Telefónica Black is the new leader of the pack today, after the Volvo Ocean Race fleet made its first proper manoeuvre of this leg, tacking onto starboard last night when the predicted windshift occurred.
Since then, the tracks of the boats have wavered as the crews carefully pick their way through the minefield of reefs and shoals that clutter this part of the South China Sea. The weather is due to close in approximately three days from now, and the sailing is about to get serious.
"Approaching the North Lucoma Shoals, the water depth goes from 1000 metres to three metres," explains Ken READ (USA), skipper of PUMA. "We had three charts of these shoals. One said we ‘could' go through the middle, one said ‘maybe' and one said ‘no way'. We chose the ‘no way' route and along with a breeze header, had to dip the shoal along with Ericsson 4."
There is still just over 30 hours before the fleet reaches the ‘weather waypoint' set at South Rock Light, positioned near Manila in the Philippines. The fleet has to keep to the east of this point to protect them from the full force of the expected bad weather. However, the mark is directly upwind and between the fleet and the mark lie the notorious Spratly Islands.
There are have been no systematic surveys of the area for many years, which means there are vast patches of uncharted coral reefs, atolls, rocks and sand banks, all capable of causing major damage if struck. Those that are charted, may have moved, making the passage through the Spratly Islands, named after an English mariner who charted them in the 19th century, an extremely precarious affair.
"Much of this leg will be raced in darkness, and navigators and skippers will be looking for the quickest way through to gain an edge of the rest of the fleet," explains Will OXLEY who was a navigator in the 2005-06 event. OXLEY says that the reefs could be up to six miles out of place, so much of the navigation will be by sight.
"If the fleet has clear visibility during the day, they should be mostly OK," says OXLEY, but added, "In the dark, it could be tricky, especially if there are squalls too."
"Of course," says READ, "you could go way out and around this massive area of shoals, but that would be a race loser. We will all be short tacking through the shoals and reefs. From thousands of metres of depth, to virtually nothing. Really fun at night especially. A little skill, and a lot of luck. Both are needed," he said.
The fleet is now spread over an inshore/offshore divide of 91 nautical miles. Overall race leader Ericsson 4 is the closest inshore, just 43 nautical miles off the coastline of Palawan Island with Delta Lloyd and new leg leader, Telefónica Black joined together and furthest offshore.
Frits KOEK, the Dutch navigator of Delta Lloyd explained that as they moved closer to the coast of Brunei, they got the impression that the near the shore the conditions looked less favourable. The team tacked in the dark, squally night and moved further offshore. They had to tack twice more to manoeuvre into a safe position.
Added to the difficulty is the amount of debris floating in the water. Telefónica Black collided with a stray log, which made contact with their starboard rudder, however the team reported that there was no damage.
At 13:00 UTC today, Telefónica Black had moved up from fifth place at 13:00 UTC yesterday to dislodge PUMA and take the lead. Telefónica Blue also slides one place down the leaderboard largely due to ‘parking' for a long time. Ericsson 3 moves up to fourth place from sixth yesterday, Delta Lloyd is level pegging with the Green Dragon in fifth and sixth place, and, shockingly, race leader, Ericsson 4 is bringing up the rear, 51 nautical miles adrift.
Leg Four Day 4 – 13:00 UTC Volvo Ocean Race Positions
(boat name/country/skipper/nationality/distance to finish)
1. Telefónica Black ESP, Fernando ECHAVARRI (ESP) DTF 1674 nm
2. PUMA Racing Team USA, Ken READ (USA) +5
3. Telefónica Blue ESP, Bouwe BEKKING (NED) +9
4. Ericsson 3 SWE, Magnus OLSSON (SWE) +28
5. Delta Lloyd IRL, Roberto BERMUDEZ (ESP) +29
6. Green Dragon IRL/CHN, Ian WALKER (GBR) +29
7. Ericsson 4 SWE, Torben GRAEL (BRA) +51
8. Team Russia RUS, Andreas HANAKAMP (AUT) DNS
Volvo Ocean Race Leaderboard
(After Singapore In-Port Race)
1. Ericsson 4, skipper Torben GRAEL (BRA), 39 points
2.Telefónica Blue, skipper Bouwe BEKKING (NED), 33.5 points
3. PUMA, skipper Ken READ (USA), 31 points
4. Ericsson 3, skipper Magnus OLSSON (SWE), 24 points
5. Green Dragon, skipper Ian WALKER (GBR), 22.5 points
6. Telefónica Black, skipper Fernando ECHAVARRI (ESP), 19 points*
7. Team Russia, skipper Andreas HANAKAMP (AUT), 10.5 points
8. Delta Lloyd, skipper Roberto BERMUDEZ (ESP), 10 points
*Penalty of three points applied for rudder change