Avoiding the worst of the Azores High and making the best of a rough ride home will be the keys to Leg 8 for the four teams jostling for honours in the closest ever Volvo Ocean Race.
The penultimate offshore test, starting on Sunday from Lisbon, will see the fleet head out into the North Atlantic and back for a sub-2,000 nautical mile passage to Lorient on the coast of Brittany, France.
To avoid the boats being caught in the clutches of the light winds of the Azores High, race organisers could opt to route the fleet around a virtual waypoint rather than the original turning point of São Miguel island in the Azores. A final decision on the exact location of the waypoint will be made in the days leading up to the start.
Despite its relative shortness, Leg 8 is shaping up to test the crews in a variety of ways with key factors likely to be the location of the Azores High and the possibility of finding a volatile low pressure system on the way back.
"The location of the Azores high determines the wind strength and direction for the first section from Lisbon to the Azores waypoint,"
explained race meteorologist, Gonzalo Infante.
"At this time of year the high is well established and generally climbs in latitude so that its centre is around 36-38 degrees north. We expect the high to move eastward in the opening days of the leg, which should turn the wind from westerly at the start, to northerly on the way to the waypoint."
In order to maximise boat speeds on the first section, the fleet is expected to head south west rather than point directly at the waypoint.
"The fastest point of sail will be reaching,"
he said. "So heading south west enables the boats to make the best speed, and as the wind rotates more to the north, they should be able to maintain this fast angle as they turn towards the waypoint."
The first section should take around 48 hours, but to complicate matters the easterly track of the Azores High could mean that the approach to the waypoint will take place in light winds close to its centre.
"This is likely to mean some compression after the first 48 hours as the high slows the boats' progress close to the waypoint turning mark,"
"Also it puts a high premium on nailing the layline to the waypoint perfectly."
After rounding the Azores waypoint, Infante said the teams would hope to hook into strong winds emanating from one of the regular low pressure systems which rocket east towards land -- if they are there.
If not, instead of a fast downwind ride it could be tough upwind racing for the final 48 hours to the finish.
"Whether it's upwind or downwind on the way back it won't be easy,"
said Infante. "These are highly volatile weather systems."
Infante expects the fleet to complete the course in less than seven days and said the key to success will be in the details around maximising boat speed at all times.
"Raw boat speed is going to be essential,"
he said. "This leg is going to be about making small gains by getting every aspect right; staying in phase with the wind as it shifts, having the optimum sail plan up all the time, and nailing the lay lines to the marks.
"On the final approach to Lorient, local, less predictable weather patterns will come into play, meaning the crews will have to be on full alert throughout the leg. It could be another thriller."
Leg 8 from Lisbon to Lorient is scheduled to start at 1300 local time (1200 UTC) on Sunday, June 10, with the fleet expected into Lorient on or around June 17.
The top four teams are separated by just 21 points with two offshore legs and three in-port races to go.