We are less than two days in and we already have a massive split between the two overall front runners – Dongfeng Race Team and MAPFRE – and the two boats chasing them; Team Brunel and Team AkzoNobel (see the overall points here).
Dongfeng Race Team gybed first on Monday to go to the north-east with the Gulf Stream. And they did it right on the position report, leaving the rest of the fleet still headed south-east. MAPFRE eventually went with them but the rest kept going, and there is now over 260nm of leverage (separation measured perpendicular to the course) between the leaders of the two packs of boats.
This is a double-points scoring leg, and one potential outcome of this huge strategic play will put four boats into contention for the overall win... with just two legs to go. Don’t change the channel; this legendary race course is all set to produce a classic finale to this edition of the Volvo Ocean Race.
On Leg 9 (click here for the full preview) the fleet are once again racing west to east, so we are back in the same territory as Leg 7. In fact, in terms of our climate model – the idea 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 – this is the simplest leg of all.
Leg 9 starts and finishes in the same climate zone; the Westerly Storm Track. This is the high latitude region where storms and low pressure systems swirl west-to-east around the globe. In the northern hemisphere this is complicated by the fact that (in comparison to the south) the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are broken up by the not insignificant land masses of Europe, Asia and North America.
Fortunately, we don’t really have to worry about that – in Leg 9 the fleet are traversing the North Atlantic, west to east and all the low pressure systems that will have an impact will do the same.
Leg 9 began with the usual show for the spectators, after which the fleet reversed their Leg 8 inbound route; from Narragansett Bay, round Brenton Point and back out into the Atlantic – albeit in rather faster conditions.
We can see from Image 1 from 20:00UTC on the 20th May that Team Brunel (yellow) led into open water from Dongfeng Race Team (red), Team Sun Hung Hai / Scallywag (grey), MAPFRE (white), Team AkzoNobel (purple), Vestas 11th Hour Racing (orange) and Turn the Tide on Plastic (light blue).
©Geovoile - Image 1 (Click for larger image)
By this time the fleet were all reaching at really fast angles (upwards of 20 knots of boat speed) in a 20-24 knot south-westerly wind. If we zoom out in Image 2 from the same day and time (20:00UTC, 20/5/18), we can see that this breeze was coming from one of those Westerly Storm Track low pressure systems centred over Newfoundland, and headed for Europe.
©Geovoile - Image 2 (Click for larger image)
Not much changed until well into the first night – in Image 3 from 02:30UTC from the 21/5/18 we can see that the fleet had significant constraints on their course up to this point. They had to negotiate marks and Exclusion Zones at Nantucket Shoal and it wasn’t until they were through this gate that the strategic options started to open up.
©Geovoile - Image 3 (Click for larger image)
Meanwhile, there was a lot of fog around, and with very limited visibility it must have been pretty scary at those speeds – so they had plenty to worry about on deck. Down below, attention would have been split between the radar (to avoid hitting anything) and a very challenging set of conditions. The Newfoundland low pressure system was the key to the first 24 hours of sailing, and it might well turn out to be the key to the race.
If we zoom out and go forward on Monday morning, to Image 4 from 11:00UTC on the 21st May, we can see that the low pressure and the cold front that the fleet was riding was moving south-east. Behind the front there was the normal wind shift to the north-west that you would expect, and there was also quite a lot less breeze.
©Geovoile - Image 4 (Click for larger image)
Unfortunately, the rhumb line (the shortest course) to Cardiff (shown by the white dashed line) runs north-east. It heads towards the edge of another Exclusion Zone that’s intended to keep them out of the ice drifting south from the Arctic on the Labrador Current (explained in the Preview here). So staying ahead of the cold front kept boats in the best wind speed, but was not necessarily in the right direction, adding a lot of miles to the race track. It’s the age old ocean racing conundrum – sail the shortest course, or do extra miles for more breeze and more speed.
