Leg seven of the Volvo Ocean Race begins from the charming seaport town of Annapolis, Maryland, USA, this Sunday, April 28 at 1300 local time.
The eight-strong fleet will slog 3,400 nautical miles across the Atlantic on its way to La Rochelle in France, and is estimated to cross the finishing line on May 11th.
The fleet is currently based in Baltimore and will sail in company down the Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis on Friday, where it will gather for the weekend. The parade of sail will give sponsors and VIPs the chance to stand at the helm of one of these ocean racers.
Although, all week, the many thousands of visitors to Baltimore's Inner Harbour have been observing the crews and shore teams preparing the boats in finite detail for the next leg, they have not seen the skippers and navigators pouring over weather data in order to prepare their strategy for this leg, which probably has more influences than any other to be taken into consideration before the quickest route is decided.
The shortest route for the fleet is to follow the great circle that takes it to about 49 degrees north, before moving south to approach the finish from the northwest.
One major consideration is the Gulf Stream. From Cape Hatteras the stream turns eastwards and develops meanders and eddies that, if followed, can be the difference between a favourable current of two to three knots and an unfavourable one, only a few miles away.
The divide between the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and the cold waters of the Labrador Current is also very important meteorologically. This is an area where the warm, moist air from the south, meets the cold, dry air from the north, to form what is termed a polar front. Depressions are likely to form in waves along this front.
As the low-pressure systems develop on the front, and move from west to east, the strongest wind is likely to be produced and also in a favourable direction.
By following the great circle route, the fleet runs the risk of passing north of a depression and hence finding unfavourable head winds. Additionally there is the risk of encountering icebergs brought south by the cold Labrador Current. The Race Committee studies ice reports from various organisations in order to set a course, which will prevent the fleet steering into the ice. Recent reports are placing hazardous ice down as far as 40 degrees north, off the east coast of New Foundland. Michael Woods, Director of Race Operations says, "Between 51 and 45 degrees west, the boats will have to keep below 40 degrees north. This is provisional and we will review the ice reports on Friday and Saturday." The Race Committee will then create waypoints on the racetrack to keep the boats away from the ice.
Fog is also another hazard. Warm, moist air brought north by the Gulf Stream meets the cold water brought south by the Labrador Current, near the Grand Banks, and the air near the surface to cools rapidly. As the air cools, the water in it condenses and millions of tiny water particles are suspended above the sea's surface, reducing the visibility to just a few metres.
The final route followed will be a balance between the shortest mileage and the expected strongest winds. La Rochelle is in the middle of the Bay of Biscay, an area with a fearsome reputation for Atlantic Storms. It is these storms, rushing across the Atlantic that the fleet will want to make use of.
Volvo Ocean Race leader board after six legs.
POS Yacht Name Race Points
1 illbruck 41
2 ASSA ABLOY 34
3 Amer Sports One 32
4 News Corporation 31
5 Tyco 27
6 djuice 20
7 SEB 21
8 Amer Sports Too 10