A game of risk and reward ahead of huge Southern Ocean depression
Tuesday, December 12, 2017 4:08 PM
A trade-off between speed and safety was playing out among the Volvo Ocean Race fleet on Tuesday as the teams gear up for their first real taste of Southern Ocean brutality.
While the Leg 3 finish line in Melbourne lies some 5,000 nautical miles in front of the teams, it's what is behind them that is currently consuming them.
A huge depression is forming west of the fleet with winds of up to 60 knots at its centre – and it is moving so fast that the seven Volvo Ocean 65s will not be able to outrun it.
Rather the teams will have to make tough decisions about where to position themselves in relation to the storm, which is set to strike on Thursday.
The toss-up is between risk and reward. A more southerly route will see faster sailing over the next day or so but with it comes the danger of being closer to the centre of the depression.
What's more, a virtual exclusion zone to keep the fleet north of Antarctica's ice fields will prevent teams diving below the low to escape its strongest conditions.
On the other hand the northerly option appears safer as it will put the teams further from the storm's centre, easing the huge pressure on the boat, but it will undoubtedly prove slower.
A split appeared in the pack today, with current leg leader Dongfeng Race Team, MAPFRE, team Akzonobel and Team Brunel choosing to go south, while Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag, Vestas 11th Hour Racing and Turn the Tide on Plastic are opting to stay more to the north.
“There's a certain amount of risk being further south and straight in front of [the depression],” explained Simon Fisher, Vestas' navigator.
“If we can be further north and making good progress that would certainly be a more seamanlike way to go about it.”
Knowing when to put the hammer down and when to choose the more conservative option is vital to glory in the Volvo Ocean Race, and Fisher is an expert at these kind of decisions – after all, he guided Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing to victory in the 2014-15 edition.
“It's going to be an interesting couple of days,” he added. “It's going to be a fine line between sailing as fast as you can on optimal course versus sailing in a safe place, looking after the boat and not putting yourself somewhere that you can get run over by the low.
“We want to sail as fast as possible but we have to be careful we don't get into an area of the low pressure where the wind heads, the sea state is terrible and we get pushed against the ice gate.”
Perhaps the only sailor not entirely consumed with thoughts of the impending weather was Brunel skipper Bouwe Bekking. The Dutch sailor's father sadly passed away last week, and his funeral is today.
Bekking, among the race's most experienced sailors with seven previous editions under his belt, admitted his mind was elsewhere in an emotional dispatch from onboard.
“We knew that it was just matter of time and we agreed beforehand that I would race, but I'm not feeling happy about it,” he wrote.
“The only comfort what I get is that my dad reached a very nice age, the oldest so far in the family history and he had a good life. He always supported my choice to become a professional sailor: just live your life and enjoy it 100 per cent.
“So, even though we are racing hard, today my thoughts are with my old man, who I will miss tremendously.”