As I watch the strange doing of the the sailors in Volvo Ocean Race, I can't help but admire the Gaullic flair Franck Cammas and his Groupama crew are bringing to this Anglo race. Eschewing the careful, conservative tactics of the rest of the fleet, Cammas has taken big flyers on both legs. His tour of the African coast did not work out so well in Leg 1 (though Groupama still came in third since half the fleet broke down).
In the current Leg they took off again, sailing around a sticky trough that trapped the rest of the fleet for days, even though they had to sail a much longer distance. And this gamble seems to be paying off, as Groupama has consolidated on the fleet and carved out an 80-mile lead approaching the doldrums.
What will happen after that, I have no idea, since the boats are sailing into a Stealth Zone to hide them from pirates (if they wanted advice about pirates they should have come to me!). That means they are sailing to an undisclosed port, and their positions will be hidden. That's one way to wind the Volvo Ocean Race back to the Whitbread days when boats would simly disappear over the horizon until they appeared again at the finish.
Here's the assessment from onboard Groupama:
"These aren't easy conditions because we're beam onto the wind with a rather messy sea state: the boat's very wet! Furthermore you have to switch sails fairly quickly so as to adapt to the variations in the breeze. Fortunately the water and air temperatures are good: it's hot but we're all soaked… However, we're happy with our positioning and we're making fast headway: Groupama 4 is quick in these conditions. The helmsman is having a ball because the boat is very pleasant to drive and can surf off the waves, but the trimmers have their eyes more on the wake than up ahead because it's impossible to keep your eyes open in the constant spray.
"We found ourselves sailing on our own again in the front! As such we joined back up with the main group because the conditions weren't easy to follow. After that though, we found a way out via the South. I think that the other crews focus more on a short term strategy because we couldn't understand why nobody followed us when we set off towards the South-East for the third time… On exiting the front and with the separation we acquired as a result, we've benefited from a better angle to make headway North over the past three days. Now we're gradually going to latch onto light airs and it's likely that the whole fleet will bunch up again on crossing the equator. It's true that we're beginning to get a bit of a complex by dint of constantly doing our own thing… However, our confidence has been boosted now as regards the way we're tackling the strategy, and that's remotivated the crew!"
However, with the approach of the Doldrums looming, Franck Cammas and his crew will modify their approach in relation to their rivals: as there is no meteorological phenomenon set to disturb the course, the aim above all is to traverse the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) as quickly as possible, in the knowledge that the area isn't as active as it can be in the Atlantic. As such they will have to favour a direct route, at 20° to the `secret' port and play with the wind variations and clouds along the way as they climb up towards the equator.
"The best tactic is to remain between our rivals and the finish. As such we're going to try to gradually slip along, following their trajectories. However, the Doldrums remain a hazardous zone, which can just as easily favour the leaders as the pursuers. Added to this, you can't really rely on the grib files in the area! You just have play your opportunist card, making the very most of the clouds and squalls in the area. It's not a region I'm familiar with, but the same is true for the others…"
From this afternoon, the tradewinds will switch round to about fifteen knots of south-easterly, which will make things more pleasant on deck. The breeze will ease to around ten knots by Thursday at noon, heralding a considerable dip in pace over the next two days, thus favouring a bunching of the fleet. If things go as forecast, it won't be until the middle of the weekend that the westerly wind of around a dozen knots will settle at around 4° South, and this will be the scenario until the finish.