The Barcelona World Race course is from Barcelona to Barcelona, putting the capes of Good Hope, Leeuwin and Horn to port and the Antarctic to starboard.
The regatta is non-stop race round the world from west to east, with the boats sailing a theoretical route some 23,000 miles in length over approximately 3 months. This theoretical route is calculated using the Geat Circle line or orthodromic distance, which is the shortest route traced around Earth on a map. However, in reality the skippers notch up much longer distances and in many cases ten per cent longer, with strategy based on winds and conditions rather than distance on a map.
Following in the tradition of previous editions of the regatta, the starting line was opposite the W Barcelona Hotel (Spain). The skippers made their way down to the Strait of Gibraltar and once through entered Atlantic waters and set course south. The boats moved down past the Equator to rounded the Cape of Good Hope and then into the Indian Ocean. The competing teams passed Antarctica to put the legendary capes of Leeuwin (Australia) and Horn (Chile) to port before returning to the Atlantic and climbing back up north to the Gibraltar Strait and on to the finishing line at Barcelona.
In the first and second editions of the regatta the participants were instructed to pass through Cook Strait in New Zealand. For this third edition, however, the passage through Cook Strait is not mandatory, with the fleet putting the archipelago of New Zealand to the north.
An important element of the race course are the ice limits. The Race Directors set coordinate limits for the boats at certain points, due to the threat of floating ice in the South Indian and Pacific Oceans. It was called the Antarctic Exclusion Zone. (See article on the danger of ice and the round table discussion held in Barcelona in January 2013).
12 climate zones in three months
The Barcelona World Race route takes the boats through almost all of the world's macroclimatic zones and also throws in the difficult tactical sailing in the Mediterranean and through the Gibraltar Strait.
The course can be divided up into 12 clearly differentiated climate zones. These are:
Barcelona – Gibraltar Strait
This Mediterranean leg is some 530 nautical miles (983 km) in length. Weather predictions for this area are much more difficult to make than for the open seas, due to the physical geography of the coast and its proximity, which produce variable and shifty patterns, just miles apart. This is a very tactically challenging leg, particularly during the winter months, where thermal winds are scarce and areas of calm are in abundance.
Through the Gibraltar Strait
Depending on the wind, this can be one of the most tricky points in the race. If there is a storm from the west after the start, or a storm from the east upon return to Barcelona, the IMOCA Open 60s may face a tough test. Strong counter-currents can make for a difficult passage through if the winds are low.
Gibraltar to the Canary Islands
This leg is some 640 miles (1,222 km) long. The boats sail in search of the NE trade winds here.
Through the Canary Islands
The passage through the Canary Islands is a tricky tactical challenge, as the breeze is channelled with considerable variations in intensity. The leeward passage of the islands must also be undertaken with care, due to the numerous windless pockets lurking in the zone, caused by the physical geography of the islands.
The Canary Islands to the Equator
The boats may cover from 1,700 to 1,900 miles during this leg, depending on how they choose to cross the lulls at the Equator. During the initial part of the leg, the entries are pushed by the trades, but these diminish as the boats move closer to the Equator line. The tactics called by the skippers will be governed by the stability of these NE winds.
Crossing the Equator
This is one of the most challenging zones in the race. Here the boats must pass the ‘doldrums’: a ring of lulls around the planet, of varying breadth according to location and the time of year. This windless area can be as broad as 300 miles wide. During the second half of January the best 'corridor' to get through the doldrums is usually at around 30º W. The boats can take up to four days to get through the equatorial region. Once they’re out of it they can hunt for breeze from the numerous squalls nearby.
The Equator to the Cape of Good Hope
In their descent of the South Atlantic, the boats will cover between 3,200 and 3,600 miles. Here everything will hinge on the reign of the SE trades blowing in the Southern Hemisphere and on the evolution of the St Helena anticyclone. As the boats move to lower latitudes and closer to 40ºS they will begin to grapple with the ‘Roaring Forties’; very strong winds from the west that throw up some huge swell.
Crossing the South Indian Ocean
From the Cape of Good Hope to South Tasmania, the skippers will cross the most difficult stretch in the entire race. These 5,000 miles will be brimming with squalls from the south, and cold and wet conditions from the Roaring Forties. The tactics here will consist of positioning the boat at the best possible angle to take on the squalls generated by these winds.
South Pacific to Cape Horn
A 4,000-mile crossing where the skippers will yet again hit the Roaring Forties. The approach to the much-revered Cape Horn may dish up thick, dense banks of fog for the boats. Here the handling of the squalls is key as the boats make their obligatory rounding of the Horn. Conditions at Cape Horn, in the Chilean Patagonia, can be gruelling if the winds blow from the NW, sped up by the Andes.
Cape Horn to the Equator
The climb up the South Atlantic stretches over some 3,900 miles. The first tactical dilemma is where to pass the Falkland Islands. The second is how to take on the St Helena anticyclone, often with strong headwinds for the fleet. Here the entries tend to hug the coast of Brazil. The Doldrums will throw up the same frustrations as they did on the way down.
The Equator to the Gibraltar Strait
A leg of approximately 2,550 miles where skippers have to grapple with the anticyclone at the Azores. In this leg, tactical calls are crucial, depending on the distances between the entries.
The passage through the Gibraltar Strait and the final stretch to Barcelona
Here conditions will be similar to those at the start of the race.