Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Drag race revisited

It must be good to be Mike Sanderson. Ok, yes he is down below 57S, where the spray at 20 knots must hit like hail. Yes, he has the burden of command and interupted sleeps. And yes this Shrove Tuesday he's missing out on Captain JP's famous pancakes.

But yet again his Black Betty is in the lead, stretching away from Pirates in the drag race for Cape Horn. Even though the wind is (at least) no stronger than that for Paul Cayard the lead just keeps getting bigger. And he has in front of him not just more points ready to be picked, but the prospect of shore in leave in that wonderful city of Rio. And of course newly engaged to Emma Richards!

Behind him the news from the rest of the fleet of the Volvo Ocean race is mixed. Ericsson's reported a spectacular wipe out made even more exciting by the swing keel being the wrong side post a crash-gybe (not fun).

Just remember its not over by a long way - there are still 3000 miles to go to Rio, including rounding the Horn and the decision which side of the Falklands to go!

Graphic from Virtual Spectator

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Ripping yarns from the South China Seas

The troubles keep coming for the Clipper Round the world yacht race. On leg 4 from Freemantle to Qingdao the bad news started with Glasgow being threatened by real pirates near Singapore. These not being the jolly Captain Jack Sparrow type fresh from sparring with the georgous Keira Knightley but the ones with machines guns and bad-ass attitudes.

Then one of boats reported faults with the keel, in real danger of falling off. Similar faults were then found in others of the fleet, and so racing was supended as the boats headed to Subic Bay in the Philippines for repairs.

The crew (including those who have sailed the St Malo race with Captain JP) headed home as the shore-crew got to work. But even then drama continued, as they faced the unwanted excitement of the Philippine government declaring a state of emergency, with rumours of a military coup being planned.

All in all a bit too much excitement even for a once in a life-time adventure holiday.

Image from Clipper Ventures

Too far south?

It's worked for Mike and the crew of ABN AMRO ONE twice before, but will it work again? Diving south they give up short term advantage for longer term positional gain. And again, having passed the second ice gate of leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race it's a familiar sight on Virtual Spectator, with Black Betty's nose further south than the others.

At the ice gate the direct route to Cape Horn was about 126 degrees true, but the fleet headed not just south but south-west, with courses of up to 197 true, sailing 70 degrees away from the rumb line. Of course given the wind direction the "perfect" course might have been direct down wind but they were heading a long way off course on the so-called "penguin" route.

Already there's been a hit. On the race track between ice gates the boats lined up like beads on a wire, and Pirates were forced to watch as ONE extended their lead hour by hour as the latter showed off her broad reaching power. It also showed up Ericsson weakness - despite there being stronger wind further back she still slipped slowly down the table, and have now lost a place to the fast catching up Brasil (unless they've had another spell of bad luck).

But also the wind forecast isn't always stronger the deeper south you go. For example in the forecast below for 48 hours out the wind is better slightly higher up.

Who has got it right, the Pirates or Black Betty?

Roll-up, roll-up now, and place your bets!

Pictures from Virtual Spectator and www.stormsurf.com

Friday, February 24, 2006

Are we there yet?

Yes, the back seat drivers stuck in the middle of the Pacific can relax. The boats of the Volvo Ocean race have finally reached the first ice gate on the long leg from Wellington to Rio. Now they can bear away and head for the next one, same latitude just further east.

But as the figure above from Virtual Spectator, behind them are the strong winds which for once have been forecast well in advance. So the fleet is battening down the hatches and checking the rigging for what is to come.

Already ABN AMRO TWO at the tail end has experienced winds up to 30 knots and thats just the start of what could be a rough 24 hours. It can't be much compensation to see that their sister ship's radical tactical move south has put them in the lead, over 200 miles ahead.

However it must be somewhat of a confort to Moose and the rest of ABN AMRO ONE that their gamble paid off. Maybe the weather didn't pan out just as expected, but it was enough - and they missed the worst of the wind hole.

