The leaders are banging into the light air of a high pressure and the wind speed is dropping once again. The fleet are compressing and a low pressure is barreling in from the west to bring new breeze to the back of the fleet first... it could just bring the fleet back together one last time for the final run into Auckland.
Or not. It might be, and some would say it should be that the pair that have been leading since the North Pacific – Team Sun Hung Kai / Scallywag and Team AkzoNobel – have already done enough for one of them to take the win...
Lots of weather
This has been the leg when weather properly trumped climate. Regular readers will know that these strategic reviews rely heavily on the idea of climate zones – that the earth’s oceanic climate features distinct bands, lying horizontally and looping the globe, running out from the Equator to the Poles in a mirror image.
When the fleet races from north to south (or vice versa) as they are on Leg 6, then they cross through several of these climate zones and the transitions from one type of weather or climate zone to the next become the critical features of the strategic game. It would be something of an understatement to say that the weather has pushed the climate into the background on this leg – but as I said in the last Strategic Review while the normal climate patterns have been disrupted by some big weather systems there have still been transitions. We left the fleet trying to make a big one and scrabble an exit from the Doldrums.
We can see in Image 1 from 13:00UTC on the 19th February – the time when we left the fleet – that the Doldrums were stretched out wide and deep before them as they raced south towards Vanuatu.
©Geovoile - Image 1 (Click for larger image)
The fleet had recompressed significantly as they hit the light winds, bringing the long-term leaders, Team Sun Hung Kai / Scallywag (grey) and Team AkzoNobel (purple) within striking distance of Team Brunel (yellow) and Turn the Tide on Plastic (light blue) – while overall leaders MAPFRE (white) and Dongfeng Race Team (red) still had plenty to do at the back.
The prognosis wasn’t good either; the movement of Cyclone Gita across the race course had disrupted the normally reliable trade winds, muddying the route to the Doldrums exit. Image 2 shows the predicted optimal route (as of the 19th February) for the fleet to the finish, with their predicted positions at 13:00UTC on the 25th February.
©Geovoile - Image 2 (Click for larger image)
It looked like the best strategy was a long loop to the west to avoid a high pressure system that was drifting east from the Tasman Sea over New Zealand before moving out to the Pacific. Coming in from the west was a big low pressure system – visible bottom-left in Image 2 – that would eventually bring them the breeze to take them to the line. It turned out that this forecast wasn’t too far off the mark.
Let’s go back to the 19th February momentarily, and then skim quickly over the horrors of the subsequent 48 hours in the Doldrums. They were as tough as we expected, as the fleet fought to get south down the Solomon Islands. We can see the fleet in Image 3 from 13:00UTC on the 21st February with the breeze just starting to stabilise and fill back in – everyone has 4-6 knots from the south-east (110-145).
©Geovoile - Image 3 (Click for larger image)
They have effectively split into three match races, Team Sun Hung Kai / Scallywag versus Team AkzoNobel; Team Brunel up against Turn the Tide on Plastic; and finally MAPFRE duking it out with Dongfeng Race Team at the back.
New leader, different strategy
The leaderboard now had Turn the Tide on Plastic in the lead though, and this is because (along with Team Brunel) they have taken a position to the east of the lead pair. The Scallywags and Team AkzoNobel look to be committed to the loop to the west, but those behind them are trying to cut the corner and save some miles. The question (as always) will be whether or not more speed over more miles, will beat a shorter distance in lighter winds.
Let’s zoom out and go forward 24 hours to have a look at the bigger picture in Image 4 from 13:00UTC on the 22nd February.
©Geovoile - Image 4 (Click for larger image)
Although it’s still very light, the south-east trade winds are trying to restore some normality to the situation, and the fleet has remained in a light 5-9knot east-southeasterly. The dominant features strategically are New Caledonia (just ahead and to windward of the fleet), and the big high pressure that’s moved into the Tasman Sea in the wake of the cyclone (which is now moving off-stage, bottom right of the image).
A band of stronger wind to the south of New Caledonia can be seen in this image, but so can the wind shadow to the west of the island. The fleet had to balance getting south quickly to get into the new stronger wind, while not getting too close to the big hole in the breeze west of New Caledonia – oh, and the barrier reef that Turn the Tide on Plastic had to dodge.
The leaders, Team AkzoNobel and the Scallywags had gone further west, and so given up their position at the top of the leaderboard to Turn the Tide on Plastic and Team Brunel who were cutting the corner and in doing so moving closer to Auckland. From this moment onwards, the leaderboard temporarily becomes a bit meaningless, as the fleet follows through on these different strategies.
If we go forward another 37 hours to Image 5 from 02:00UTC on the 24th February we can see that Team Brunel used this period and a StealthPlay to double down on their strategy.
