deck, let alone the bow! This is a sign of how the smaller crew numbers are forcing the sailors to be more flexible in their roles.

Image 2

Nicolas Lunven, Navigator onboard Mapfre getting stuck into a sail change on the bow

So looking back at the race so far the big move in the Mediterranean was all about SCA. Breaking away from the pack and going with what proved to be the right option, impressive stuff. The most interesting thing for me though with this was how the other teams reacted to this move, and it reminds me a lot of the way you sail in the Figaro. This race is long, and while other teams may have favoured the Northern approach, they stuck with the pack. Dongfeng, filled with sailors who cut their teeth in the Figaro for example, Charles, Pascal, Eric, Thomas, started heading North initially with SCA, most likely wishing the fleet would follow with them. When it turned out they weren’t, they cut back to go with the pack, not wanting to give away too much leverage to so many boats so early on in the game.

Image 3

Fleet at 0730UT 15th October 2014

After exiting Gibraltar the fleet headed West, crossed a front and then tacked, turning their bows South towards warmer climes. The whole fleet besides Vestas are still within 10nm of each other and are currently VMG running, with British Skipper Ian Walker of Abu Dhabi currently doing the most consistent job holding a 1.7nm lead over Dongfeng.

The next 1000 or more miles are going to be all about VMG downwind sailing. There is a high pressure to navigate and at the same time the Canaries Islands too. Navigating the HP will be interesting, ideally you would pass best by sailing into the center of it, taking the right shift and then gybing away, careful not to get caught out by the light winds in the center. Example here seen in the screenshot below.

Image 4

Navigating passed a High Pressure system

In order to nail this shift, overnight last night we saw the boats gybing down the Moroccan coast to position themselves for their final approach into the high. Approach the high to early and you will not get the shift, and be sailing into lighter winds, too late and the boats inside you will get to the shift first and make gains as they gybe back at you. Remember too that the center of the HP is always moving, so its a tricky decision to make. The navigators will be pouring over every piece of information they can to make their best educated guesses. Small gains and losses will be made here by the team that does this best.

Image 5

The routing of lead boat Abu Dhabi over the next 5 days as they head south to Fenando de Noronha

After dealing with the HP the boats will then be sailing downwind in predominantly Northerly winds, meaning they will be going back to basics, gybing on the shifts, as well as staying in the best pressure. At this time, the navigators will also start looking at the best times to get in some Westing where possible, in order to get into the more Easterly trade winds which is a better angle for getting South and into the Doldrums. At the moment I have them sailing through the Cape Verde Islands in order to do this Westing, which would give them an acceleration of the wind through the islands too, and some nice footage for us too!

So keep an eye on the boats today as they slide to the Eastern side of the HP and then also as they race downwind for a few days. Who is the fastest downwind? Mapfre are reportedly 150kg lighter on personal kit for this Leg than all the other teams, will this make a difference here? Small gains over the next few days could turn into bigger gains later on as the first boat into the stronger trade winds to the South West will inevitably increase their lead further. No let up for the crews yet then it seems!

And no let up for me either, this week I am training with Nick Cherry. And today we are doing a little offshore race of our own from Torquay, round Eddystone lighthouse and back to Dartmouth. About 12 hours in total, expected into Dartmouth around 0400 tomorrow morning.

H

dartmouth training

Torquay, Eddystone lighthouse, Dartmouth.

My playbook for Leg 1 VOR

So the start of one of the greatest races/adventures in the world got under way yesterday, the Volvo Ocean Race. As a Figaro sailor the Volvo this time around has got a whole lot more interesting with the introduction of one design boats. The racing will be closer, and tactical options will most likely make one of the biggest differences out on the water. In this blog I am going to look at the first leg of the race from Alicante, Spain to Cape Town, South Africa and look at the different options on offer to the teams.