Though as an email from the kids navigator Simon Fisher put it, there are still 3,000 miles to go.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Slowly does it

Its a hard slog for the boats on Leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean race as they make their way to the ice gate. The race organisers have located it in the part of the southern Pacific where not only is there little wind but erratic and unpredictable wind at that.

To make it even more fun there's a storm brewing about to roar in with 50 knot winds and 30 foot waves. So they really really want to get through that gate so they can head off to Cape Horn. But Moose and the boys on Black Betty are currently heading west of north. What is pretty gutting is they could easily make a nice easterly course from where they are.

They're at 50S but there's just 5 knots of wind. If that keeps up, with 4 degrees of latitude to go it might take them a day to get to the gate under current conditions.

I'm sure they can't get out of there quickly enough.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Navigator's Nightmares

So ABN AMRO ONE goes from first to last to first. Where will it go next? That depends upon the weather. But where will the wind blow?

The forecasts have been the stuff that makes navigators wake up screaming - if they get any sleep, searching GRIB files for clues about where to head next. Take the two predictions below, both from www.stormsurf.com and both for the same time, 12Z on Thursday 23rd February.

The first was from yesterday:
The second is today:
The boats are around 51 - 53S, 152 - 157W, where the forecast is so different. It's all changed - the low meant to come up from the south and the one predict to come down from the north have both fizzled out, leaving fluky weather, winds that could come from any direction. Getting the routing right can be a matter of pot-luck, or some inspired reading of the isobars.

Further ahead there are the lows behind with awesome 40 foot waves. But the storm should weaken mid Pacific by which point the fleet should be safely further east.

As to what to do now? Just get to that ice gate before the wind runs out and you grind to a halt like ABN AMRO TWO and Brazil.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Interesting. Impressive.

I was looking at the forecasts last night and was unable to feel sufficiently confident to give a view on the proper routing. But one thing was clear - the uncertainty would lead to hard choices for the boats currently fighting out leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race. And the morning's position table certainly was interesting, with ABN ONE dropping from first to last.

A quick look on Virtual Spectator and it was clear the navigators had a rapid change of heart, with a dash south as in the figure above. What was really impressive is how Black Betty showed her speed and caught up Pirates. That must give Moose and the guys a lot of confidence to re-write their tactics on the fly and trust the boat to see them through.

As to where now, thats even more interesting. There are a host of lows coming in from all directions. One from the tropics, one from NZ and one from the deep south, as can be seen in the forecast from www.stormsurf.com for 2 days out:

The question is - where will the fleet be? Ok, so I have no routing software just half an envelope, and old biro and a calculator, but here goes. As in the previous post suggested, the VO70s can do about 7 - 8 degrees of latitude in 24 hours. This was ok when they were heading south, but now they are mostly heading east, so at 50S that's a factor of 0.642 or about 11 - 12 degrees of longitude per day.

At the moment they are at around 165W so this time tomorrow it will about 154W and the day after at 143W. It might be a bit less to include a bit of N/S movement eg to get to the ice gate between 148W and 143W at 48S.

So if you look at the figure above you can see the most important low is the one coming up from the Antartic, hence the dash for more wind in the south.

After that, well - again- its interesting......

Graphics from Virtual Spectator and www.stormsurf.com

Monday, February 20, 2006

The longest day

I've finally got round to switching on one of Virtual Spectators more esoteric overlays - the international date line. If you felt today was a long day, that's nothing compared to how long Monday was for the crew of the Volvo Ocean race, as they crossed from the eastern to western hemispheres.

But at least all the fleet seems to have avoided the breakages that plagued so many of the past legs, even though the result of ABN AMRO ONE course curving south then south east as it smoothes into the lead seems all too familiar.

Behind there's been some good competitive sailing, with Ericsson and Pirates battling out for third, and movistar showing how even a 2 hour handicap at the start won't stop them catching Brasil. Indeed if it was just Farr designs there wouldn't be this talk about which boats were disappointing. But the Juan Kouyoumdjian designed ABN twins do seem to have an extra gear, especially in the nice reaching conditions.

