Volvo Ocean Race: Dancing with the Doldrums

Published on October 20th, 2014

by Jamie Boag, Team Director, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing
Well, we can’t complain about lack of entertainment so far in this Volvo Ocean Race!

The inshore racing action down the African coast came to an end over the weekend with the boats finally being out of sight of each other as they approached one of the key tactical milestones of Leg 1; the Cape Verde Islands.

While they look like little grey marks on the tracker, these islands reach between 1,600m and 2,400m into the sky. The potential to get becalmed beneath these imposing landscapes has generally made ocean racing navigators avoid sailing between them, despite the additional distance that is required by sailing to the north.

The decision to sail north or go through the islands is further complicated as it affects the next decision on where to cross the equator and manage the fickle doldrums and the light winds that are prevalent here.

Traditionally “west is best” has been the mantra, as the doldrums are generally narrower in the west. Those teams that chose to go through the islands have sailed a shorter distance, but also reduced their ability to get west, by being further south and closer to the areas of light winds.

Dongfeng certainly is not afraid of taking risks, and on Sunday (Oct. 19) decided to go straight through the islands along with Mapfre and Vestas, resulting in some nervous hours for those such as Abu Dhabi, who opted for the more traditional northerly route. As of Monday morning (Oct. 20) it looks like the short-term gains for Dongfeng have been wiped out with tactical advantage resting with Abu Dhabi and Team Brunel, but this could all change with the next weather update.

The teams will now be deciding where they want to cross the doldrums, what angle they want to approach, and where they want to be after their exit.

Each team will be desperately trying to unlock the slightest nuance between the weather models and studying satellite imagery of cloud build-up along the equator, to see if they can spot the ‘magic’ spot that will take them into the southern hemisphere. And just for added complication, when you have chosen the perfect location, it may have disappeared 6 hours later when the next weather report comes in. Who would be a navigator?

With the winds and course looking reasonably predictable after Fernando de Noronha, an archipelago 220 mi offshore from the Brazilian coast which the fleet must pass to port, the doldrums crossing could be the final big tactical decision that will go a long way to deciding this Leg. The new boys onboard the boats will also be anxiously awaiting the equator and the ‘wrath of King Neptune’, who will welcome them to the southern ocean with his usual bag of tricks.

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