I know I sound like a broken record but be assured – given that we have just two short, almost coastal legs to go – this really will be the last time you hear about climate zones or the Westerly Storm Track.
We said that this leg would be raced mostly in the Westerly Storm Track, the high latitude region where storms and low pressure systems swirl west-to-east around the globe (more on the climate background in the Leg 9 Preview). And it was, but it didn’t finish there with the Subtropical High Pressure Zone (a stable, semi-static area of High Pressure usually lying between 30 and 38 degrees) reaching north to slow the finish in Wales.
When we concluded the previous Strategic Review on the 25th May, it looked like this area of high pressure might provide an opportunity for another major comeback, as in Leg 8. We now know that it didn’t, let’s see why...
And talking of broken records, that’s where we left the fleet – breaking records. We can see in Image 1 from 13:00UTC on the 25th that the leaders were smoking, riding ahead of the cold front, with the big low pressure system centred to their north-west. Team AkzoNobel led, on their way to setting a (provisional) outright race record with a 24-hour run of 602.5 miles.
©Geovoile - Image 1 (Click for larger image)
It was very impressive to take the record from the bigger and more powerful VO70 Ericsson 4, although that record was set in less than ideal conditions and ended with damage, rather than a change in the breeze or sea state.
In second place on the 25th May was Team Brunel, also doing a tidy job, both boats had built a lead of over fifty miles from third placed Vestas 11th Hour Racing and sixty miles to fourth placed Dongfeng Race Team. The overall leader MAPFRE was a hundred miles behind Team AkzoNobel with plenty on to get back into it...
We knew the great conditions weren’t going to last though, with a high pressure ridge jammed between the fleet and the finish line in Cardiff. This ridge was connecting a high pressure centre over the North Sea and Scandinavia with the bulk of the Azores (or Bermuda High) which was spread across the Atlantic from Miami to the Azores.
If we move forward to 10:30UTC on the 26th May in Image 2, we can see how this impacted the fleet. The high pressure ridge is the clear blue, vertical line in the centre, stretching from the top to the bottom of the picture. Team AkzoNobel (purple) and Team Brunel (yellow) had hit it hard, with their windspeed down to 5.5 knots, just 2.5nm between them now as the wall of light air compressed the fleet with the leaders arriving first.
©Geovoile - Image 2 (Click for larger image)
Behind them, Dongfeng Race Team (red) had passed Vestas 11th Hour Racing (orange) to go up to third, they were 29nm and 38nm behind the leader respectively. MAPFRE (white) were still in fifth with the deficit now almost halved and in double figures at 55nm, then Turn the Tide on Plastic at 70nm, and Team Sun Hung Kai / Scallywag at 100nm.
There were two important points here – the first was that 5.5knots was a lot better than nothing, and more than enough to continue progress to the east, particularly as everyone had a southerly wind direction of one flavor or another. This wind direction allowed them to sail at Cardiff with the wind more or less on the beam (perpendicular to the centerline of the boat) – a good angle for sailing in the light breeze.
Across the axis
It wasn’t going to last though, as they had to cross the axis of the high pressure to get out the other side. If we go forward to Image 3 from 16:00UTC on the 26th May we can see this starting to happen. The wind was rotating slowly through the fleet from last to first; from the south for the backmarker, Scallywag, through the south-east for Turn the Tide on Plastic, and into the east for Dongfeng Race Team and then the north-east for Team Brunel and Team AkzoNobel.
©Geovoile - Image 3 (Click for larger image)
The more northerly the wind direction, the further across the axis of the high pressure the boats were – remembering that the wind flows clockwise around a high in the northern hemisphere. The whole fleet still had half-way decent breeze at between four and seven knots of windspeed. This high pressure ridge was not the windless void the fleet has encountered in some high pressure zones on the other legs, and its narrowness meant that the safety of the ‘shoreline’ was always in sight on the other side.
The fleet cleared the high pressure ridge in the same order that it entered, and the ‘compression’ decompressed as the leaders broke free first and for the most part rebuilt their advantage – with some important exceptions.
We can see in Image 4 from 05:30UTC on the 27th May that Team AkzoNobel now led by 7.3nm from Team Brunel. This was a small but important gain for Bouwe Bekking’s chasing Dutch team, particularly when set against the losses elsewhere.
©Geovoile - Image 4 (Click for larger image)
Dongfeng Race Team had also done well, now 48nm off the lead, versus 60nm when they were all riding the cold front. Elsewhere though, it was evens or worse with Vestas 11th Hour Racing dropping nearly 20 miles, MAPFRE picking up a few miles but still not completely clear of the high, and big and growing losses on Turn the Tide and Scallywag.
High to low
No sooner had the leaders escaped the high than they started to hit a low pressure system spinning up in the Western Approaches – very visible in Image 4. This low was relatively static, slipping south just a little, but it did intensify a bit over the next 12 hours, as we can see in Image 5 from 17:00UTC on the 27th May.
©Geovoile - Image 5 (Click for larger image)
The fleet were sailing across the top of it, and so the wind direction shifted from northerly, or maybe slightly west of north, to a north-easterly. And so it gradually brought them on the wind and made it an upwind leg to Cardiff. Team Brunel were slowly grinding down Team AkzoNobel in these conditions, with Dongfeng Race Team also catching the front runners. Boat speed always makes you a tactical genius.
Low to high
Scarcely had the fleet got used to being back in the breeze than things changed again. If we go forward another 12 hours and look at Image 6 from 05:00UTC on the 28th May, we can see that the low was virtually stationary, and now slowly losing steam. The leaders had all crossed over the top of this low and were entering another area of high pressure that stretched all the way to the finish.
