Leg starts on:
22 April 2018
Where are we going?
This one is 5,700 nautical miles north up the Atlantic from Itajaí in Brazil to Newport, Rhode Island in the USA. It starts on 22 April, so that will be autumn in the southern hemisphere, transiting to spring in the north. This one is the last big north-to-south leg, crossing back up through the Climate Zones rather than ticking off time zones.
So one last time on the climate zone thing?
Remember, the earth’s oceanic climate features distinct bands, lying horizontally and looping the globe, running out from the Equator to the Poles in a mirror image. On this leg they will be passing through a pattern that we should all be able to recite by heart by now – and if that wasn’t enough, this particular leg is familiar stuff. Apart from the fact that we came this way in Leg 2, the Volvo Ocean Race has raced from Brazil to New England on several previous occasions.
So what are the hurdles?
St Helena High: The fleet will start by trying to edge their way around the St Helena High (a Subtropical High Pressure Zone, a stable, semi-static area of High Pressure lying between 30 and 38 degrees). They could be helped by small low pressure systems spinning down off the Andes, and this first section can be really unpredictable.
Trade Winds: In theory, the Trade Winds (moderate to strong winds that blow consistently towards the equator from the south-east in the southern hemisphere) should be established not too far north of Rio. So once they get around the corner and head for the eastern tip of Brazil at Recife they should transition into weak, east or south-easterly Trade Wind conditions and some more consistent sailing. Whoever gets there first could build a lead.
Brazil Current: It’s important not to forget the south-running Brazil Current, which runs all the way down the coast from Recife to Buenos Aires – the navigators will be watching the current charts to find the swirls and back eddies that can help.
On the Beach: The corner of Brazil at Recife presents a strategic problem. Two things have to be balanced – the further offshore they sail, the stronger and steadier the breeze ought to be, but the more miles they have to travel. There’s an old rule of thumb for this one – stay within 10 miles of the coast, or stand further off than 100 miles.
Lawrie Smith took the ‘within 10 miles’ bit very seriously in 1997-98, slipped around the corner within smelling distance of the beach and powered into a comfortable lead. Bouwe Bekking did the same thing in 2005-06 – watch out for someone to make a move here.
Doldrums: And one last time the fleet will have to traverse the Doldrums (a region of low pressure that envelopes the earth’s oceans roughly at the equator, famous for thunderstorms, light winds, rain and sudden unexpected gusts). This particular crossing should be more straightforward than the previous three, as the fleet will already be lined up to cross at what is usually the narrowest point in the Atlantic.
Trade Winds: As always, the first boat clear of the Doldrums should reap the usual reward of some fast sailing in the Trade Winds (blowing towards the equator from the north-east in the northern hemisphere), as they head past the Caribbean.
Azores High: The mirror image of the St Helena High will likely feature again as it determines the strength and position of the Trade Winds. The strategy will be to ride the trades north and then skirt the western edge of the High - but it can move a long way west and is known in the USA as the Bermuda High. If the centre is closer to the latter than the former, then dodging light air may become an issue.
And into the Westerly Storm Track: Once the fleet clear the Azores High, they will be heading north-west towards the Westerly Storm Track and into the path of low pressure systems spinning off the North American continent and heading for Europe. The behaviour of these systems will be critical in the approach to Newport. And given that we’re still not far from the spring equinox – traditionally an unstable time of year – there’s every chance of the fleet meeting some energetic weather.
Gulf Stream: We’re going to hear a lot more about this on the next leg, but it will impact the finish of this one too. The Gulf Stream, a strong current of warm water runs north-east all the way up the eastern seaboard of the US, before turning right and heading east across the Atlantic to warm the shores of Northern Europe. Crossing this swirl of north-east flowing warm water and eddies while dealing with the low pressure systems will challenge everyone. Going upwind in the Gulf Stream can be brutal and is to be avoided if possible.
Any good stories?
This leg has been pivotal in the overall win on several occasions. It was on the way from Itajaí to Miami that Groupama 4 passed Telefónica and blew the overall race wide open.