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Pushing the limits of man and boat

Brad Jackson helming in tough conditions in Southern Ocean, onboard PUMA Ocean Racing ©Amory Ross/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race
Brad Jackson helming in tough conditions in Southern Ocean, onboard PUMA Ocean Racing ©Amory Ross/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race

The five teams racing in the Volvo Ocean Race Leg 5 from Auckland are being pushed to the extreme of human endurance by ferocious weather as they race through the Southern Ocean towards Itajaí in Brazil.

CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand have retained their lead, but conditions are such that it is now not so much about winning, but more about keeping the boats manageable in a huge seaway with howling gales, and holding everything together in order to reach Cape Horn.  

The only way to keep the boats in one piece is to sail slower.  In previous Whitbread races the fleet of heavy boats were forced to sail south amongst the ice in order to pick up the Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties needed to push their weighty boats downwind.  

Today, the lighter Volvo Open 70s require much less breeze to out-perform their historic counterparts and are able to achieve higher speeds much further north.

But the threat of damage to boats and crews remains the same and could be catastrophic at this point in the leg.

There are no ships in the Southern Ocean to come to the rescue and the fleet is almost certainly beyond the range of aircraft.  The only help in the event of a crisis would be from the competitors themselves, something the highly experienced crews are very aware of.  

Consequently, all five crews are sailing as sensibly as they can, while still trying to keep a competitive edge.

At 1900 UTC the pack of four led by CAMPER is a third of the way along the ice limit, but the wind is forecast to exceed 40 knots, with gusts of 50 knots as they approach the central ice limit waypoint 546 nautical miles ahead.  

CAMPER lead Groupama by 10.2 nm, with Team Telefónica in third and PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG in fourth.  Just 40 nm separates first from fourth.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, in fifth position, have a tough choice to make.  Nearly 500 nm adrift of the leaders, who are sailing away at over 20 knots straight down the course, a bubble of high pressure has grown directly in the path of Walker and his men.  

“We can try to sail around it to the north, both adding distance and the possibility of sailing upwind, or we can gybe and head south directly into the high and very light winds,” said frustrated skipper Ian Walker.  “Salvation would have been to go further south, but we are constrained by the ice limits, so that is not an option.  The question is, which way will lose us the less distance.”

Speaking of the options available, Walker said: “Going north sounds better as it is more proactive.  We should keep moving through the water and the recent weather model suggests a slight benefit.  But, going south is safer as it means we will be better positioned when the next weather system eventually heads east.”

Meanwhile, Team Sanya and Mike Sanderson continue their lonely sojourn towards New Zealand, where they will face some tough decisions on how to get back in the race as quickly as possible.


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