In Boris Herrmann's Malizi team, the Briton Will Harris is versatile in action. As a weather expert, he describes exclusively for the readers of YACHT online what the leading skippers have to prepare for on their last section up to the finish and where the decisions could be made
It's getting tight at the head of the Vendée Globe fleet. Only a few nautical miles separate the first eight boats. What used to be a race of hundreds of nautical miles has now become a battle for every meter as the boats storm north in excellent trade wind conditions. Never before has the Vendée Globe been so close in its final phase, never before have there been so many skippers with a chance of victory.
As we shall see, the strategy on the course across the North Atlantic seems to be quite friendly for the boats in front. Everything points to downwind sailing all the way to the finish. But that in turn will make the fight even more intense up to the finish line in front of Les Sables-d'Olonne.
We have just received the answer to who was most successful in the Doldrums Passage and the transition to the north-eastern trade winds. The Doldrums were in a pretty active phase and made the passage more demanding than usual. The fleet was positioned more west than it was during the Atlantic descent after the start of the race.
Charlie Dalin ("Apivia") and Louis Burton ("Bureau Vallée 2") seem to have slipped through the easiest and were able to extend their lead over the rest of the fleet by a few nautical miles. In the short term, sailing in the northeast trade winds means they'll be pulling a few more miles away.
The NOAtropic analysis from 1am on January 17th gives a good idea of how active the Doldrums are right now. The Doldrums are marked by the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). If the ITCZ meanders as it does at the moment, then that suggests quite active Doldrums
All the way up in the South Atlantic Passat, we've seen that the foilers can take advantage of their designs and state-of-the-art technologies. The current top five are all foilers. They have succeeded in continuously expanding their lead in the foiling conditions. It's interesting at this point to take a look back at who was the fastest. Because once the boats have reached the North Atlantic trade wind, something similar can be expected. In addition, the trade winds are currently well developed. After leaving the Doldrums for good, the leading group will have about 1100 nautical miles of sailing in front of them in the Passat. This is of some importance when you know that the remaining section of the course to the finish is less than 3000 nautical miles in total.
Boris Herrmannn's "Seaexplorer - Yacht Club de Monaco" was the most impressive boat so far. He has gained miles over the entire fleet. And his boat is still one hundred percent intact. Even Charlie Dalin, who sails a very modern Imoca yacht, seems unable to keep up with Boris. He must either have a damaged sail or he cannot reach the full potential of his boat due to the foil damage suffered earlier in the race. If Boris can repeat that again, he should be able to make up for his Doldrums losses after taking a more western route than Louis and Charlie.
The trade winds will come in from the northeast and slowly turn to the right as the fleet sails north. That means space sheet courses with a true wind angle of 65 to 90 degrees - again ideal for foiling.
Typically the winds blow at 15 to 25 knots, although gusts of up to 35 knots and extreme winds can be caught regularly under the passing clouds. What controls the trade winds in the North Atlantic is the Azores high. Currently and for large parts of the route through the North Atlantic, the Azores high sits in a stable and immobile position just off the coast of Portugal.
It is usually the first weather characteristic to deal with while sailing the North Atlantic, that the high is usually south of the North Atlantic low. This marks the transition of the fleet from the displacement race in the trade winds to the struggle for the strategically best position. This is the last chance to choose a different strategy for target control.
Around January 21st, the leading boats will make this transition at the height of the Canary Islands. The wind will turn quickly and shift south and eventually southwest once the boats have reached the north side of the high pressure area. Then the fleet can jibe north in search of a North Atlantic depression.
There are two things to consider: How close do you want to get to the center of the high pressure area? The closer you get, the lighter the wind becomes. At the same time the wind will turn more abruptly. On the other hand, it is clear: the closer you are to the center, the shorter the route to be sailed. But how much boat speed will that cost? Second, which system do you want to control when you are out of the air? The timing of your position to an approaching low pressure area and the associated cold front will be of the utmost importance. Because this system will carry you almost all the way to the finish. So a small difference in positioning at this point can mean big differences in wind rotators, angles or wind speeds.
The routing for the leading boats for January 23rd (1pm German time): They will make their first jibes around the Azores high, which is currently off Gibraltar. You can also see the wind coming from the west. The right timing will be very important here in order to maximally benefit from the wind shift around the Azores high and the pressure of the cold front
I think this Vendée Globe will be won or lost after the Azores high depending on those small differences in position. A North Atlantic Depression is very active and difficult to predict. It is therefore difficult to examine this section of the race in more detail because it will take a while until then. But we can still make out the weather systems.
Preview of January 23, 1 a.m. German time: The interaction between the gravure systems. They will quickly merge with each other and create a much larger depression. The gray star marks the positions of the leading boats at the time. You can see that they are just getting the wind from the cold front that brings the low pressure area east of Newfoundland
A long distinctive cold front from a low pressure system that sits west of Newfoundland spreads to the Azores and the position of the leading boats on January 23rd. It will serve the first cold front winds, even if they will still be quite weak. More importantly, how the depression begins to rotate and interact with a newly evolving depression moving eastward from the North American east coast.
This newer system is very active and is rapidly moving east. As a result, the two lows merge quickly and form a much larger low pressure area with several centers. At the same time, the cold front above the fleet is also integrated into this system. The leading boats should expect an arriving low pressure system on January 24 at around 1 p.m. German time (+36 hours), which will bring a strong southwest wind and a subsequent cold front.
This low will find its way to the northwest. The high off Portugal forces it to the north of the French coast. The southwest winds of around 20 knots will remain and will allow the boats to sail towards the target with optimal downwind angles (VMG). This is where the game of twists and turns becomes hard work, but it is worth remembering that the decisions in this race can be made based on just a few nautical miles of difference.
The timing of the systems is also important: Hitting one of the cold fronts an hour earlier or later than expected could significantly change the entire routing. The skipper has to stay on the ball and constantly check the forecasts. Even if it is a quick and direct route to destination, it is by no means an easy one.
Typical routing could look like this. The timing of the jibes will be closely related to the weather conditions that arise. This is where the race gets exciting. We could even see leadership changes at the last minute
The conditions will also not be as "extreme" as expected. Typically, sailing in the North Atlantic low pressure areas can easily experience 40 knots and more. But because of this high, which is stubbornly off Portugal's coast, the lows are deflected to the north. Which means that the fleet can accelerate and not get into survival mode. The first boat should cross the finish line around January 28th. And it's very possible that we'll see seven more that same day.