The differences in opinion on the right and wrong way to get to Cardiff had started to show very quickly. In Image 4 we can see that Dongfeng Race Team had moved up into the lead at the head of a small group (Team Brunel and MAPFRE) that were holding a slightly more northerly lane into the Atlantic. To windward of that group, Team AkzoNobel, Vestas 11th Hour Racing, Scallywag, and Turn the Tide on Plastic had all taken a route a little more to the south.
The cold front had already caught the hindmost, overtaking Turn the Tide on Plastic. In the table on Image 4 we can see that their wind had gone round to the north of west (278deg), and dropped to 12-13 knots. At this point, they decided to gybe, and it was really their only option – staying on starboard would have meant going at almost right angles to the course to Cardiff. This is a crucial point – once a boat had been overtaken by the front the only real option was to gybe and head north-east. The choice to carry on to the south-east was only open to those that could stay ahead of the front... and there was a big carrot hanging on the end of the stick for anyone that could do that for long enough to get to the Gulf Stream.
The Gulf Stream is explained in more detail in the Preview here. In Image 5 we can see the critical section for the fleet on this leg in a @RaceExperts chart. The Gulf Stream is the red and orange flow of water meandering across the Atlantic.
©Great Circle - Squid - Image 5 (Click for larger image)
At the moment this image was taken the Gulf Stream was about 60nm ahead of the leader. Anyone that could reach it before being forced to gybe (by the passage of the front) would have the option of heading north-east with a 3.5kt boost from the current. The Gulf Stream is pretty wide at this point, so there would be plenty of opportunity to pick a moment for the gybe and still stay in the good current.
Or, and this was the nuclear option in terms of creating leverage; go all the way across the Stream – passing up the chance of a 3.4kt free boost towards the finish line – to ride the cold front and low pressure system all the way...
If we now go forward to Image 6 from 14:00UTC on the 21st May we can see that Dongfeng Race Team were the first to hit the Gulf Stream, and the first to gybe. This was a pretty big call for the leader, backing their judgement big time, as they gybed away from their main competition for the overall prize, MAPFRE.
©Geovoile - Image 6 (Click for larger image)
It’s hard to be completely sure, but I think this was a very deliberate split – they made the gybe right on the 13:00UTC position report. They were also 15 miles from MAPFRE at the time, so it’s unlikely the Spanish crew would have seen them go. This would give them the maximum amount of time (six hours before the next position report) on the opposite gybe before the rest of the fleet realized... game on.
We can see in Image 7 from 14:50UTC on the 21st May that MAPFRE followed Dongfeng Race Team and gybed to go north-east just under an hour later – also (presumably) backing their own judgement, as we don’t think that they knew the Chinese had gybed. The rest of the fleet (apart from Turn the Tide on Plastic who gybed first and were part of the ‘northern group’) carried on...
©Geovoile - Image 7 (Click for larger image)
Ugly in the north
The distance between the two groups of boats grew and grew as day turned into night. The northern groups north-westerly wind went a bit more to the north, and the southern groups west-southwesterly wind went a bit more south-west. The result was that they were only sailing about a 20deg difference in course, but on opposite gybes in completely different wind directions.
And then the northern leaders, Dongfeng Race Team and MAPFRE hit a pothole, as we can see in Image 8 from 02:00UTC this morning, 22nd May. There are several bubbles of high pressure behind the cold front, and they landed in one of these, getting a light easterly breeze for a while that really slowed them up. Turn the Tide on Plastic was not impacted, so this was a localized deal that’s almost impossible to predict.
©Geovoile - Image 8 (Click for larger image)
Meanwhile, in the south, Team Brunel was leading the charge in 25-30kts of south-westerly breeze and closing on Cardiff at about 15knots... It wouldn’t be long before they were through into the lead.
Conditions eventually improved for the northern group and by this morning – in Image 9 from 07:30UTC on the 22nd May – they were moving again, albeit still at half the speed of the southern group. And their position is still very precarious, as they are right on the eastern edge of an area of high pressure that’s moving and growing towards the east.
©Geovoile - Image 9 (Click for larger image)
All of the four boats in the south had now passed all of the boats in the north. They still had the strong south-westerly breeze at this point, and so were still ahead of the change behind the cold front. The ride can’t go on forever though, as the front is forecast to stall when it hits the Azores High – it’s not going to take them to Europe.
