The good news for the Volvo Ocean Race fleet is that for Leg 2, which starts today, the boats will be able to sail the entire 6,125 miles from Cape Town to the finish in Abu Dhabi. No more having to be hoisted aboard a freighter in the middle of the Indian Ocean and then re-launched just before the finish after making an end run around the pirates that once infested the area—as was the case in 2011.
The bad news? Despite being about 300 miles shorter, Leg 2 could be even more grueling than Leg 1—both physically and mentally—thanks to the many challenges that lay ahead. Rough within hours of the start? Check. Soul-crushing calms? Check.
And heaven help them if the sailors ever find themselves having to deal with a full-on typhoon! Not surprisingly, the forecast on race-day morning was calling for a bit of everything: 20 to 30-knots on the bay for the start, and a cold front that should hit the fleet around midnight with stronger southerly winds. Race officials are also keeping a close eye on the first tropical storm of the season for that part of the world, Adjali, which recently formed in the southern Indian Ocean.
“I’m preparing for the worst,” admitted Team Brunel’s navigator, Andrew Cape, shortly before the start. “It’s the most random leg in terms of weather, and in terms of what can happen: we want to finish first, but to be honest, anything better than last is a bonus.”
“I’ve never done this, sailed there. It’s completely unknown to me,” said Dongfeng Race Team’s French navigator Pascal Bidégorry. “But it doesn’t matter whether you’ve done this leg before. In fact, it may help to not have preconceived ideas…. The only thing I do know is that we’ll have to be careful to not make mistakes. The first five or six days will be key—lots of action.”
According to VOR meteorologist Gonzalo Infante, in December, strong southeasterly winds usually blow between the St. Helena High and a South African low-pressure system, which means that the fleet is likely to encounter tough headwinds in the first 24 hours after the start. As a result, navigators will have to make an early decision whether to head south in the westerly winds or stay close to the African coast. This is not an easy choice, as the weather in this area changes constantly and an apparently valid option can quickly turn sour.
The most likely option for the fleet will be to initially head south to try picking up any opportunity to quickly head east. Typically this opportunity will come in the form of a cold front or low-pressure system close to the southern tip of Africa. Unfortunately, the downside to this strategy is the Agulhas Current, a large-scale ocean system of water moving toward the southwest at up to 5 knots. In strong westerly winds the opposing flow of this current can produce massive and potentially boat-breaking seas.
After that, Infante says the fleet’s first major obstacle on the way north will be the huge windless areas that can be found in the Indian Ocean this time of year. The more common route is to cross the high on its western side and take advantage of fresh northeasterly winds just south of Madagascar. Once past this system the fleet should get some fast southeasterly trade wind sailing. The boats approaching from the east will enjoy optimum wind angles.
Then there are the Doldrums, which exist in the Indian Ocean as well as the Atlantic. According to Infante, these Doldrums differ from the Atlantic ones in that they are created by a convergence between southeasterly trade winds and the northwest monsoon, which come together from opposite directions forming a wide band of large cumulus clouds, rain and fickle breezes to the south of the Equator. As is the case in the Atlantic, they tend to be narrower farther west, though Infante warns the fastest route through will likely be trickier to find than it was in Leg 1.
After the Doldrums it’s a long beat up to the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf in northeasterly monsoon winds. The predominant local wind in Gulf of Oman is called the “Shamal” and blows from the northwest—right on the nose. After the Strait of Hormuz, it’s usually a long reach to Abu Dhabi.
Finally, while there will be no freighter rides this time around, there are a pair exclusion to be avoided—one extending well out from the entire continent of Africa and another off Iran. Bottom line: pity the poor navigators who have to find a way through all the mess, not to mention the drivers and trimmers who have to keep their boats moving, come what may.