©Geovoile - Image 5 (Click for larger image)
They went into Stealth to hide their course change to take a much more direct route towards Auckland, while Turn the Tide on Plastic actually reversed their strategy and joined Team AkzoNobel and the Scallywags in the race south. This southern group had now found plenty of wind – 17-19 knots from the east-southeast – while the easterly boats had suffered in the lee of New Caledonia and still didn’t have quite the same amount of breeze. It certainly didn’t look good for Team Brunel, with both MAPFRE and Dongfeng Race Team coming into the back of them, while the leaders had pushed a lot further south. It was a bold StealthPlay, but...
If we go forward another 24 hours to Image 6 from 02:00UTC on the 25th February we can see the reason for the southerly advance of the leaders.
©Geovoile - Image 6 (Click for larger image)
The predicted inbound low pressure system has moved into the Tasman Sea and the accompanying frontal change is now clearly visible, anchored on the NSW coast and running away to the south-east.
This system is bringing a lot more breeze to the southern boats. The movement of the high pressure – pushed eastwards by the arrival of the low pressure – is also providing them with a wind shift from the east-southeasterly to a more northerly wind that’s allowing them to turn towards Auckland and maintain a fast sailing angle. This was the strategy predicted in Image 2 being perfectly executed.
Short-cut’s a long-cut
If we now go forward another 30 hours to Image 7 from 07:00UTC today, the 26th February, and the Scallywags have just finished a StealthPlay. Team AkzoNobel are still in theirs, but I think we can safely assume that they are somewhere just to the south and east of Scallywag.
©Geovoile - Image 7 (Click for larger image)
This group of three boats now has a substantial lead on the three boats that took the more easterly route, we can see that the short-cut hasn’t worked out for Team Brunel in particular. MAPFRE and Dongfeng Race Team have done a tidy job of closing onto the leader’s line and now have some of the best breeze on the race course. But Team Brunel have flown too close to the centre of the high in an effort to save miles, and now appear to have dropped off the edge of a cliff, losing 60 miles to the Dongfeng/MAPFRE pair. They look stranded.
Up to date
Let’s bring it up to date in Image 8 from 13:00UTC today, 26th February.
©Geovoile - Image 8 (Click for larger image)
Team AkzoNobel are leading the top three by a handful of miles around the top of New Zealand. They have slowed significantly as they move into the high pressure, with just 3-6 knots of northerly wind. They are about to make a turn to the south, down the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, and it’s going to get even more painful, as they try to sail downwind in the light conditions.
I think this turn is going to be important, in fact, while it’s going to feel horribly slow trying to get down the coast, the right-turn will protect them from the pair chasing from behind. It’s a simplification, but a new wind approaching from the west reaches everyone racing on a north to south line at the same time. So any distance the leaders can get down the coast before MAPFRE and Dongfeng Race Team get to the corner should be a bankable lead.
The turn will also be important because it will take the fleet down the coast, bringing a lot of potential for local coastal effects, like sea breezes. At the time of writing it’s dark in New Zealand, but the sunrise will bring the potential for local winds springing up.
And let’s not forget that MAPFRE and Dongfeng Race Team are still over 90 miles behind, which is a very long way with just 200 miles to the finish. They do have 12-13 knots of windspeed and are going a lot faster. They are sailing right on the front edge of the new wind from the low pressure system, visible to the west of them, so the gap will close... but I don’t think it will close to zero and create a passing opportunity. Of course, I’ve been wrong before...
In Image 9 we can see the predicted route down the east coast at 01:00UTC on the morning of the 27th February – just under 12 hours ahead.
©Geovoile - Image 9 (Click for larger image)
There is a problem with the tracker and so Team AkzoNobel’s position isn’t moving, but we can assume they will be with Scallywag and Turn the Tide on Plastic, about 50nm down the coast, with MAPFRE and Dongfeng Race Team about 20-25nm behind.
There’s a lot of uncertainty involved in these predictions, because they don’t effectively account for local conditions, and a tiny difference in the movement or intensity of the high pressure could also make a massive difference to the outcome.
The good news for the lead trio is that the breeze is filling in all around them, not just from the west, but moving up towards them from the south. So while the next 12-15 hours is going to be pretty agonizing... relief is on the way.
If we go forward just another six hours to Image 10 showing predicted positions and weather at 07:00UTC on the 27th February, we can see that the breeze has filled in all the way along the east coast down to Auckland.
©Geovoile - Image 10 (Click for larger image)
If this turns out to be correct, it’s going to turn into a drag race for the final section across the Hauraki Gulf and into the Viaduct.
It might be very unlikely that MAPFRE and Dongfeng Race Team can cross the gap to the leaders and make it a five-way battle, but that doesn’t alter the fact that both the lead trio and the pair behind them have got some very serious racing ahead of them to win their groups. Auckland has a history of tight finishes and I don’t think this one will be any different.
It will come down to the crews who can read the local conditions best, the people who know when to close with the coast, and those who know when to stand off. Those who know where to find the first of the sea breeze, and where it blows strongest. It’s going to be a great 24 hours of racing to crown a very worthy winner in the City of Sails.