Volvo Ocean Race enters the Malacca Strait
Yesterday Team Alvimedica and the Volvo Ocean Race fleet have entered the mouth of, the potentially treacherous gateway to south-east Asia.
The Turkish-American boat is sailing head-to-head in a tightly-bunched pack separated by just a few miles. The fleet leader Dongfeng Race Team is currently about 100 miles ahead of the pack. This next phase of the race, through the Strait, could be the most decisive part of the entire 4,670 nautical miles from Abu Dhabi to Sanya, China.
While American skipper Charlie Enright is pleased to have moved up in the standings over the weekend, he knows how tenuous his position remains. “Of course it feels good to be moving up the sked (position report) ladder,” said the 30-year-old from Bristol, Rhode Island. “But we won’t really be happy until we turn the good skeds into low points at the end of the leg. We are happy with how we’ve sailed the boat in the last 24 hours, and that’s the important part. We have perspective. We know that, especially in Malacca, things can change quickly, for better or for worse.”
Enright attributes Team Alvimedica’s rise through the fleet to a number of factors: good speed, good positioning, and a healthy dose of luck. “Stability sailing, upwind in particular, is one of our strengths, so our boatspeed has been better relative to the fleet average. We tried to position ourselves on the edge of the fleet on the side that we thought would pay – based on a couple of geographic shifts we hoped would come through. It was partly based on research and partly from Will’s experience in the last race; we were lucky they came good. What goes around comes around though, and it looks like we were the only boat to be gobbled up by a massive cloud mass, just as the sun came up. Had that not happened, our position could be 5-10 miles closer to the mark. But not our first cloud – and it won’t be our last.”
The team’s shoreside navigation support, Anderson Reggio back in the USA, agrees: “You can’t underestimate how light and weird the next couple days will be. Getting stuck under a cloud will remain a hazard – there are lots of clouds, shifts, and randomness ahead. In the short term it is all about banking miles towards the goal when you can, and trying to stay between your opponent and the hoop. Simple strategy to employ in the most challenging strait in the world!”
Recent days have seen Team Alvimedica profiting from going with its hunches, but that could change to a more conservative game in this next phase. “We got back into it by increasing our risk level a bit, waiting for an opportunity to hedge when we had higher than average confidence,” Enright explained. “This put us in a better position, but one where we lost the fleet on AIS (Automatic Identification System for vessel tracking). I have a feeling, based on how things have gone so far, both we and the pack will use our leverage to get back towards some middle ground, closer to each other, and some sort of mean routing.”
When sailors talk tactics, they talk about ‘ladder rungs’ relative to the wind direction. “Ladder rungs are applicable to the situation we are in now,” said Enright. “We are on the same ladder rung, approximately, as the group to our north, we just happen to be closer to the mark. Ladder rungs are positions of equal VMG to the wind, upwind or downwind. Boats on the same ladder rung can often be considered to be ‘tied’.”
It has been a slower than expected passage, particularly across the Bay of Bengal which was frustratingly windless. Navigator Will Oxley has used the extra time to do extra preparation for the Malacca Strait. “The light airs have at least been productive in the navigation station. I have been poring over electronic and paper charts, sailing directions, historical notes and current information in preparation for the Strait of Malacca. It’s a tricky place to sail at the best of times and it pays to be prepared, even accepting there is always an element of randomness about success in the Straits. I did not have a good time in the Strait in the last Volvo Ocean Race on board Camper. At one stage we had strong currents against us and no wind, and we were forced to anchor wind waiting for a sea breeze. At the same time the leaders sailed away further offshore! I really hope my preparation will help us do better this time. Fingers crossed!”
A first-time competitor in the Volvo Ocean Race, Enright is steeling himself for potentially the most challenging part of the entire circumnavigation. “In the coming days we need to stay versatile. The Strait will throw a lot at us; we need to be ready for changing sails, changing game plans, ships, squalls, sleepless nights …interesting part of the world we’re sailing in!”