A slow-moving warm front over a cold sea is making for foggy conditions. That's what has been happening since the multihulls have passed Newfoundland as a mass of warm air is sweeping over the cold waters of the Labrador current. The icebergs are now in the rear-view mirror and as the fleet moves east, visibility ought to improve. A humid cotton-wool atmosphere does not detract from the fact the conditions are now much more favourable. More than 470 miles have been covered in 24 hours, a 25-knot SW breeze and rising temperatures (which never the less remain fresh with and air temperature of 8° and the sea at 6°).
Yann Guichard, navigator on Gitana 11 at 10h30 today, Thursday : « We're out of the fog. We were on the offensive all night with top speeds of more than 33 knots in a steady 25-knot wind and a rather rough sea. We've just gybed as we have just seen Sodebo a mile from us and Géant is on the horizon behind us. We have to mark our opponents while we're waiting for the wind to shift north-west. If everything goes according to plan, the wind will be with us as far as Ireland. So we should be getting some fast sailing done over to Saint Malo. »
Managing gybes is the crux of the difficulty on this transatlantic. The high pressure system which the multis are sailing along right now is not that lively (1025 hectoPascals falling to 1020 hPa by Friday). What's more, further north of 49°N, the wind is much steadier with a SW trend and 15 knots like this morning, veering westerly then north-west in the hours ahead. So wind enough as far as Ireland, but on a trimaran, a square run is out of the question, leaving a reach under gennaker (the big balloon jib) at roughly 140° from the true wind direction. That means that the navigators have the choice between sailing at 100° to the wind which is close to the direct course and then a leg at 20° to put more north into their heading. But when the wind shifts west, they will be able to sail at an angle of either 130° or 50°…
Basically, they have to read the road ahead, anticipating the wind shifts to reduce the amount of ground to be covered and sail where the wind is best. That's what Gitana 11 has done in heading off north-east last night bringing herself up to 49°N in the wake of the Italian trimaran TIM-Progetto Italia. That's what Karine Fauconnier (Sergio Tacchini) has done this morning to avoid being caught up by her followers north. It is also no doubt exactly what Sodebo and Foncia will do this morning to stay up with the fleet leaders. As time goes by, some will lose ground as they try to climb back up, whilst others will gain ground on a direct course.
The gaps between the leader and north-placed Groupama reach 120 or so miles but are not that significant in fact as they shall continue to fluctuate, increasing and decreasing as the fleet changes tack towards the Fastnet or the north. Never the less, Banque Covefi is taking a real risk in a radical heading at 90° away from the course since her change in direction off Newfoundland – a last-ditch attempt perhaps as the wind is nowhere near as steady as it is in the north. Gitana X, does not have hte same speed potential in medium downind conditions but is not doing too badly. She may well overtake the Swiss in the nest couple of hours or so.
But we're not going to kid ourselves. Conditions are much more favourable for the leaders than for the tail-enders, to the extent that Mediatis-Région Aquitaine finds herself 440 miles from the leader, head to wind along the coast of Newfoundland ! Only if the pack is severely shuffled at the Fastnet Rock will the end of the pack have a chance to catch up but that gap is more likely to increase over the next couple of days… little chance that Gitana X will be able to come back on the leading trio but she may well be able to come back on the peloton (Banque Covefi, Groupama, Sopra Group) whereas Gitana 11 is well positioned to come back into contact with Sergio Tacchini. It'll all be decided in the timing of the gybes. Tow hours too early, two hours too late, can make all the difference, ten miles gained or lost !
Marc Guillemot, skipper of Gitana X last night. « We had a tough time of it coming out of Saint Pierre on Gitana X. Fog and a 15-20 knot blow with our Solent and mainsail up. Too hesitant for my liking in hoisting our gennaker. To sum up, this morning's scoreboard speaks for itself – we are now behind boats we were close to before. We put too much south into our easterly heading and we're going to pay the price in what follows. After having passed Newfoundland, we'll have to put some north into our course to get round the high pressure system which is settling mid-Atlantic. We have to gybe to pass Cape Race. Karinette (skipper of Sergio Tacchini and one of Marc's old friends) and her team are doing a great job continue to increase their lead. Their boat is at home in these conditions combined with an excellent strategy have made all the difference. We've got to try and keep our route as short as possible and get round the high without getting stuck in it. Not easy but it's the only way we can hope to make up for lost ground. To be continued.. At the time of writing the barometer has increased by 0.10 HP and the wind is weakening, backing. Won't be long before we gybe. »