SPORT - Southern Ocean serves up lemons
December 7: The last 24 hours have seen some big tactical moves, variable winds keeping the crews busy with endless sail changes and a great deal of reflection on the best way to tackle the high-pressure system sitting between the 10 yachts of the Clipper 09-10 Round the World Yacht Race fleet and their goal of Geraldton-Greenough on the coast of Western Australia.
Almost all of the teams have been experiencing light winds, uncharacteristic of the Southern Ocean and for the crew of Spirit of Australia it made for a particularly sour-tasting start to the day.
"Lemons at breakfast. An hour of lemons," said Aussie skipper, Brendan Hall. He explained: "Lemons are what we call it when the boat speed reads 0.0.
“Two big, fat zeros, staring the helmsman in the face. There was not a lot more we could do. We had our lightest sails up and were trimming them constantly; there was just not enough wind to keep them full.
“The wind hole we have been driving north to avoid has swallowed us up and given us lemons. I just hope the rest of the fleet are getting some lemons of their own. We are just creeping along now, waiting for the wind to fill in," he said.
The good news for the Aussie team, and equally frustrating for the others, is the light winds are affecting most of the leading pack, with perhaps the exception of Cape Breton Island whose eagle has been soaring up through the fleet, regaining places lost when they found their own wind hole in spectacular fashion a few days ago.
The Canadian crew is hot on the heels of Uniquely Singapore, currently sitting in third place behind leaders Team Finland and Spirit of Australia. But if Jim Dobie, skipper of the Singaporean entry, has his way, they won't be there for much longer.
"It's fairly obvious we made a tactical move over the last 24 hours,” said Dobie.
“On the surface it might appear that we have lost a lot of miles on the back of the fleet, but the miles lost versus our new position will, fingers crossed, pay off and allow us to keep our position and catch Spirit of Australia and Team Finland — a big ask!
“We can now look at regaining miles lost and we believe we're in a better position to tackle the next few days and the high sitting off the Australian West Coast," he said.
Although he was born in Singapore Jim's family originally comes from Kalgoolie in WA, and he knows a little bit about the weather there.
"The West Coast is typically hot and dry as a result of these massive highs sitting off the coast. They don't move much and it takes something dramatic to shunt them out of the way. So your options are go over the top, underneath or through the middle,” Dobie said.
“A southerly route will keep the wind with you but you have to sail a longer distance; over the top you face headwinds and, depending on its position, lighter winds but a shorter distance to sail; or through the middle is the shortest distance but the route takes you into areas with no wind.
"The next week will test our abilities to read the forecasts, sail well in light winds and cover the rest of the fleet. There could be some dramatic racing coming up," he said.
Peter Stirling, skipper of Jamaica Lightning Bolt, knows with fewer than 200nm separating the leading eight yachts and a massive high-pressure system between them and the finish line, it's still anyone's race.
"The Southern Ocean is currently playing its latest hand with the weather trying to lull the crew into a false sense of security with calm seas, light winds and bright sunshine,” said Stirling.
“Not for long though, because by tonight we will be beating into 25kts of wind and big seas. Though the spray and waves landing on deck will be freezing cold the wind will at least be from the north and not blowing up from the Antarctic, so some small consolation.
"Though we lost our fourth place to Cape Breton Island during the night we managed to take ground out of most of the other yachts. Cape Breton Island is much further south than the rest of the fleet and experiencing different weather conditions. We still have a long way to go and are quietly confident we can regain our lost position and hopefully even get on the podium," he said.
The Jamaican team has been taking the opportunity the break in the weather has afforded them to do some essential maintenance jobs including replacing the starboard spinnaker halyard they had to cut during a broach a few days ago.
"Our prediction of the light-wind conditions we experienced overnight was spot on and, although we have had a shocking night in comparison to those around us, this, too, was an accepted part of the equation,"
Qingdao's skipper, Chris Stanmore-Major, reported to the race office this morning.
"With the northwest-southeast axis of this high-pressure lying directly across our path it would always be us to the north of the fleet that would get caught out first but it is our hope that those to the south of us will be caught later and for longer — allowing us to recapture our position or perhaps even gain some advantage," he said.
Edinburgh Inspiring Capital is slightly to the south of the Chinese entry and the crew have been busy throughout the last 48 hours adjusting their sail plan to the variable winds they have been experiencing.
"No sooner have we got the correct sail plan set and trimmed the wind changes again," said Edinburgh Inspiring Capital skipper, Matt Pike.
"The last sched shows it is fleet wide and with so few miles between us all it's time to plan the final push. Will the large high-pressure remain stationary and force us down and around or will it track back north and give us a shorter run in? How far into it dare we go before we lose the wind altogether? We have been caught by that one before.
“By the latest positions it looks like no one wants to gamble and we'll all be covering the positions of our rivals," he said.
California's crew has had much the same workout, according to skipper, Pete Rollason. "The crew has been doing a magnificent job with all the evolutions running like clockwork,” he said. “During one watch yesterday we put in and shook out numerous reefs, poled out the headsail a couple of times and every time we completed the task the wind would either shift, increase or decrease."
California has kept a fairly northerly position within the pack and, says Rollason, "We are cracking along, beating into a freshening northerly wind having had a good run overnight, taking some decent miles out of the fleet. We are tracking slightly north, as are the rest of the fleet and probably all trying to figure out how this high-pressure system is going to affect the outcome of Race 4."
The high could provide an interesting end to this leg, which has produced some edge-of-the-seat racing throughout the first 3000 of the 4700nm course.
"I believe it will be the deciding factor and whoever plays it well could make some massive gains," agrees Rollason.
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves as that is probably three or four days away and later tonight we are looking at 35-plus knots of wind (on the beam according to the forecast), which should make for a lively night and probably the last major blow of the Southern Ocean as we gradually track north to a warmer climate," he said.
While the rest of the fleet are preparing to leave the Southern Ocean, Hull & Humber's crew are just getting used to life below 40 degrees South and loving it, according to skipper, Piers Dudin.
"Visions of the Southern Ocean have become reality. It's easy to be poetic about what it's like down here. But really it's big winds, big waves, loads of birds and we're having big fun!
“We changed down to the Yankee 3 and three reefs as the wind increased throughout the day to a consistent Force 8.
“Early on, just as the second reef was about to go in Hull & Humber picked up to 28.4kts, sliding down an especially long wave with Charles Mischel on the helm. He was new to the boat in Cape Town but has become a fulltime member until San Francisco. 'Keep it straight,' was all I needed to say and he did exactly that as the waves in front were carved sideways.
"The wind's settled to a Force 6 now and during the night Mike's watch shook out the third reef and hoisted the staysail to help keep us on full pressure and course. We won't be here for long but the Southern Ocean certainly lives up to its legend," Dudin said.
The first yachts are due to reach Geraldton between December 14 and 18, with Cork and Hull & Humber due to arrive before Christmas.
Positions At 0900 UTC, Monday, December 7
1. Team Finland
2. Spirit of Australia
nm DTL +17nm
3. Uniquely Singapore
4. Cape Breton Island
nm DTL +56nm
5. Jamaica Lightning Bolt
7. Edinburgh Inspiring Capital
nm DTL +105nm
10. Hull & Humber
(DTF = Distance to Finish, DTL = Distance to Leader)
Full positions are updated every three hours and can be found at www.clipperroundtheworld.com