Even more than most offshore races, the Volvo Ocean Race requires that crews be at the top of their game from the moment the gun fires until they cross the finish line—and this is especially true of the 6,487-mile opening leg from Alicante, Spain, to Cape Town.
Never forget that in the 2011-12 race, some of the toughest weather of the entire event struck the fleet within hours of casting off, forcing two teams, Abu Dhabi and Team Sanya, to return to port for repairs before they'd even had a chance to truly begin.
Later on, another team, Puma, was dismasted in the South Atlantic, causing the team to divert to St. Helena for a new spar.
In the words of race meteorologist Gonzalo Infante: ”It all begins with some unpredictable coastal sailing in the Mediterranean Sea. The autumn weather in the Levante area, from Valencia to Murcia, is an extreme season. Why? Because the air is cold and the Mediterranean Sea is still warm, which enhances the chances of low formations. These are very favorable conditions for storm development. They create a lot of short and choppy waves too, which are very hard on the boats and the sailors...the big gains or losses are about playing the coastal effects. A lot of strategy will be involved and will depend on the direction of the wind. In autumn, it usually blows from the east, but in case of westerly winds it will be an upwind Mediterranean exit.”
After that, of course, comes the Straits of Gibraltar, a notoriously tricky stretch of water in which the currents can be as vexing as the wind. In light air a sailboat can easily find itself going backward. In heavy weather, the combination of commercial traffic and wind against current can make the sailing an absolute nightmare.
Then there’s the Atlantic Ocean and the race south. According to Infante, the correct approach for the first half of the leg depends entirely on the trade winds. West is better if you can get there, because you can then gybe in the trades and enjoy faster downwind angles. However, if the trades don't come through, you may well find yourself having sailed a bunch of extra distance for nothing.
After that comes the Doldrums, what Infante refers to as “the extreme expression of Mother Nature’s versatility!” The best part of this hot, sticky challenge is the fact that trade wind sailing resumes on the other side, but that doesn’t mean anybody can let their guard down. On the contrary, once the fleet enters the South Atlantic, the question becomes, how best to get to Cape Town? Should you go straight to South Africa through the St Helena High, or take a less direct route in search of wind? Going the long way round is usually the faster option, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t also sometimes a chance to “cut the corner,” so to speak, through the high.
After that, the fleet is in the home stretch. “The last 500 miles are usually windy since Cape Town is close to the Southern Ocean,” Infante says. He adds that while the history of this leg is very well known to sailors and navigators alike, the stormy nature of this part of the world means it can still be a struggle and full of surprises.
Time will tell what it’s like when the Volvo fleet gets there!
Photo courtesy of Puma/Amory Ross