On Sunday at 1202hrs after the start gun for the Vendée Globe sounds the 29 solo sailors should be able to sail directly towards Cape Finisterre, some 350 miles across the Bay of Biscay. The Cape, the NW corner of Spain, will be the first major obstacle in the 24,400 mile round the world non stop race. In a 15-20 knot northerly, the leaders should reach the coast of Spain on Monday morning, before turning left to head towards the Tropic of Cancer.
It is, by all accounts, the most favourable weather forecast for the start of any Vendée Globe since the first race in 1989. They should escape the Bay of Biscay in good shape to pick up the trade winds off the Canaries. The exceptional weather which has prevailed over the past four months on the Atlantic coast is set to last for a few days more. This should allow the solo skippers to head directly for warmer climes, even pointing directly to the hot weather around the Equator which they should reach in less than ten days. This would be better than the record time set in 2004 by Jean Le Cam (10 days 11 hours 28 minutes).
This highly favourable weather situation is because of the Azores high, which stretches from Iceland to the Azores and which is moving slowly south due to the influence of a former tropical low coming down from Greenland. This is leaving room for the Bermuda high to move towards the SE to merge with the Azores high. But Autumn is set to arrive with the end of next week looking nasty in Vendée…
Going around the edge
The start on Sunday is due to take place in a 12-15 knot NNW’ly flow. The sun will gradually disappear after the start, but the wind will remain light to moderate, as the skies cloud over. The sailors will be able to cross the Bay of Biscay with the wind at 340° (as they head towards Cape Finisterre on a bearing of around 240°), with the wind on the beam increasing to 20-25 knots. At this pace, by daybreak on Monday, the leaders will already be off Cape Finisterre in wind in excess of thirty knots wind and rain. They will sail to the east of the Separation Scheme, so close to the Spanish coast.
At that point, they are going to have to pay attention to the angles with the wind still blowing from the north as they speed down to Madeira and the Canaries. The fleet is likely to fan out off the coast of Portugal, with the foilers choosing more aggressive routes to get to the eastern edge of the high, while the boats with traditional daggerboards will find it easier on the direct route. The newer boats will have to carry out more manoeuvres and on paper it looks like being an advantage to remain closer to the direct route, which means sailing at around 200 miles from the coast of Africa in stronger winds.
They are going to have to remain at least fifty miles away from Madeira, if they sail to the east and a hundred miles, if they go to the west. They should pass the Canaries in winds that have strengthened to 25 knots or more (but much less in the wind shadow) or head 200 miles further west (where the winds will be lighter at around 15 knots).
The heat is on
It is when they reach the Cape Verdes that the leaders will have to choose: they can sail between Senegal and the islands, where the trade winds look stronger or stay further west passing Santo Antão, which is the furthest west and culminates at more than 2000m. If they go for the first option, they will be able to go through the Doldrums at around 28°W, which would allow them to reach the Equator windward of the fleet. In the second case, they will be further west, around 31°W, which will make it harder to cross the Equator, as the sailors will be close to Brazil, when they pick up the trade winds in the Southern Hemisphere.…
In conclusion, the voyage down the North Atlantic looks like being very fast for the leaders crossing the Bay of Biscay in less than 24 hours. They should cross the Tropic of Cancer (latitude 23°26’ N) after three and a half days and the latitude of the Cape Verdes before next weekend… The wind should stay with them until the Doldrums and the gap between the frontrunners and those at the rear could well be more than a thousand miles by then.