After months of following the fleet online, Volvo Ocean Race fans will soon have the opportunity to meet the crews in person as the fleet is scheduled to depart Itajaí, Brazil, this weekend bound for Newport, Rhode Island, in the sixth offshore leg of the race.
In contrast to Leg 5, which took the six remaining boats into the depths of the Southern Ocean, Leg 6 will once again see the fleet spending a good deal of time fairly close to shore, much as it did in the two legs through the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Still, some navigators may choose to head off onto the open ocean, depending on how things develop.
“This is a coastal leg with some good offshore options to consider,” says VOR chief meteorologist Gonzalo Infante. “After leaving Itajaí the weather is very stormy and variable. There are warm currents close to the coast. Offshore or inshore? Sea breeze or land breeze? The land breeze is a good feature in Brazil, but it’s not constant.”
After that, Infante says, the six crews will want to hook onto the southeast trades and then wring out as much speed as possible from their boat while the wind blows, at the same time trying to get themselves lined up for a decent passage through the Doldrums—again. (This will be the fourth time the fleet crosses the equator in this year’s race.)
The final stage of the 5,010-mile leg will see the fleet’s navigators once again trying to figure out how best to play the conditions closer to shore as they battle their way up the U.S. East Coast. “From Miami latitude to Newport you have to choose between playing the Gulf Stream and staying offshore to play the weather systems until Rhode Island,” Infante says.
Bottom line: in the coming days and weeks look for a lot of sleepless nights in front of the charterplotters in the boats’ nav stations.
In terms of the overall standings, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam is now well out in front after China’s Dongfeng was forced to drop out midway through Leg 5 when its mast broke just shy of Cape Horn. Even more impressive, Azzam skipper Ian Walker and the rest of his veteran crew appear to making all the right moves in terms of both boatspeed and tactics, which will make them very hard to catch as the fleets makes its way back to the Northern Hemisphere. In Leg 5, for example, it was U.S. skipper Charlie Enright and Alvimedica in the lead at Cape Horn, but it was Azzam that made it first to Itajaí after a tough stretch in the Southern Atlantic.
Not that the rest of the fleet is that far off the pace—if at all—and it wouldn’t take much to see Azzam a lot farther back in the fleet by the time the boats gather in Newport again.
“There are a couple of boats out there, Abu Dhabi for one, who seem to be pretty fast all the time, and there are other boats that are up and down. We’re one of those,” Enright said, summing things up recently while resting up in Itajaí.
As for Dongfeng, after pulling out all the stops to nurse their stricken boat to Itajaí and step a new mast, the big question is how long it will take skipper Charles Caudrelier and the rest of the crew to get the boat back up to speed. If this was any other team, the answer would probably be: too long. However, Caudrelier and rest of his Sino-European crew have shown themselves to be the true comeback kids of the 2014-15 VOR, recovering from a number of other major setbacks, including a broken rudder on Leg 1 and a bad stretch that found them going from first to last and then back to first again in a matter of days en route to New Zealand.
To count this gritty team out would be foolish to say the least.
The inshore race in Itajaí is set to take place Saturday, April. Leg 6 begins Sunday, April 19, with the fleet expected to start arriving in Newport around May 5, the same day the VOR “village” opens to the public at historic Fort Adams.