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Volvo Ocean Race Leg 2: The Dash to the Finish

The gybe, the 'mile loser' and the final throes of Leg 2: Libby Greenhalgh takes a look at the Volvo Ocean Race fleet's chances as they gybe towards Cape Town

Two weeks at sea and the teams are all heading ESE and charging towards Cape Town in the South Atlantic, rather than the Southern Ocean. Not wanting to rain on their parade but technically the Southern Ocean is taken as being south of 60S and encircling Antarctica; the boats are a long way off that, rolling along at 38 S, the northern hemisphere equivalent, give or take a bit, of where they started this leg in Lisbon. Albeit the weather conditions are very, very different.

We left the teams as they set up to cross the doldrums and begin the charge south to negotiate the St Helena High Pressure and we rejoin them as they charge towards the finish with Brunel coming out of stealth and plenty still to play. But games have already been played.

Doldrums: blink and you miss them.

The teams had an exceptionally quick crossing of the doldrums. As we discussed in the previous update they were all set up to cross around 27 W and the satellite imagery showed a relatively inactive zone. Yes, there were still clouds and stops and starts and challenging conditions, but no one got becalmed and they all rolled out 2 days later relatively speaking in the position they entered.

The fleet compressed a bit so the front four were all in eyeball contact, and Scallywag and Turn the Tide remained 50-60nm behind, with Turn the Tide in a strong easterly position. Turn the Tide used this position on their immediate rivals Scallywag and were able to go bows down first and turn that into some fast forward motion to get ahead of the them as they headed south.

Positioning for the St Helena High

The teams were then essentially in a drag race south, in their fastest mode to get around the St Helena high pressure. Initially, there appeared to be a subtle speed difference as Mapfre and Dongfeng edged out, also helped by getting into the stronger pressure first.  Mapfre made the first subtle repositioning a couple days out of the doldrums, sailing a higher mode to position themselves further east on the fleet and in theory hold stronger breeze at the time, which was closely followed a day later by Akzonobel making an even more aggressive move east. However, onboard reports from this team admit that they had been struggling with speed and therefore chose to sail a higher, faster course and work on their speed. Or at least feel better about by going faster and look to cut the corner of the St Helena high.

The trouble with trying to cut the corner of the St Helena high is you can look like heroes for a day on the ranking and then the wind continues to lift and get lighter and you gybe and point at the stern of the boats to west and south.


The first big move came from Brunel, closely followed by Vestas who both gybed and took a hitch to the west to position themselves further away from the high and potentially hook into stronger wind. It appeared to be a bold move when their returning gybe showed them not far off pointing at the sterns of Mapfre and Dongfeng and even further behind. However, as the teams continued to progress towards the St Helena high the little hitch by Brunel and Vestas didn’t seem so painful.

The Mile Loser

Negotiating a high pressure is never easy, being sure that you have traversed far enough, taken enough of the shift but not too much to fall into less pressure. The navigators would have been working hard to identify what the wind direction to gybe on would be, how light they would allow the wind to get before they gybe, coupled with what if the others gybe.

Dongfeng dropped a ball here delaying their gybe around the high pressure notably further than the others and lost 80 miles as the others got into a stronger and more favourable wind direction first.

Catching the Low

The final gybe (or least that is what you like to think on board) towards Cape Town begins as the teams hook into pressure ahead of a front associated with a low pressure. The balance here is how far south can you get and still position yourself ahead of the front: the result is the leaders manage to get further south and stay in stronger breeze for longer.

Scallywag and Turn and Turn Tide continue their own personal match race with several gybes trying to get them around the high pressure and none of them allowing the apparent elastic between the two boats to stretch too far. At the same time, the leading bunch are engaged in their own game of chess as they reposition themselves a little further south.

Dongfeng once again show their determination and focus, helped clearly by some additional speed to be back level pegging with Vestas and Brunel and chasing down Mapfre.

More stealth mode

Brunel, positioned bows forward to the south of the chasing bunch played their stealth mode. ‘Exciting times’, you could be led to think, given they were the first to make the previous bold move west. However, 24hours later Brunel appear back on our screens right next to Vestas and Dongfeng but this time to the north. A surprising move and overall a loss especially given what is ahead.

The not so home strait

The final gybe, heading to Cape Town. Many of the crews will be looking at these last 1500nm thinking ‘here we go, fast and furious, soon I will be getting my first burger, pizza, beer’ but these last miles are not looking straightforward as yet again the crews are going to have to renegotiate the St Helena high, and true to form, she doesn’t want to play ball.

The boats are currently pushing along ahead of the cold front with average boat speeds of 22-24KT, However the front is moving faster than the boats and the low pressure is filling which means the winds are decreasing and a split high pressure system is developing to the SW.

This southerly high centre will squeeze into the decaying low providing an acceleration in pressure to the SSE of the boats’ path, which yet again they will be gybing for. Despite what the routing shows it is unlikely that teams will be doing this neatly in one gybe, except for maybe Mapfre who have a small buffer on the fleet.

Looking ahead at this I am sure Brunel are wishing they hadn’t given up their southerly position in their 24hours of stealth.

Final throes

The race will be decided in the final hours as teams approach in a south easterly and have to negotiate the wind shadow of Table Mountain. A complex picture to identify at the end of a long leg, with potentially large areas of wind shadow and 40+ degree wind shifts.

A 10 mile lead could rapidly turn into a loss – I suspect there will be people up rigs and some serious small course tactics being key. If there is a chance for someone to take a risk then no doubt they will split from the fleet.

ETA is 0900 on the 24th so they will be approaching in daylight which will potentially make it easier. There’s still plenty to play for!