In fact, they were pointing at the Western Sahara rather than Cardiff at this stage – eventually they must all gybe and get going towards the finish. The Scallywags were first to go, and had picked this moment to bail out of the south, but they were sailing at a horrible angle, almost perpendicular to the course to Cardiff.
They got through the front eventually and in Image 10 we bring it up to date at the time of writing – from 11:00UTC on the 22nd May – and we can see that the Scallywags are now in the northerly wind behind the front. It looks as though they are sailing upwind though, and still cannot point at Cardiff...
©Geovoile - Image 10 (Click for larger image)
So how is all this going to play out? It’s going to get ugly is the short answer. If we look at Image 11 we can see the chart for 15:30UTC this afternoon, 22nd May with the predicted optimum routes and weather for both groups. The weather routing thinks the southern group should all have gybed by then, setting up a slow convergence with the northern group.
©Geovoile - Image 11 (Click for larger image)
The big problem is going to be the area of high pressure that has by then overtaken the northern group – leaving them once again in light air. It’s going to roll right over them and that’s going to hurt.
Things aren’t much better for those in the south. Their ride on the cold front should have taken them out of the path of the high (at the cost of a lot of extra miles), but – as we have already seen with Scallywag – the breeze behind the cold front leaves them going upwind. This will continue as they then face the easterly wind circulating around the bottom of the high pressure. The next 24 hours will be crucial, as we see what cards the high pressure deals to both groups, and how they play them.
In Image 12 I’ve gone forward another 24 hours and we can see how the high pressure has now moved ahead of them, with both groups sailing in the southerly breeze on its western side. Light winds aren’t going to be a problem for much longer though, as we can see the next low pressure system starting to form to their west.
©Geovoile - Image 12 (Click for larger image)
In Image 13 from 02:30UTC on the 24th May, we can see that this low pressure has worked up a fair head of steam and is now set to sweep across the fleet. It’s going to bring a lot of breeze, some very fast downwind sailing and eventually another cold front to ride towards Wales.
©Geovoile - Image 13 (Click for larger image)
In Image 14 we can see the fleet’s predicted positions at 17:00UTC on the 24th as they converge at the Ice Exclusion Zone (EZ). It looks like the southern group will get the better of it, and are expected to have about an 80nm lead – but don’t bet your house on it. This is just one forecast doing a lot of work; trying to predict the movement of the high, and the formation and speed of the new low pressure. Even a small change could have a big impact.
©Geovoile - Image 14 (Click for larger image)
We can see that the low pressure and cold front are right on them at this point, with a wind shift from the south to south-west and west. The timing of this is just one way that the detail of these changes will be important.
In the southerly wind, the southern group have a big advantage as they can use their windward position to sail a faster, more open wind angle; with the northern group pinned against the EZ. In the post-frontal south-westerly wind that advantage disappears and the northern group benefit by being closer to the rhumb line with less miles to sail.
Far from over
The new low pressure is a long way from the end of the story though, as we can see in Image 15 from 10:00UTC on the 26th May. High pressure has been dominant over north-western Europe for a while, and it’s not giving up just yet (it’s always a weird moment in commentating on these races when you realise that the weather you are now writing about is the weather over your head!).
©Geovoile - Image 15 (Click for larger image)
In Image 15 we can see that the high pressure centred over northern Scotland (of all places) will force the low to stall, leaving a ridge of high pressure, a wall of light air that the fleet will run into over the weekend. It could well produce a re-start, leaving the leg to be settled by a light-wind sniggle off in the Western Approaches and into Cardiff.
And just to keep you all on your toes, in Image 16 we have the current predictions for the finish at 06:00UTC on the 29th May... with Team Brunel trailing the fleet up the Bristol Channel in almost no wind.
©Geovoile - Image 16 (Click for larger image)
I have absolutely zero confidence in this prediction, other than to say that this leg is a very long way from over. The transatlantic looks like it will once again provide a full test of offshore racing skills!