Captujre

The leg can be broken down into 4 stages:

1) Exiting the Mediterranean

2) The Mid Atlantic

3) The Doldrums

4) The South Atlantic

Interestingly for this race the first two nights are spent exiting the Mediterranean, which provides additional challenges for the sailors and especially the navigators. With huge coastal effects, and thermal influences too, even at this time of year, meaning there can be huge holes out there on the race course.

Capture

On the first night it appears Team Vestas, who made a move away from the fleet at 0130, heading inshore by themselves, are the only boat to have not got trapped last night, seeing them hold a 2nm lead over 2nd placed Mapfre as it stands at 1100UT this afternoon. Abu Dhabi and Brunel got the worst of the shut downs being the most offshore, both losing heavily at 0300 this morning. Abu Dhabi cut their loses earlier than Brunel however and headed back inshore and are now up to 3rd as of this afternoon.

Perhaps the biggest decision of the leg will be once they exit the Mediterranean and pass through the Gibraltar straight and into the Atlantic. Last time around Groupama lost big by going South alone, and the first boats West, Telefonica and PUMA, did best. Although it looked good initially for Groupama, as you can see from Screenshot 1, a few days of fast reaching by Telefonica and PUMA out West and Groupama were eaten up as they sailed VMG downwind in the light. Check out how Leg 1 played out for last time around for yourself here – http://volvooceanrace.geovoile.com/2011/?leg=1

VOR Leg 1 2012Screenshot 1 – Groupama advanced nicely South intially

VOR Leg 1 2012 2

Screenshot 2 – How it played out last time, West was best

As it stands at the moment, I don’t believe a Westerly option will pay this time around (NOTE! As it stands at the moment!) and reckon all boats will follow a Southerly route sticking East of the ridge extending North/South and sailing downwind through the Canaries and Cape Verde’s. As you can see from the routings below getting West is made very hard work due to sailing directly upwind for 1000nm before being able to point the bow South. A too bigger price to pay I feel. Compared to last time when Telefonica and PUMA got West sailing downwind in South Easterly winds, able to head South after only 800nm of Westing. I ran a pivot (green) to see what the best Westerly option I could achieve was and as you can see it isn’t that pretty, after a week of sailing you will be 550nm further West but 800nm further North to the current optimal routing in blue. With Green having to come back East at some point in its the near future as well.

Leg 1 Volvo

So the trick will be when to head South. In what looks to be VMG downwind running in 10-15kts of breeze at around 130-140 TWA sailing both through the Canaries and the Cape Verdes for most likely increased wind as it funnels through the islands. There will be gybes to do and shifts to play, as well as always having ‘getting west’ on your mind to line yourself up nicely for the doldrums.

Leg 1 Volvo canaries

Sailing through the Canaries, sticking East of the Ridge HP for NE’ly winds

Leg 1 Volvo cape verde

Sailing through the Cape Verde’s, heading West here currently see’s a nicer reaching angle South

Every team in a weeks time will be looking to find the thinnest transition of the doldrums as well as line up their exit with a nice reaching angle South before executing the long slow turn around the St Helena high pressure. By the time they reach the doldrums I am sure some gaps would have appeared, with some teams defending positions, lining up directly South of your closest competitors is generally considered the safest approach for this, but some teams will be looking to take a gamble. With the prize of being that the first boat out will find the stronger winds first, and able to extend on their opponents, perhaps gambles will be taken here. It is all to play for and for sure I won’t be able to keep my eyes off of the racing!

Till next time,

H

VIDEO: Sailing towards a twister/waterspout in 40kts

Yesterday Nick Cherry and I got back into some serious Figaro training, heading offshore in 40kts. It is always good to get out there in these conditions as we often have to endure them during racing and it helps to build your confidence in handling the boat too. As we hammered our way upwind in big seas with wind against tide we came across one particularly nasty looking black cloud with this twister/waterspout on its trailing edge, check out the video below.

H

Twister the video from Henry Bomby on Vimeo.