The doldrums are causing huge losses and big gains across the fleet

All five Volvo boats racing down the South Pacific Ocean are engaged in a battle with nature. Now covered by less than 90 miles, the doldrums and the associated clouds and squalls are causing big gains and huge losses across the fleet as the boats get pushed further away from their optimum courses by the unstable weather.

“It’s all about your route through the cloud minefield,” says Guy Salter on board Ericsson 4 who is clinging onto first place. “Often you just can’t avoid them [the clouds], and have to accept that, several miles away, your competitor is having an easier time of it.”

According to Salter, the clouds have often left Ericsson 4 in a complete void without even a breath of wind, before suddenly sending down a squall with such speed that the team has often found itself a fair way off their optimal course, and has been pushed further south than they planned.

With clouds, come big gains and losses. Two days ago, Ericsson 3 sailed into PUMA’s world and has been their constant companion ever since.

“We then started a 48-hour flat out drag race and slowly pulled out a very hard-earned four-mile lead, only to have it evaporate late last night in one squall,” explained PUMA’s skipper Kenny Read.

The squalls in this region appear to be quite prevalent, and can last up to two hours. The first signs of a vicious squall approaching is a general darkening of the sky and a thickening of the clouds to weather of the boat. The leading edge of the squall is accompanied by a high probability that there will be a significant wind shift.

Rick Deppe wrote that when they observe the high black cloud, light rain starts to fall which lasts for about five minutes. It is generally followed by a short pause in the rain, which may be accompanied by possible clearing of the clouds. “The break will only be for a few minutes before the large drops start to fall from the puffy nimbus clouds that make up the body of the squall,” he explained. These conditions are likely to last for at least another three days as the fleet picks its way towards Fiji.

“Once the call has been made that we are about to get hit [by a squall], the crew has to react quickly to make the boat safe – wind speeds in a squall can easily double or increase by 20 knots. The squalls generate a sloppy wave pattern and the boat starts to crash and bump because the waves are disorganised and random,” added Deppe.

Making the most of the conditions and very much back in the game is Ian Walker’s Green Dragon. The team is 86 nm to the east of Ericsson 4’s track and averaging a steady 13.5 knots.

“The fleet has opted to follow our easterly route, which has consolidated some very big gains for us,” said Ian Walker who celebrated his 39th birthday yesterday. “We have taken over 200 miles out of the leaders and are very much back in the hunt. It looks like everyone is shaping up to go east of Fiji, where a large area of no wind awaits the fleet,” he added.

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