Racing sailboats around the world is a bit like playing chess; only the board is a lot bigger. The yachts are the pieces and the weather systems are giant obstacles designed to make the game more interesting.
The Vendée fleet is now in the Southern Hemisphere where a large, recalcitrant high pressure system holds the key to the way south. This is one of the most studied parts of the course because big gains and big losses can result from either getting it right, or getting it wrong. On board Ocean Planet, Bruce has been doing his fair share of analysis. But no matter how much information you have, it’s still a weather system with a mind of its own — as the leaders have found out, much to their chagrin. The leaders are currently caught in the grip of the “High” which is allowing the boats behind to make big gains.
The South Atlantic, or St. Helena High, dominates the Southern Hemisphere. Like its counterpart up north, the winds circulate around the system, only being south of the equator the winds circulate in an anti-clockwise direction. For the fleet sailing down the western side of the weather system it has been picture perfect sailing. The breeze is from behind and the boats revel in the steady conditions. Unfortunately, the system is not stationary and it’s inclined to move without much warning. That’s precisely what has happened. For the last few days the leading yachts have been speeding south enjoying the perfect sailing, but seemingly without warning, a ridge of high pressure slipped westward, trapping the frontrunners. Instead of strong trade winds, there is no wind and the skippers must be ripping their hair out in frustration. Their loss, however, is a gain for Bruce and the boats in the second group. At the poll this morning, second place Bonduelle was averaging 1.1 knots. Seven hundred miles up the course, Ocean Planet was romping along at 11.1 knots. At that rate the gap can be closed in fairly short order.
High pressure weather is beach weather. The days are glassy calm with clear skies and brilliant sunshine. If the current leader, Vincent Riou, were back home in France it would be the kind of day he would take his family to the beach. It is, however, incredibly frustrating weather for sailing. Unlike the Doldrums where constant squalls can propel you along, high pressure sailing usually means no wind during the day or at night. Instead, it’s only at sunrise and sunset, when the air temperature changes, that the wind comes up and allows the boats to make some progress. The best they can do is sail south as quickly as possible in hopes of breaking free and picking up the strong westerly winds that beckon from the southern latitudes.
While Bruce is currently making big gains on the leaders, the ridge of high pressure will likely present a problem for him as well. It’s a very complicated weather pattern. The western edge of the system extends all the way to the South American coast, making it all but impossible to sail around. Instead, the skippers approaching the system will consider the option of passing the system to the east. This is a risky move, but it may be the only one available. Passing the High to the east means sailing upwind, generally a slow point of sail. It is however, a great point of sail for Ocean Planet and Bruce must be eyeing that option with some delight. The strong winds on the beam that the boats in the second group have had for the last three days are not to Ocean Planet’s liking and the beamier, more powerful Open 60s have had at least one to two knots edge of boat speed in those conditions. This may change as they approach the system and Ocean Planet could make some gains on his group. It’s a roll of the dice, however, as the High may move back to its usual position smack in the middle of the South Atlantic, trapping the second group and freeing up the front runners. Only time will tell. The next few days should be very interesting.
— Brian Hancock
Brian Hancock is a veteran round the world racer who has parlayed that experience into a career as a writer and is author of five books. His latest are: “The Risk in Being Alive” and “Maximum Sail Power.” “Risk” is an autobiographical account of his sailing and travel adventures. “Maximum Sail” is a definitive guide to sails and sailmaking and sail technology.