It won't last. The forecasts are getting uncertain, depending not on the lows barrelling around the southern ocean but one dropping in from the tropics. There might even be a bit of light winds to slow the leaders down.

This could get interesting.....

Picture from Virtual Spectator

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Road to Rio

Good luck and safe sailing for all boats and crew currently heading out of Wellington taking the long road to Rio across the southern Pacific. The longest leg of the Volvo Ocean race has started with all boats pointing their noses south to south-east.

While checking out the final crew list (which can be found here) I noticed something interesting - half the navigators are Brits. Ok, its only a small sample of six now Brunel has decided to sit out the legs between Melbourne and New York. But is it a fluke or an indicator? Does Britain's wider view of the world (say compared to Americans) give a greater feel for geography? Does the famous British weather and Brit's interest in the weather develop an intuitive feel for highs, lows and fronts?

Anyhow, being another Brit with an interest in navigation, a quick look ahead, graphics from www.stormsurfing.com. The wind and pressure for the next 24 hours and 48 can be seen below. As a rough estimate if the boats do 420 - 480 miles in 24 hours they will cover about 7 - 8 degrees of latitude.

A big low can be seen to the north east (at around 35S, 160W) squeezing a high below it. There's currently good wind at 50S, 170W but by the time they get there it will probably fade out, leaving lighter winds. Thats not good news for Moose and Black Betty, but maybe a ray of light for Neil & co on Ericsson.

By the way, the pretty picture at the top comes from http://team.abnamro.com/ and shows the end of leg 3.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Leg 4 Preview

Tomorrow sees the start of leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean race as the fleet heads out across the wide wilderness of the southern Pacific. From Wellington they will have to cross 6,700 miles of rolling seas before seeing the welcoming sight of Sugar Loaf Mountain. And by now the skippers and nagivators will have an idea of whats ahead, having had time to crunch the numbers, running scenarios and working out strategies for the days ahead.

The direct great circle path to Cape Horn drops down to 65S so ice gates have been placed at 48S to keep the high tech speedsters safely north. At the start there's a high to the east (see figure below) which will drive the boats south from the start, seeking the stronger westerlies at 50S.

A key question is how much pure southerly and how much a bit of easterly, but that will probably depend each boat's sweet spots and best points of sail. After that..... lets see what the weather brings.

Graphic from www.metvuw.com

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Half a boat length and half finished

So its congratulations to movistar. Not just for clinching a win on the 3rd offshore leg of the Volvo Ocean race, but also giving us spectators some variety in the leg position board. For once its not ABN AMRO ONE heading the fleet but having to make do with second place. But what a battle it must have been over those last few miles, with only 9 seconds and half a boat length dividing the two.

Then the improving Brasil and Pirates, followed by the ABN boys on TWO, no doubt eager to get cracking on fixing their main.

But not followed by Ericsson, or at least not officially. For Neil McDonald's boat has crossed the line but not finished, having suspended racing. They are rather cleverly taking advantage of the rules to do some urgent boat fixes without incuring any time penalties. Unlike movistar who's urgent keel work will mean they'll suffer a two hour penalty.

Its interesting to see that Ericsson are not blaming their poor performance on this leg on anything breaking. We've all had those moments when you fall out of the grove and nothing seems to work. But is the boat "one of the fastest in fleet" as Yachting World said? The evidence from the past few days is not that encouraging.

Meanwhile its congratulations to Dee Caffari for passing half way and is now passed New Zealand heading west towards Australia. As the Volvo crews downs some cold ones in the bars of Wellington she has for once a bit of nice reaching weather to look forward to.

Picture from Virtual Spectator

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Front to back

Its not much fun being Neil McDonald at the moment. Leg 3 of the Volvo Ocean race has been a near rumb line drag race, with the various teams showing what their boats are made of. At the front yet again was ABN AMRO ONE, the black boat showing her legs whenever the wind picked up. At the back was yet again Ericsson, overtaken even by ABN AMRO TWO with its split main.

