[Source:B&G] It couldn’t last – all that tight inshore racing. The Atlantic Ocean is too big a place to roam around in a pack, and sooner or later something was going to create a split, it turned out to be a broken rudder and the Cape Verde Islands.
Last Tuesday we left the fleet north of the Canary Islands, tracking close to the coast of Africa. There were some deeply unpleasant schedules immediately afterwards with not much wind around – but no one managed to make any kind of breakaway. Everyone wanted to stay close to the coast, because the sea/land transition, and the thermal differences found there, would create wind even when there was very little gradient breeze.
They all got going on Wednesday as the wind eased round to the north-east from the trade wind direction, even if there was little of the fabled trade wind velocity. It remained tricky sailing and early on Saturday morning (18th – all times are UTC), almost the whole fleet was still stuck together on the African coast. The exception was Team SCA, who got burned flying a little too close to the sun (the Sahara) on Friday, and then picked up a fishing net.
Conditions finally improved on the Saturday, and when the trade winds filled in strongly from the north-northeast, the fleet high-tailed it out of there.
Breaking the Rudder
Early on Saturday morning, the leader, Dongfeng Race Team, hit something solid and they hit it hard. They broke the rudder and spent a couple of hours putting the spare in place. And this is where our story begins…
Once the Chinese were back up and running, the fleet were gybing downwind in perfect trade wind conditions throughout Saturday. It should have been fun sailing (Pic 1), even if things were a little tense. The wind was shifting, and everyone was hyper-aware that at some point they had to pick a lane for the Doldrums.
No one wanted to commit first and everyone wanted to play the fleet – so they traded gybes; trying to stay on the favoured side of the pack and on the favoured gybe, and to not go past the point of no-return, where they would miss the moving target they had pinned on the entrance to the Doldrums; a target that moved with every new weather forecast. And if all that wasn’t bad enough, sometimes the favoured route was also taking them right through the middle of the Cape Verde Islands.
It was like a game of chicken, big volcanic islands rising up to almost 3,000m, create a lot of disturbance in the wind. Any boat that took the inside option and went through the islands might be sailing faster towards the target, but if they got parked up in the lee of a volcano for a couple of hours, the gains would disappear like tears in the rain.
The split started to appear overnight on the 18th /19th October (Pic 2). The broken rudder had positioned Dongfeng Race Team to the south-east of the pack, and they then got a great wind shift that was taking them fast in the right direction. The combination of these two factors made the route through the islands too tempting to ignore. Navigator, Pascal Bidégorry and skipper Charles Caudrelier went for it.
I suspect that the rest of the fleet were already sailing higher than their fastest VMG angles to get around the top of the islands, so Dongfeng almost immediately got back the lead they had lost because of the broken rudder –
and some… but could they hold it all the way to the other side, never mind all the way to the Doldrums?
Once the news of Bidégorry and Caudrelier’s gamble got out and the early gains became clear (they jumped out to a 30 mile lead by Sunday morning), Team Vestas Wind and MAPFRE decided to go with them, and suddenly it was game on.
Tense and Tricky
The main action in the Cape Verdes (sounds like a WW1 naval report) happened on Sunday 19th , as we can see in Pic 3. No one was having an easy time with 100km of leverage between the leader of the north-western bunch – Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing; and to the south-east, Dongfeng Race Team. At this point the scores on the board had the Chinese team over 60km ahead of the Emiratis – but the game was far from over.
It looks like Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Team Brunel went looking for an accelerated wind funneling around the island, while Dongfeng Race Team were working hard to play the wind shifts. By Sunday evening, they were all clear of the islands (Pic 4) and the leverage between the north-west and south-east wings of the fleet was now a whopping 160km – with Dongfeng Race Team ‘leading’ by 73km.
One of the favourite maxims of this blog, is that a lead isn’t a lead until you have banked it, and closed the leverage back down. In this case, the convergence started quickly, and it was soon clear that the north-west wing was now taking back their losses. All four boats gybed to port, and came steaming out of the north with a great shift and good breeze. The three to the south were having to work much harder – as you can see from the number of gybes they threw in as the fleet came back together (Pic 5).
By the morning of the 20th October, the fleet were all lined up west to east, with just a handful of clicks between Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Dongfeng Race Team on the leaderboard. From a casual glance, it seemed that the Cape Verde split had made little difference after a day and a half of tense racing. But no… they were still 60km apart in leverage – and this is where the Cape Verde split will have its biggest consequences.
Pick a Lane
The Doldrums were looming fast, less than 24 hours ahead of the fleet and the opportunities to change lane before they hit them had pretty much reduced to zero. So, west to east, left to right in the front row we had Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, Team Brunel, Dongfeng Race Team, MAPFRE and Team Vestas Wind.
The old salts say that west is best to cross the Doldrums. It cost them to get there – but maybe Ian Walker and the Emirati’s strategy to go to the north of the Cape Verde’s would finally pay out like a run on a Vegas slot machine?
At the time of writing, the most recent report is from the morning of Tuesday 21st October, and the fleet have hit the Doldrums and hit them hard (Pic 6). The boat’s tracks have gone wobbly, speeds have plummeted and the wind arrows have reduced to little dots – the cloud battle has begun.
The navigators will have switched from strategic mode – worrying about weather models and routing software – into tactical mode, focused on the B&G radar to try and read what’s coming their way in the next cloud.
What Happens Next?
We mentioned in the preview that traditionally 27-28W is the best place to enter the Doldrums. In (Pic 6) the light blue line you see to the left of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing is 30W. So Walker is set up on about 29W, while 130km to the east, Team Vestas Wind are on about 27W – no one is taking a flyer here.
But look at those faint wind arrows at the bottom of the picture, they are slightly but significantly bigger and stronger to the west. It looks like the western boats have the narrower band of Doldrums to cross. If they get an even break with the clouds, they should come out first.
Sail boat racing doesn’t always work like that though, and once they are out the other side of the Doldrums, the relative exit positions from east-to-west will still have a big impact on the drag race to FdN in the south-east trades. An eastern boat will have a wider, faster angle… but if I had to put money on it, I’d say that this later gain isn’t going to outweigh the advantage that the western boats should have by exiting first.
Of course, these are the Doldrums, and something else entirely could happen – but for now, the dice has been rolled, the lanes have been picked and we just have to sit back and watch it play out…