Leg starts on:
18 March 2018
The big deal
This is the defining leg of the Volvo Ocean Race. The winner here will get kudos beyond even the double points and the bonus point for rounding Cape Horn first. This is the one that everyone wants to win. It has more myth and legend swirling around it than the Holy Grail.
So what’s so special?
It’s the longest leg of the race by a long way - 7,600 nautical miles and almost all of it is through some of the coldest, roughest ocean in the world. The fleet will leave Auckland on 18 March and head south past New Zealand’s East Cape into the Southern Ocean. Once they get far enough south they will be racing from west to east, sailing within the Westerly Storm Track (low pressure systems circulating west-to east around Antarctica and the Arctic), running with the low pressure systems that prowl around Antarctica. There will be big waves and there will be big breeze. And icebergs.
Once across this vast expanse of ocean they will have to negotiate the legendary Cape Horn – where the power of the South Pacific slams into South America – and then turn north, traversing the coast of Argentina, Uruguay and finally Brazil to Itajaí.
This is more about brawn than brains?
Back in the day, yes – when the boats rolled along at 8-10 knots they were sitting ducks for the weather systems that would roll up behind and then overtake them. But now the boats are fast enough to just about keep pace with the storm systems and a lot of smart strategy is required to position the boat correctly.
What are the hurdles?
The race south: The initial strategic problem is exactly the same as we saw towards the end of Leg 2 and on 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. There is lots of breeze down there, and the principle strategy on approaching in the Southern Oceanthe Westerly Storm Track is always to get south, find a low pressure system moving east and ride with it. So as soon as they 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 – but if a tropical low pressure enters the picture it can create boat-breaking conditions.
In the 2011-12 edition, a vicious weather system tracked south with the fleet with 50- knot gusts and seven-meter waves. Ian Walker’s Abu Dhabi lasted just six hours; and three more boats joined them in the pit lane with damage before conditions abated. And then in 2015-16, Cyclone Pam forced the leg start to be postponed... and this is all before they’ve got anywhere near the Southern Ocean.
Westerly Storm Track: 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, Tthe key to sailing this section fast is keeping the boat in the band of strong westerly winds to the north of the centre 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, where the winds get lighter and the boat might slow too much and let the low pressure slip away early.
The biggest mistake however is to get trapped to the south of the centre of the low, where easterly winds will make life slow and extremely unpleasant. This has become less likely these days because the race committee will usually set a limit on how far south the boats can go to keep them out of the ice...
Titanic moments: Antarctica is shedding ice faster than ever before the Alps in spring, and a lot of it is driftsing 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.
Cape Horn: Cape Horn is its own legend, as the Southern Ocean low pressure systems sweep around the planet and find themselves compressed between the tip of South America, the Antarctic Peninsula and the shallowing bottom between the two. It can make for some of the roughest seas in the world. Statistically, an approach from the north is usually faster.
Falklands choices: Once around Cape Horn, the fleet is headed north into warmer weather, but with South America never far away to the west, they will have to deal with a lot more unpredictability in the weather. For instance, they will have to decide whether to go inside or outside the Falkland Islands. There was a legendary overtaking move here in 1997-98, when 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.
Pampero Menace: If that isn’t enough to worry about, the Southern Ocean storms are hitting the Andes, and one of the results is the Pampero, a storm that hits as a squall line, often with rain and thunder. It strikes just as weary crew are relaxing on the ‘safe’ side of Cape Horn. Ask Eric Newby, who recounted the impact of one in his classic of the days of sail, The Last Grain Race.
This is a tough leg, probably the toughest. It’s what the race is all about and whoever wins overall, the first boat around Cape Horn and the first across the line in Brazil will write their own place in race history.