ABU DHABI OCEAN RACING HUNTING DOWN BOLD BRUNEL ON APPROACH TO LEG 4 PACIFIC OCEAN DOLDRUMS
Abu Dhabi, UAE - February 19th 2015: Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (ADOR) – the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) entrant from the United Arab Emirates’ capital – is among the front-runners challenging for the lead at the halfway point of Leg 4 of the round-the-world yacht race, which takes the teams from China to New Zealand.
The team, backed by the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) and led by British double Olympic silver medallist Ian Walker, left the Chinese port of Sanya on Hainan Island on February 8, starting in second place in the overall standings, one point behind leader Dongfeng Race Team. And it was this same pair that made the early running during the first three days as the fleet clawed its way across the South China Sea against strong headwinds and big seas.
Three days into the leg, there was less than half a mile between Dongfeng and ADOR as they approached the Luzon Strait. The strong winds dropped away forcing them to short tack against the strong currents that swirl unpredictably around the northerly tip of the Philippines Archipelago.
“It is like some cruel joke that after three days of the heaviest upwind conditions we’ve seen – conditions that have strung us through 72 hours of no sleeping with minimal food intake – now the waves have eased but we’re tacking every 30 minutes around the top of the Philippines,” wrote ADOR onboard reporter Matt Knighton. “Despite our bloodshot eyes, there’s still no time to sleep.”
It was at this point that the Netherland’s crew Team Brunel and Swedish all-women crew Team SCA simultaneously made bold breakaway moves to the north to try to avoid the lighter winds to the east of the Philippines. ADOR also gave the northerly route serious consideration but ultimately opted to try to consolidate their advantage at the head of the main pack in the south.
“Getting north is powerful but involves making a big short term loss on the grounds that something may play out in the future,” Walker. “It is sometimes hard to commit to that unless you are absolutely sure or unless your main rivals all go with you.”
Three days of agonising light-wind sailing followed with non-stop sail changes giving the already sleep-deprived sailors little time to rest. The Abu Dhabi crew’s effort paid off however and Azzam was the first of the southerly group to find stronger, steadier northerly breezes.
Despite having got the better of their closest competition and taken the Leg lead, ADOR skipper Walker knew that Brunel and SCA were benefitting hugely from stronger wind at a better angle and would ultimately overhaul the southern posse before the fleet reached the zone of light winds around the equator known as the Doldrums.
“They are in great shape, 115 miles north and slightly east of us,” Walker said. “My best guess is that they will end up about 100 miles ahead but there is a very wide Doldrums crossing ahead of us so hopefully the fleet will compress. Until then there are not many tactical options – we just have to sail fast.”
Winds of over 25 knots sent Azzam tearing across the Pacific Ocean as the Azzam crew pushed their carbon fibre yacht to the limit to minimise the gains being made by Brunel. The relentless pace came at a cost with several minor equipment breakages requiring the crew to react fast with repairs to avoid losing precious miles to their rivals.
However, despite all their efforts, Team Brunel’s advance up the rankings was inexorable and a week into Leg 4 they overhauled ADOR to take the lead. The next 24 hours saw the Dutch extend their advantage to more than 80 miles but when they turned to match Azzam’s course the lead began to reduce.
Three days later, as the breeze eased down and became less consistent ADOR and Brunel traded miles at each position report with the gap shrinking to just 30 miles at one point. At the halfway point in the leg and with a doldrums crossing in prospect, Walker believes there is every chance the fleet could close up again before the Equator – effectively meaning the leg could restart.
“The forecast is for us to pass through a light wind area before the Doldrums, so expect some compression in the fleet and then some extension as we sail out of it,” Walker said. “Whoever makes the best sense of the Doldrums could get a big jump on the fleet so there are tense times ahead. After the Equator is a bit of blank page right now but it will start with some fast easterly reaching in the trade winds. The weather for the final approach to Auckland is still too far off to be accurate about.”
The six-boat fleet is expected to complete the 5,264 nautical mile leg in less than two weeks with the leaders currently predicted to cross the finish line in Auckland on or around March 1.