Sailing from one side of the Atlantic to the other is never easy, and this edition of the transatlantic sprint already thrown up unique challenges in the form of record breaking speeds and tortuous light winds, but there’s one more challenge to overcome just before the finish.
The fleet is currently sailing in light winds and is due to finish overnight Monday night and into the early morning hours on Tuesday (UTC) but it is not the wind that will define when the sailors get their hands on a burger, but the tides.
The Bristol Channel is a westward facing funnel that scoops up more than its fair share of the tidal flows rushing around the British Isles everyday, giving rise, and fall, to some of the world’s most powerful tides, with up to 6 knots of current.
When it comes to tide, timing is everything. The flow in and out of the channel changes direction twice a day, so it can either push the boats in towards the finish line or block the route completely.
Crews could even be forced to anchor in the light winds to preserve their position if the force of the outgoing tide is greater than the speed of the boat.
With the latest forecasts and calculated routing, it looks like Dongfeng Race Team and Vestas 11th Hour Racing may be able to close up to what has been the leading pair of team AkzoNobel and Brunel as the boats will likely head towards Pembrokeshire on the north coast of the channel to make best use of the light winds in the Celtic sea. But they will be sailing in adverse current as they approach the channel, compressing the leaders (see chart below).
Following the turn in the tide, it will be a drag race where the navigators will search amongst the sand banks for the deepest water where they can take advantage of the strongest push from the tidal flow.
Sailing upwind with a shove from behind from the current will increase the apparent windspeed felt by the boats, avoiding a Newport style drift-off.
If MAPFRE and Turn the Tide on Plastic aren’t fast enough to catch onto the end of that positive tidal push, they may well be denied entry when the tide turns against them. This could turn into a nightmare scenario as the forecast northwesterly winds will be bent by the hills on the south coast, forcing them to short tack upwind against 4-5 knots of tidal flow.
While it might seem a cruel and unusual punishment to have the natural elements conspire to blow the boats back out to sea, such is the life of an ocean racer.
Sailors dating back to Odysseus have cursed the variable humours of the weather gods and while they might suffer an arm-burning few hours tacking against the tide, I’m sure the sailors will still have the strength to pick up their celebratory burgers in the Volvo pavilion when they finally make it in.