start Leg 2 Volvo Ocean Race
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Spectacular aerial shots of the Volvo Ocean 65 sailing yachts captured during 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race Leg 2, running from Lisbon to Cape Town, South Africa.

This is a 7,000 nm north-to-south Atlantic run, passing through the various climate zones of the globe, from the European coasts with their autumn storms to the quiet Equator and the harsher conditions of South Africa.

As you can see in the video below, these 7,000 nautical miles will be certainly far from being “dry”..

From a strategic point of view, this is one of the most complex legs because of the variety of climate zones. But…what’s a climate zone?

The earth’s oceanic climate features distinct bands, looping the globe and running out from the Equator to the Poles in a mirror image. When they race from north to south, the fleet is constantly crossing from one climate band to another. The trick is finding the right entry and exit points for each transition, that is a moment when weather conditions can radically change, by allowing for spectacular gains and losses.

These are the major challenges of the race:

Subtropical High Pressure Zone, also known as “horse latitudes”. There are different theories about the origins of the name and most of them concern the poor amount of air available to sailors. There is even a theory according to which the zone is so named because the particular conditions of these areas slowed up the old sailing ships so much that they would run out of water and be forced to throw the dying horses overboard. Actually, this area seems to offer a lot of opportunities. The first is the famous Azores High, a large, stable, semi-static high pressure zone sitting around 30 and 38 degrees north.
Trade Winds. Azores High (to give you an idea of its strength, this is the wind that determines the Mediterranean summer weather because it deflects Atlantic depressions) determines the second Atlantic climate zone, the Trade Winds, so named because the old sailing merchant vessels used them as a safe, reliable source. The Trade Winds are moderate to strong winds that constantly blow towards the Equator, from North-East in the northern hemisphere and from South-East in the opposite hemisphere. This way, they engender two belts of wind that move from Sub-Tropical High Pressure zones towards the Equator.

Island Chains. Both the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde islands lie in the way as they head south. Both archipelagoes are volcanic, high pieces of land. Consequently, they impact the air flow for hundreds of miles, by offering multiple opportunities.

The Doldrums, also known as ITCZ (InterTropical Convergence Zone).  Sitting south (or north in the Southern hemisphere) of the Trade Winds, they determine the position of the low pressure zone surrounding the earth’s oceans roughly at the Equator.

This zone develops because warm, moist air that characterizes this part of the world rises higher than cold air that is therefore sucked in. This engenders the Trade Winds along with light winds, thunderstorms and sudden gusts in a context with a high level of unpredictability.

A good Equator crossing can win the leg while a bad one can drive you to the defeat. It’s therefore a crucial moment. The key is picking the thinnest point of the doldrums. This is why, even if they run from Europe to South Africa, the routes approach fleets to the South-American coasts. Legend has it that the sweet spot is around 27-28W, but anything between 25W and 30W can work.

St. Helena High: as already mentioned above, climate zones are mirrored north to south about the Equator. This means that the St. Helena High is the southern version of the Azores High. Like in the North, high pressure engenders light winds, so it risks to block the direct route to Cape Town. The fleet of the Volvo Ocean Race will probably go to the west of the centre of the high to reach the last climate zone of the leg called Westerly Storm Track.

The Westerly winds are western winds. Northern ones are normally exploited to go from the American Coasts to Europe. Unlike the Trade Winds, the Westerly winds are less stable and storms and low pressure systems swirl west-to-east around the globe.  The traditional strategy is to get clear of the Sub-Tropical High Pressure zone, enter the Storm Track, find a low-pressure system and ride with it towards East. Often, the first “rider of the storm” – to quote Jim Morrison – is the first competitor who arrives under the Table Bay and crosses the finish line in Cape Town.

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