With Ericsson 4 leading the way, competitors in this year's Volvo Ocean Race will chart new waters when the second leg gets underway from Cape Town on Saturday by heading northwards to India instead of the traditional southerly route to Australia and New Zealand.
Organisers say that Leg 1 into Cape Town was mostly traditional, apart from the start in the Mediterranean Sea, and the opening leg has finished in Cape Town 80% of the 10 editions of the race.
Never before, though, has the fleet transited the Indian Ocean northbound. In past races the fleet has covered the Indian Ocean in the lower latitudes, surfing wildly along the Roaring Forties, Frothing Fifties and Screaming Sixties (the degrees of latitude) on strong westerly winds bound for Australia or New Zealand.
This time, however, the fleet may initially use those westerly winds to make some easting, but then it'll make a hard left turn northwards to the finish port of Cochin, India. While Leg 1 had much historical data to rely on, Leg 2's difficulty quotient is unknown.
"It's looking pretty interesting – definitely a challenging leg, weather- and navigation-wise, but it's all things that we've dealt with before," says Ericsson Racing Team meteorologist Chris Bedford. "I'll give it a difficulty factor of eight, because it's never been done before. Perhaps when it's over we'll rate it a three, or maybe even a 12, but because it's never been done before it's high up there at the moment."
"The racetrack is changing so much it will provide challenges in what routes we take and what we fall back on for default if the weather forecasts don't line up," says Jules Salter, navigator on Ericsson 4. "It'll be interesting to see how it pans out."
The leg is important to the fleet because there is a scoring gate, which will award four points to the first boat to pass, 3.5 to second, three to third and so on. The scoring gate is at 058 East longitude, approximately 2 000 nautical miles from the start. There's no intersecting point, the fleet simply has to cross the line of longitude to collect the points.
The race committee presumably left the scoring gate open to give the fleet a routing option. Sailing north after clearing the Cape of Good Hope means a shorter distance to the finish, but more miles to 058E longitude. Sailing a great circle route to the scoring line means a quicker trip to the points, but longer distance to the finish.
"The scoring gate presents some challenges," Salter says. "Do you go for the points? Or, if it's time to turn north before then, do you decide to risk losing a few places to go for the gate and then turn north?"
Once the fleet does turn north, it'll likely have nice reaching conditions as it progresses towards the equator. Bedford says that the Indian Ocean can offer nice tradewinds, 10 to 15 knots, once east and northeast of Mauritius. Salter predicts the conditions will offer another chance for the fleet to gauge relative differences.
"Heading north there should be some nice sailing up there," he says. "The boats are good at reaching so there should be some good sailing. We haven't seen all of the angles that the boats sail. We've only seen maybe one-third of the picture, so there'll be a lot of interesting stuff to come out of this leg."
A boat that has broken free at the head of the fleet, however, isn't free of worries. Bedford says that the trade winds tend to die out around 10S latitude, and that's just the beginning of the worries.
"In the Indian Ocean it's almost like a double doldrums," Bedford says. "There's one band between 5S and 10S latitude, and then there's another doldrums southwest of Sri Lanka, where the northeasterlies of the monsoon collide with the lighter winds around the equator. In between there's a band of light westerly winds sort of centered on the equator. That part will more than likely be where they encounter the lightest winds on the trip."
The winds also tend to be on the light side approaching the finish in Cochin. Bedford says the average wind speed off the coast is less than four knots, but a nice seabreeze develops during the day. Although it's not a strong wind, it's fairly regular.
"The northeast monsoon will be starting to build when they get there," Bedford says. "Right south of India there's a chance for strong northeasterlies, but within 100 to 150 miles to the finish it gets lighter. They'll be playing seabreezes and land breezes."
They'll also be playing for eight points, the maximum value awarded on individual legs. The race is extremely tight after the first leg with the top four boats separated by four points. Each boat has also been tweaked a bit during the Cape Town stopover, and likely will be ballasted differently as lighter winds are expected on the leg.
"Difficulty-wise it's probably an eight or nine," Salter says, echoing Bedford. "There are a lot of unknowns on the track."