Volvo Ocean Race navigator Simon Fisher – aka SiFi – walks us through the daunting weather scenario facing the 100+ solo competitors when they set off tomorrow from St Malo, France on the Route du Rhum transatlantic race to Guadeloupe.
This year’s edition of the Route du Rhum is going to be interesting to watch.
Having been following the build-up in the media there is plenty of excitement around the event and for very obvious reasons. We will see the first big line up of the latest generation of Ultim trimarans many of which will be racing in a foiling configuration against each other for the first time in anger.
The IMOCA 60’s will see the debut of the new VPLP Charal go up against some more establishing foiling designs which no doubt will draw the attention of anyone looking toward the next ‘fully crewed around the world race’ who are now watching the developments in the class with closer attention than ever.
Add this to a massive fleet of Class 40’s and there is going to be plenty to keep people entertained in the coming days.
Sensing the building nerves of some of the skippers reported in the press I couldn’t help taking a closer look at the weather. Even as the most casual of observers I couldn’t help feeling a little knot of anxiety appear in my stomach when I saw the routing options. I instinctively found myself looking through the ensembles and playing with the optimal routes trying to find an option which will offer a little less wind than the models were suggesting.
With a strong low pressure looming in the Atlantic It looks like this year there is going to be no ‘easy answer’ and the teams in St. Malo will no doubt be looking to each model update hoping that the forecast is looking a little better each time. With little over 24 hours to go now though they will all now be accepting the fact that they are in for a tough race.
A tricky start to the Route de Rhum is nothing unusual. Leaving Europe in November offers plenty of challenges as we approach the winter months and the weather systems get stronger and faster moving. Typically, you have to get through any excitement at the start, race south and hope to get to the ‘relative’ security of the trade winds unscathed, and in good time.
I say ‘relative security’ as if you are racing a 100 foot foiling trimaran a squall cloud in the trade winds that forces you to furl a gennaker or take a reef could easily push you towards the point of exhaustion so I have no doubt the weather routers taking care of those impressive machines will be glued to the satellite imagery night and day hoping to get their guys get through the trades with as little excitement as possible.
Ex. Tropical Storm Oscar is currently sitting out in the Atlantic however it is going to the what follows it that will provide the challenges to the Route de Rhum fleet. The fleet will take off in a 15-20 knot southerly breeze, but it looks like there will be little time to relax and acclimatise to the rigours of solo sailing as a secondary low forming in Biscay will have to be dealt with on the first night.
The wind will shift quite abruptly from the south round to the north and as a result there is a potential of quite a light patch in the transition. This will mean balancing expending energy on sail changes to keep going fast with being a little more patient and conserving energy for the stronger northerlies on the other side of the low and not getting exhausted on the first night.
Once into the Northerlies in the early hours of Monday it should quickly build to 20+ knots and the decision will be about how aggressively to put the bow down to make progress south and west in order to position themselves for the oncoming low pressure dominating the weather in the Atlantic.
This decision will have to be made quickly, as it is a relatively narrow corridor of northerlies ahead of a HP ridge which will then transition into the pre-frontal south westerlies of the low. It will be interesting to see how aggressively the teams position themselves south in this period.
The superior speeds of the Ultims may give them the opportunity to delay the frontal passage slightly and have a gentler (but still tough) crossing of the front. It is unlikely that the IMOCA’s will be able to do this to the same degree and options for the Class40’s look even more limited still but any distance made south may make things slightly more manageable.
As the low pressure is progressive and fast moving the fleets will pass quickly though the HP ridge and they will be getting onto port tack as the wind moves through the west and builds on Monday afternoon evening. They will then have to brace themselves for winds building to 25-30 knots from the SW ahead of the front then deal with squally crossing of the front before getting into a broad band of post frontal NW wind with wind speeds in excess of 30 knots for much of Tuesday and into Wednesday.
Given that all this action is in the first 48 hours of the race it looks to be very demanding indeed. And yet There seems to be little let off after this point. For the Ultims it will be a question of trying to stay fast and get south ahead of the Azores High, but this will be a big challenge as tight reaching at 80 TWA in 30 knots will not be easy.
For the IMOCA 60 and Class 40 fleets the NW wind will give way to another transition to the SW associated with the next low pressure before entertaining any chance of getting to some trade winds.
The result of this strong procession of Atlantic low pressures is that the trade winds are pushed well to the south with little in the way of favourable winds along the Portuguese coast. This gives few options to get south to the trades easily as is sometimes the case. It is notable all the model ensembles are favouring a very westerly route passing close to the Azores near to rhumb line and this seems to be holding true for all of the classes at this stage.
The 2018 edition of the Route du Rhum is shaping up to be a very challenging race both physically and tactically. I will be watching with interest to see how the situation evolves in the coming days.
To everyone racing – good luck and stay safe.