The Ocean Race – Duelling through the Straits

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Day two of The Ocean Race had the fleet searching for calmer waters by heading towards the Spanish coastline to avoid the worst of the brutal offshore breeze and sea state before breaking through the Strait of Gibraltar and out into the Atlantic.

For the IMOCA fleet in particular, each tack along the shoreline brought the risk of damage, yet on the other hand, reducing the number of tacks and taking longer legs in between would take them further out into stronger winds and bigger waves. Striking the correct balance was hard. None more so than for 11th Hour Racing Team and their closest competitor, Holcim-PRB. As they headed west, the pair were locked in a tacking duel.

Leading the way, Charlie Enright’s crew aboard Malama were under pressure to defend their position while at the same time working the best shifts along the shore. Tack for tack, throughout the night Kevin Escoffier’s team were nibbling away at the 11th Hour Racing Team’s lead, closing the distance hour by hour.

The crucial passing move would come in the early hours when Holcim-PRB decided to tack onto starboard first. Shortly after they had tacked onto starboard the wind shifted slightly towards the north, delivering a small but crucial advantage. By the time Enright’s crew tacked they were trailing Escoffier.

Both could now head directly at the entrance to the Gibraltar Strait in a high speed, upwind drag race.

Arriving at the Strait first at 0400 UTC provided the upper hand for Team Holcim-PRB. Nine tacks and three hours later, as Escoffier’s team threaded their way through the narrow passage they emerged into the Atlantic. Enright’s 11th Hour Racing had chased hard and after 13 tacks they too broke out into the west.

From here, the weather forecasts and passage analysis at Race Control in Alicante had suggested that the front runners might benefit from taking a more northerly route before they locked into the northerly breeze that would provide the first part of the slingshot south to Cabo Verde. And as the duelling pair headed off along the Spanish coastline this appeared to be their strategy.

For Holcim-PRB, their tactics had worked but they now had some damage to their mainsail which had been torn close to the luff after the clew of the jib had punched through the sail during a tack. Fortunately, the slightly more settled conditions in the Atlantic provided an opportunity for repair.

Meanwhile, behind them Boris Herrmann’s Team Malizia were third through the Strait.

“We are through the Strait of Gibraltar,” said Boris Herrmann from Team Malizia. “Now we still have to navigate a few fish farms and shallow spots, and there is still traffic, but we are through the first big landmark of the race.

“Maybe this was the most difficult time. It was a very intense day and night. We saw 50 knots (windspeed) yesterday.”

Paul Meilhat’s Biotherm were fourth. In fifth place was GUYOT environnement – Team Europe who trailed the leaders by 60 nautical miles.

Watch the boatfeed from GUYOT environnement – Team Europe
Yet, while they had dropped back from an impressive position in the first 24 hours, the weather forecast suggests that teams that exit the Strait later may be able to capitalise on a shift in the breeze and turn south earlier.

While this may offer a potential reprieve to those towards the back of the IMOCA fleet, the benefits of this shifting breeze may well be more significant for the VO65s.

Leading the field in this class was WindWhisper Racing Team whose tactically smart yet conservative approach has paid off.

On the leaderboard Mirpuri Foundation Racing Team is lying in fourth but their passage through the Strait appears to show them pass to the south of the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS), contrary to the sailing instructions. Race Control is looking at the situation and may forward their track to the Jury for assessment and a possible penalty.

Just in front of them, Austria Ocean Racing Powered by Team Genova lay in second place with Team JAJO third and AmberSail 2 right behind in fifth.

“We are just about to exit the Gibraltar Strait,” came the message from Rokas Milevičius, skipper on Ambersail 2. “It has been an intense few days and nights. The team is really looking forward to some Atlantic running, because this upwind in 30-50 knot is not much fun. Wet. Cold. And bumpy. But we suppose that is how it is supposed to be.”

As the fleet passed through Viva México were still in Almeria after suspending their racing following damage to their mainsail. The team is working to rejoin the race as soon as possible but is pinned in at the port with winds near 40 knots and a heavy sea state.

So, while getting through the Gibraltar Strait was a tactical challenge for all, there is clearly more to come as the two fleets prepare to take on the second stage of Leg 1.

Current ETAs show the leading IMOCAs arriving late on Friday (local time), with the VO65s less than 24 hours behind.

Rankings at 1600 GMT – 17 January 2023

IMOCA
1. Team Holcim-PRB, 1465.4 miles to finish
2. 11th Hour Racing Team, 24.6 miles to leader
3. Team Malizia, 46.0 miles to leader
4. Biotherm, 54.9 miles to leader
5. GUYOT environnement – Team Europe, 61.3 miles to leader

VO65
1. WindWhisper Racing, 1509.1 miles to finish
2. Austrian Ocean Race – Team Genova, 6.5 miles to leader
3. Team JAJO, 9.8 miles to leader
4. Mirpuri Foundation Race Team, 9.9 miles to leader
5. Ambersail 2, 21.2 miles to leader
6. Viva Mexico, suspended racing, 194.5 miles to leader