©Geovoile - Image 6 (Click for larger image)
Team Brunel took their boat noticeably deeper and closer to the centre of the low than the others. The rotation of the wind around the centre of this little low had created what’s called a wind bend, and the rule when you have a wind bend like this (whether it’s geographical or meteorological) is to sail towards the centre for as long as you can before you tack.
This is exactly what Team Brunel did more of than anyone else, and they came out of it (after the tack to starboard) on course for Cardiff... and having snatched the lead from Team AkzoNobel.
It’s possible that Team Brunel would have got the lead eventually anyway, since they had been a touch faster for a while... but this was the moment when they went past Team AkzoNobel. And they did it by holding onto port tack a little longer and going further to the south-west before they flipped onto starboard tack, as we can see in Image 7 from 10:00UTC on the 28th May.
©Geovoile - Image 7 (Click for larger image)
We can also see in Image 7 that Team AkzoNobel elected to give up the leverage almost immediately (separation between the boats measured at right angles to the course). They took a couple of further little hitches on port tack to get back to Team Brunel’s line, and eventually rejoined them just under a mile behind. Dongfeng Race Team was also snapping at their heels, just 12nm behind at this point.
By now the breeze was getting properly funky again as the leaders hit a final section of light winds and high pressure – the top four all had 7.5 knots or less of wind speed in Image 7.
If we zoom out and go forward a few hours in Image 8 from 17:30UTC on the 28th May we can see how undefined the overall situation is; with the low now dissipating to their south-west, leaving a complex area of high pressure over the UK.
©Geovoile - Image 8 (Click for larger image)
The good news was that there was some north-easterly breeze blowing down the North Sea and trying to make it over the British Isles. If we zoom in and look at the detail in Image 9 from 18:30UTC on the 28th May, we can see that there was less of this breeze in the Bristol Channel than anywhere else.
©Geovoile - Image 9 (Click for larger image)
Team Brunel and Team AkzoNobel were still locked together – with Bouwe Bekking’s foot all over Simeon Tienpont’s throat – both boats headed for the southern shore of the Bristol Channel, along the North Devon coast.
Last ditch split
The leader’s preoccupation with each other had given the chasing pair a final chance to split. Both third placed Dongfeng Race Team and Vestas 11th Hour Racing headed over to the northern shoreline, the South Wales coast for the final approach to Cardiff. At this point, there wasn’t much in the breeze; Vestas 11th Hour Racing had more than the front three, but that appeared to be because of their more westerly position. And all of them had almost ten knots of wind or more.
What happened next was that an 18-20 knot easterly wind turned up for Team Brunel and Team AkzoNobel, but no one else. If you check out Image 10 from an hour later, 19:30UTC on the 28th May we can see in the data table that (more or less out of nowhere) the two leaders have over 18 knots from a direction just south of east.
©Geovoile - Image 10 (Click for larger image)
It was a no-brainer to flop onto starboard tack and get going over towards Wales, and we can see in Image 11 from 21:00UTC 28th May that although that puff didn’t last long, it lasted long enough for Team Netherlands to get over to the Welsh coast and close out the leverage on the chasing boats.
©Geovoile - Image 11 (Click for larger image)
The scary moments weren’t all over though, as we can see in Image 12 from just a few minutes later on the 28th May. The wind dropped out almost completely for the lead pair, and they started going backwards on the tide – although I’m pretty confident that they were still pointing in the right direction, their course over the ground (COG) was definitely westward, going backwards at almost 3 knots.
©Geovoile - Image 12 (Click for larger image)
Things weren’t much better for Vestas 11th Hour Racing, going west at 1.3 knots with just Dongfeng making progress towards the finish at this point.
Fortunately a light northerly filled in soon afterwards, otherwise we could have been looking at another ‘Newport’ scenario for the leaders. It still wasn’t easy for them, with a wind shift to the north-east that left them short-tacking along the Glamorganshire coast to avoid the tide, as we can see in Image 13 from 01:30UTC on the 29th May.
©Geovoile - Image 13 (Click for larger image)
By this point, Dongfeng Race Team were only eleven miles behind, but with just 13nm to the finish and the wind starting to fill in again, that turned out to be plenty of lead.
In Image 14 from 02:30UTC on the 29th May we can see that the two leaders got another puff in the mid-teens to take them home. I’m guessing that these substantial extended gusts were due to the several hundred miles of often high ground that the north-easterly gradient wind’d had to cross before arriving in the open water of the Bristol Channel – wind shadows are unpredictable things.
©Geovoile - Image 14 (Click for larger image)
Whatever the explanation, the increase in wind always arrived at just the right time to get Team Brunel and Team AkzoNobel home for the Dutch one-two – karma for Team Brunel after their unhappy experience at the end of Leg 8.
The separation was just over four minutes, with Dongfeng Race Team third about an hour and a half later, then Vestas 11th Hour Racing a little less than an hour after them. MAPFRE took fifth place at 06:49UTC, with Turn the Tide on Plastic in sixth a couple of hours later, and then the Scallywags nearly a day late.
The results have transformed the overall scoreboard, putting Dongfeng Race Team at the top on 60 points, a point ahead of long-term rivals MAPFRE. The fourteen points for the leg win and the bonus point brings Team Brunel up to 57, giving them a real shot at the overall title.
There are two legs to go, and it’s a three boat race for the win, with Team AkzoNobel having an outside chance at the podium on 48 points – but they will need one of the leaders to have back-to-back shockers to close that gap.
It feels like all the momentum is with Team Brunel, and to a less extent with Dongfeng Race Team. MAPFRE led for so long and now will really have to dig deep to pull it back, particularly bearing in mind the fact that this is not the first time that skipper Xabi Fernandez has seen an early race lead evaporate. To win from here would be a fantastic testament to this team’s mettle.