Chinese-flagged Dongfeng is clearly the boat to beat as the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race fleet bashes its way through the early stages of Leg 4 from Sanya, China, to Auckland, New Zealand. Not only is the team number one on the overall leaderboard following a first-place finish on Leg 3 from Abu Dhabi to China, it also took first in the inshore race on February 7—the first time a Chinese-flagged team has done so in the VOR.
Nonetheless, if there’s one thing that’s remained constant throughout the ever-changing history of the Volvo Ocean Race, it’s that it’s never over until it’s over, and the upcoming 5,264-mile is a hazardous one that could easily see the tables turn in the blink of any eye.
The first challenge facing the six-boat fleet will be the notoriously rough South China Sea, where strong northeasterly monsoon winds blowing against equally powerful currents can result in boat-breaking conditions as the boats beat eastward toward the Philippines. This is a patch of water that nearly sank current Abu Dhabi skipper Ian Walker’s Green Dragon two VORs ago. Keeping your boat and crew in one piece is as big a challenge in these waters as VMG. To this end, navigators will be considering sea state as much as the wind. Of course, the most direct route is also typically the roughest.
Abu Dhabi skipper Ian Walker discussed Leg 4 with the help of a white board
After that, the boats will bear away around the top of the Philippines and beat or close reach roughly southeast toward the Solomon Islands. The good news here is that the sea state should improve. The bad news is that this is typhoon season, and navigators and skippers will be sailing with an eye out for storms. There’s also the small matter of another crossing of the equator, which will mean yet another tangle with the doldrums.
“Between 160 degrees east and 170 degrees east, around the Solomon Islands latitude, the systems behave in a very similar way as in the Indian Ocean,” says VOR meteorologist Gonzalo Infante. “Frontal convergence of a northwest monsoon with southeast trade winds. This convergence can lead to some ugly tropical storms, and even hurricanes if all the factors are in line.”
Then there are the many low-lying atolls dotting the region. It’s safe to assume the various team’s navigators will be paying close attention to any and all obstacles following the Vestas Wind grounding in the Indian Ocean.
Past the Solomons, the key will be to hook onto the southeast trades in the South Pacific for the final push to Auckland. Even here, though, the teams will have to be on their toes, with typhoons and other tropical storms a possibility. As Infante puts it, “At this time of the year, the south western Pacific is really active and we cannot rule out some extreme scenarios.” Sounds like fun.
Beyond that, in an interesting twist Leg 4 has seen some dramatic changes in personnel, including the loss of Abu Dhabi native and veteran Abu Dhabi team member Adil Khalid, struck down by illness, to be replaced by 29-year-old British sailmaker Alex Higby.
Even more dramatic, Dongfeng has swapped out no less than four of its eight-man crew. Among those taking a break on this leg are two Chinese crew and veteran French-born navigator Pascal Bidégorry, who will be replaced by Erwan Israel. It will be interesting to see how French skipper Charles Caudrelier and the rest of his veteran European-born afterguard deals with this latest wrinkle in their quest to follow the success of fellow Frenchman Franck Cammas, winner of the 2011-12 VOR aboard Groupama.