English Channel Challenges Volvo Ocean Race Fleet

After the thrilling ride from Galway, the breeze has dropped and the fleet now faces the challenges of the English Channel; tides, currents and shipping. A neck and neck battle between Telefónica Black and Green Dragon has developed as both teams continue to test their knowledge of this difficult region.

In the approach to the Scilly Isles, on the southwestern tip of the Cornwall peninsula, Telefónica Black had taken the lead when her choice to stay south of Bishop Rock on the Scilly Islands paid off. “Green Dragon did the same and was actually 17nm ahead of us. After the Scilly Isles, Green Dragon went more north and we stayed south. When we met later in the day, we were ahead of them. What a surprise,” wrote a very happy navigator Roger Nilson.

As Telefónica Black and Green Dragon continued to head south towards France, the rest of the fleet followed. Green Dragon, still duelling with Telefónica Black, showed their superior knowledge of this area by nipping through the Alderney Race with a foul tide – not something to take on lightly.

The Alderney Race is a notorious strait of water between Alderney and Cap de la Hague in France and includes the strongest tidal streams in Europe. These are caused by the tidal surge from the Atlantic building up in the cul de sac of the Gulf of St Malo, with the only escape in the northeast corner between Alderney and Cap de la Hague. Water flows through at speed at high tide and is sucked back down as the tide recedes. An uneven seabed adds to the turbulence, with a number of hazardous rocks located within a few miles of the lighthouse.

“Every time we went south, we got more wind and gained on those around us. The problem was that it was pushing us towards the Channel Islands, where the strongest tides in the Channel exist, and where we due to arrive at the worst possible time,” skipper Ian Walker said.

“It was because of this that the fleet stayed north of Alderney in less foul current, but the wind was too good for us to give up and we stayed south and took on the ‘Alderney Race', he explained.

Despite fighting six knots of current, the Dragons managed to get to the French coast and gybed down the rocks to sneak around with a few miles of advantage. Telefónica Black was relegated to second position.

“It was a highlight of the race, rock-hopping at night in a fierce current, trying to steal every boat length we could on the fleet,” Walker said.

For the Dutch yacht, Delta Lloyd, the highlight of this leg will be racing the loop set in the racecourse off the Hook of Holland, although the ETA to this point varies between 0800 and 2000 tomorrow according to Dutch MCM Sander Pluijm.

With 684 nm to go to the finish in Marstrand, the fleet is split by just 19 miles. Stu Wilson, making his fifth appearance in this event, this time onboard Delta Lloyd, has seen it all before.

“It's always like this at the end of the race. The big differences between the boats are not that big any more,” says Wilson. “Everybody eventually ends up in the same corner. All the sails look alike, the teams are all as experienced and the big gaps in training have closed as all the crew know the boats and each other very well. All the teams and boats are optimised, so the differences are really small in the end.”

No one is giving an inch as the teams push for every mile, striving to make mistake-free manoeuvres and taking tactical decisions every other minute. Mistakes cost miles and lost miles mean a lost leg. Sleep is therefore in very short supply. “Most of us have only slept for two hours in the last 24, some us nothing,” explained Gustav Morin from Ericsson 3. “Everyone is always on standby, resting has to wait until Marstrand,” he added.

Unusually, it is Telefónica Blue, who is trailing the fleet today. Dutch skipper, Bouwe Bekking said in a radio interview that his strategy was to stay within striking distance of the fleet and to find the right windshifts to make small gains. Overnight, Bekking's team had their kedge anchor ready on deck as the wind dropped and there was a danger of being swept backwards by the six knots of current.

Ericsson 4, which damaged their steering wheel in a spectacular wipe out yesterday, is in fourth place. The extent of the delamination the team also reported yesterday is unknown.

The fleet is currently on starboard tack beating upwind in approximately 10 knots of breeze. They have now entered the pinch-point of the Dover Strait, where there is an exclusion zone set to the north between Peacehaven (East Sussex) and Broadstairs (Kent) to keep the fleet away from the shipping lanes. Telefónica Black led the charge into the strait, where there will, according to Ian Walker, be more fun and games to be had.

Dover Strait Order 7 June 2009
1. Telefónica Black
2. Green Dragon
3. Ericsson 3
4. Ericsson 4
6. Delta Lloyd
7. Telefónica Blue

Fastnet Rock Rounding Order 6 June 2009
1. Green Dragon 22:46:34 GMT
2. PUMA 22:51:51 GMT
3. Telefonica Blue 22:53:15 GMT
4. Ericsson 4 22:55:20 GMT
5. Ericsson 3 22:56:23 GMT
6. Delta Lloyd 23:14:15 GMT
7. Telefonica Black 23:23:50 GMT

Leg Eight Day 3: 1300 GMT Volvo Ocean Race Positions
(boat name/country/skipper/nationality/distance to finish)

1. Telefónica Black ESP (Fernando Echávarri/ESP) DTF 684 nm
2. Green Dragon IRL/CHN (Ian Walker/GBR) +3
3. Ericsson 3 SWE (Magnus Olsson/SWE) +7
4. Ericsson 4 SWE (Torben Grael/BRA) +9
5. PUMA Racing Team USA (Ken Read/USA) +12
6. Delta Lloyd IRL (Roberto Bermúdez/ESP) +12
7. Telefónica Blue ESP (Bouwe Bekking/NED) +19

Team Russia RUS (Andreas Hanakamp/AUT) DNS

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