The emails on the Volvo site describe the feelings of the crew and the mental energy needed to keep them going when they see yet again boats fly past whatever sails they set, leaving them stuck at the back.

This has happened enough for worries to mount that there is nothing they can do. Captain JP's three rules of how to win an ocean race (see below) only applies once you start. There's also a zero-th: get a competitive boat.

Last time round the world Neil crewed and then skippered Assa Abloy which must have won their hearts with her ability to kick her heels and fly to the front. It seems they have no such luck this time, no prospect of being "first after Australia".

When competing in a race that takes all, body and soul for months, requiring endless committment, to make that extra effort when drained to ones core, this is a bitter cup to drain.

Meanwhile at the front it's a different story, with two of the boats that have been longest in the water fighting a glorious tacking battle all the way to Wellington. This will be a leg climax to relish, the fat boat ABN AMRO ONE that likes strong winds having to fight movistar inch by inch in winds light and getting lighter.

Watch this space!

Captain JP's three rules for ocean racers:
(1) Don't break anything critical
(2) Get the weather routing right
(3) Sail fast

Pictures from Virtual Spectator

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Off again!

No, Captain JP isn't off to the slopes again (alas). It's the start of the third offshore leg of the Volvo Ocean race. Can it match leg 2 for thrills, breakages and world speed records?

Certainly the slog from Cape Town to Melbourne produced more than its fair share of drama. All of the Farr boats suffered some sort of damage and questions about the new Volvo design ever more pertinent.

But its noticable that the two ABN boats mostly survived intact, which many are putting down to the time on the water to shake down the problems (though it didn't help movistar so much). With Captain JP's engineer hat on, its always the case that new technology will produce problems - thats why you always have a test phase.

It was interesting to hear a Farr designer admit on the Volvo TV show that they didn't know much about hydraulics. But its through exercises such as this they (and the industry) can learn. For those that know about hydraulics don't know about the stresses on a boat powering into a head-sea in 40 knots of wind.

So is it "madness" to quote Yachting World? The success or failure of the new design will depend upon two things - the sponsors and the sailors. There's no doubt this Volvo has been making headlines if only for the wrong reasons. And there's no doubt that when these boats go, they go like rockets. Just watching the in-port race in Melbourne is enough to get the adrenaline going.

Could the Volvo go back to old technology such as static keels as used by the Open 60s? Would such designs have any chance of beating the 24 hour record set by ABN AMRO 2? Would that matter to those who fund this race?

Its interesting to see what has happened to Brunel - carted off to join the others only for the transatlantic leg. And why? For thats the leg with the best chance of beating that world record. For thats the sort of news that sponsors like to be associated with.

Eventually the bugs will be ironed out. Its gutting for the likes of Ericsson who had such a good start, but all engineering takes time to get right. Look at the Clipper fleet: new boats, all known technology, but they too have had keel problems and the race has had to be suspended and crew flown home.

You can't even say take the safe option and a Challenge boat 72 foot of steel like Dee Caffari battling her way across the south pacific about to meet the Volvo's going the other way. For those too had problems in the early days with their masts (remember that?) and Dee for all her heroics of weeks of tacking to windward is never going to get a 24 hours speed record.

The Volvo 70 certainly has its vocal supporters, led by Mike "Moose" Sanderson. Well, he has some reason for having warm feelings about Black Betty as ABN AMRO ONE is affectionatly called, as he has won yet another couple of points by coming first yet again in the Melbourne in-port race.

So its congratulations to Moose - again!

He must be getting used to people saying that. And not just for his habit of winning races. It appears that Emma Richards has a good excuse for not (yet) getting in touch with Captain JP about that sail in the solent. For she and Mike are now engaged.

All together now, ahh.....

But Mike will have to sail really fast to be in Wellington in time for Valentine's day.

Picture from Virtual Spectator