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.
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.
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.