New technology at the service of ocean racing
Since the creation of the OSTAR in 1960, the race having been renamed The Transat for this 12th edition, the technological means available for receiving and analysing weather forecast information have evolved considerably both ashore and at sea. Firstly, the source, where European and US models of national weather centres are able to model continuously the information recorded (wind direction and strength, state of the sea, pressure, cloud cover, satellite images…) to forecast the weather patterns for as much as up to five days ahead with accuracy levels of not far of 100% at 24 hours and in the region of 80% at 120h. In certain conditions, and in particular over the north Atlantic, where there are a considerably high number of recording stations, it is even possible to forecast conditions for as much as ten days ahead. Internet connections and transmissions via Inmarsat mean that solo yachtsmen can receive and analyse weather files and discuss them in real time with their router ashore. Routers are weather specialists but also specialists in navigation, able to truly comprehend the situation in which a skipper can find himself (fatigued, cold, conditions of visibility, night/day…). The boats performance polars are recorded (indicating how the boat is doing in relation to wind strength and direction, state of the sea and so on. Router and skipper are therefore in a position to be able to define an optimal path to be sailed for the next few days and aim to keep the boat in the best position taking into account wind shifts and low pressure systems blow over or as high pressure systems settle.
A special edition
The 2004 edition of the race is already looking very different from previous ones from a weather point of view as right now over the north Atlantic the weather is rather fickle and unstable. For all that the start on Monday will be kicking off in a sound southerly blow, together with some rain, the situation will rapidly shift to a 20-knot force 5 south-westerly wind in the afternoon, then westerly for 20-25 knots (force 6) during the first night for Marc and Fred and the thirty-five other solo sailors. Nothing that violent but a tough start never the less when shipping for boats sailed single-handed in the waters off the south-westerly tip of England will force the skippers to keep an extremely careful look-out.
But things are also complicated by what follows afterwards. Once the first relatively inactive low has blown over, the pressure fields reveal very little gradient (weak activity in the centres of activity, translated by weak variable winds) for Gitana X and Gitana 11. So, it looks as though the fleet is to be dogged by light air to start with, although the landfall off the banks of Newfoundland might be quite different as a depression looks as though it will be settling in without wanting to move east.
This low pressure system may well turn out to be the one which determines the course steered by the soloists from the start in Plymouth, so that they position themselves on the direct course (aka the orthodromic route, the shortest route but not necessarily the fastest), moving further south thereafter to make for Boston with a favourable angle on the last three days of the race. The best time for this Transat is held by Francis Joyon, a time set in 2000 with less than 10 days spent at sea). Otherwise, there is the possibility of attacking form the north to sail around the highly active zones, before heading down, wind abeam onto the Newfoundland banks. 48 hours before the start of The Transat, it is not yet clear which is route offers the best option for the American bound fleet...