Since the Volvo Ocean Race’s inception, the Southern Ocean has made it what it is. And no part of the race says “Southern Ocean” like Leg 7 from Auckland, New Zealand, to Itajaí, Brazil. The 7,600-mile leg, which starts this Sunday, is not only the longest of the event, but far and away the toughest: as is reflected in the fact that competitors not only earn double points for the leg as a whole, but a bonus point goes to the first team to round Cape Horn. That’s not to say, though, that the leg is solely about toughness and brawn. There’s also lot of strategy involved if you want to be the first boat to Brazil.
After leaving Auckland on March 18, the fleet will immediately head south past New Zealand’s East Cape into the Southern Ocean. Once they get far enough south they will then start racing from west to east, sailing within the Westerly Storm Track, where a series of low-pressure systems continually circulate west-to east around Antarctica and the Arctic. There will be big waves, there will be big breeze, and there are icebergs.
After that, assuming the fleets makes it across this vast expanse of turbulent ocean, it will have to negotiate Cape Horn, where the power of the South Pacific slams into South America, before turning north and traversing the coast of Argentina and Uruguay toward Brazil.
“It’s going to be bloody cold,” said Team Brunel skipper Bouwe Bekking, who is now on his eighth lap of the planet. “It’s a funny thing, there will be moments when you hate it, but you know better times are ahead and when you arrive in Brazil, you forget the bad parts and the good parts stay with you.”
A look back at the Auckland stopover thus far
“We’re going to win the leg or drop the rig. That’s the mentality,” said Scallywag skipper David Witt, whose team has been surging since it logged a surprising first-place finish in Leg 4 to Hong Kong. “This is a big chance for Scallywag to stay up there and do something or drop back toward the back of the pack. We don’t care what goes wrong or what breaks. We’re just going to send it.”
In terms of route-planning, the initial strategic problem of Leg 7 is exactly the same as toward the end of Leg 2 and after leaving Cape Town at the start of Leg 3. The storms and depressions that swirl west-to-east around the globe’s temperate zones, circulate Antarctica with barely so much as a decent sized island to slow them down. Therefore, as soon as the teams leave Auckland the race is on to get south and hook into a low-pressure system. If a nice, gentle high-pressure system is dominating New Zealand’s late summer weather, then this initial race south out of Auckland can be a low-speed, light wind drift-off. However, if a tropical low enters the picture, it can create boat-breaking conditions.
Once the boats have picked up a ride on a Cape Horn-bound-low-pressure-system life is a little simpler. Just as with Leg 3, the key to sailing this section fast is keeping the boat in the band of strong westerly winds to the north of the center of a low. Not too close: if it’s a really, deep powerful low, the skippers don’t want the boat to get hammered, to break gear. But not too far north either, because then the winds get lighter and the boat might slow too much and let the low pressure slip away early. The biggest mistake is to get trapped to the south of the center of the low, where easterly winds will make life slow and extremely unpleasant.
Of course, while all this is going on there’s also the question of icebergs. In fact, Antarctica is shedding ice faster than ever before, and a lot of it is drifting north into the path of the racing boats. Hitting a big berg or even a small one at full speed could be a disaster for both boat and crew, so these days the race committee usually set a limit that is designed to keep the boats away from the ice. This limit will become part of the strategic problem, limiting their ability to move with the weather systems.
Approaching Cape Horn, all those Southern Ocean low-pressure systems sweeping around the planet find themselves compressed between the tip of South America, the Antarctic Peninsula and the shallowing bottom between the two. This, in turn, can make for some of the roughest seas in the world. Statistically, an approach from the north is usually faster.
Once around the cape, the fleet will head north and into warmer weather. However, with South America only a short distance to the west, the skippers and crews will also have to deal with a lot more unpredictability in the weather. They will also have to decide whether to go inside or outside the Falkland Islands, no mean feat. Back in 1997-98, for example, the boats that arrived last at the Horn went round to the east of the Falklands and passed all those that had committed to the west only a short while earlier.
Something else to the crews will have to keep in mind is the Pampero menace: squall lines, often with rain and thunder, that can strike just as the weary crew are relaxing on the “safe” side of Cape Horn. Bottom line: this is an exhausting leg that will be full bore and full of challenge from beginning to end.