Franck Cammas’ Groupama sailing team are making cautious progress towards an equator and Doldrums crossing after establishing a stranglehold on the fleet during two days of frenetic strong wind sailing.
Today Cammas’ crew had just over 300 nautical miles (nm) to run to the equator as the fleet’s pace began to slow in moderating winds on the approach to the Solomon Islands.
At 1300 UTC Groupama held a 76 nm lead over Ken Read’s second-placed PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG as the fleet’s skippers and navigators turned their attention to negotiating the potentially tricky Doldrums.
Compared to earlier legs, this time the transition zone — which runs diagonally south east from the Solomon Islands — is less defined due to penetration by the trade winds and looks unlikely to delay the boats significantly.
Groupama navigator Jean-Luc Nélias said the crew were understandably happy with their dominant position but wary of the danger posed by the Doldrums and nearby Solomon Islands after tortuous crossings on the first two legs.
“Right now we are living happy hours,” Nélias said. “We are closer to the finish in a favourable position to windward of the fleet. But we are once again sailing towards the Doldrums with islands like mountains in the sea and risks of wind shadow and squalls.
“All the traps promised in the brochure are waiting for the first boat and our friends behind us, even though they are quite far away, know these traps are there. They won’t give us any gifts.
“First leg, we were behind and we had a terrible Doldrums, when they got bigger on us,” Nélias explained. “Second leg, we were first and controlling the fleet when we got stuck and they sailed past us.
“We would like the situation to be different for our third Doldrums,” Nélias said.
PUMA skipper Ken Read said he was delighted that his team had been able to hang on to Groupama in what have been perfect conditions for the French boat but paid tribute to their tactical savvy so far during Leg 4.
“It has been pretty even most of the time,” Read said this morning. “One sked they will gain and the next we will eat into them a bit.
“I have to say they have sailed a fantastic leg, though. Their decision to push north and avoid the light winds — they played that near perfectly.”
Read, who also fell foul of a windless patch in the Indian Ocean Doldrums on the second leg, said the Doldrums on Leg 4 did not look as ominous as on previous legs and could favour Groupama, PUMA and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing to the east of the fleet.
“Looking at it right now you could make a case that it will be better for the boats on the left but with this type of area you just never know,” he said. “Thinking back to the last race I seem to remember we had a fast passage through, so if we can repeat that we will be fine,” he added.
Meanwhile, race leaders Team Telefónica were refusing to concede an inch despite their far westerly positioning forcing them to sail tight angles to get around the Solomon Islands.
Iker Martínez’s crew have been sailing flat out to match the speed of their competitors further east and have clearly not abandoned hopes of pulling off a podium finish.
Abu Dhabi skipper Ian Walker said he thought the Spanish crew would ultimately be able to claw their way out of the west by virtue of their boat’s superior speed.
“I think we will be able to get ahead of them but they have been steadily digging themselves out of trouble down there,” Walker said. “With a boat like that you can never write them off.
“I think they have realised they can probably grind a result out of this by staying in touch and waiting until things break up.”
Walker said the Abu Dhabi crew were comfortable with their own positioning in relation to both the fleet and the Doldrums and were looking further down the course for the next key decision.
“Our spot to the east allows us to sail more open angles when we want to and if the routing needs us to go east we could,” he said.
“The next big choice will be what to do with New Caledonia. That’s going to be a huge decision. It’s a huge island, 300 miles or so and very high sides. If the weather off New Zealand wants to push you west then do you risk it, knowing you will have to sail in the shadow of New Caledonia.”
Walker said despite Groupama’s lead he believed Abu Dhabi still had opportunities to win the fourth leg.
“There is still a long way to go, a lot can happen and the weather is quite complicated for the last bit of the leg,” he said. “That could open everything up and there will be some big decisions that you can’t quite recover from.
“You can lose 40 or 50 miles under one cloud so this is not over yet,” Walker concluded.
At 1300 UTC today Groupama had slowed to an average speed of 16.9 knots while second-placed PUMA were still powering along more than two knots faster.
Third-placed Telefónica were a further 14 nm off the lead and just under 10 nm ahead of fourth-placed Abu Dhabi with CAMPER fifth, almost 16 nm back.
Mike Sanderson’s Team Sanya remained in sixth, 50 nm adrift of CAMPER.