Bangs and pings

580 miles left to go for Portimão Global Ocean Race leader

Wednesday June 17th 2009, Author: Ollie Dewar, Location: United Kingdom
With 580 miles of the Portimão Global Ocean Race remaining for front runner, Desafio Cabo de Hornos, the fleet leaders have now turned south-east and are heading directly for the finish line on the southern tip of Portugal as, late on Tuesday evening, the double-handed fleet hardened up in the south-westerly breeze and began their descent towards Portimão with a zone of light and highly unpredictable weather ahead.

In the latest 0620 UTC position poll on Wednesday (17/06), the Chilean duo of Felipe Cubillos and José Muñoz on Desafio Cabo de Hornos have just shown the first indication that the light breeze has arrived and having consistently polled the highest speeds in the fleet since Sunday afternoon, their pace has dropped from 11 knots to 8.5 knots in the past three hours. However, the Chilean’s ability to stay in stronger breeze has seen Cubillos and Muñoz add 63 miles to their lead over Boris Herrmann and Felix Oehme on board second place Beluga Racer in the past 24 hours and the bright red, South American Class 40 now leads the double-handed fleet by 153 miles.

Currently separated by 131 miles, Beluga Racer and the British duo of Jeremy Salvesen and David Thomson on Team Mowgli in third place have also seen speeds diminish with the German team slowing two knots to just under six knots in the latest poll and Salvesen and Thomson grinding down to 4.7 knots. While the double-handed boats head into the dead zone of the Azores High, solo sailor Michel Kleinjans is making the best speed in the fleet at nine knots as Roaring Forty – furthest south and 150 miles west of Flores in the Azores Archipelago – rides around 10 knots of south-westerly breeze directly above the centre of the high pressure system.

For Kleinjans, 370 miles west of Team Mowgli, Leg 5 has become a trial of endurance, ingenuity and patience. After breaking his starboard D1 six days ago, the Belgian yachtsman fitted lines and blocks to replace the vital piece of rigging supporting the lower section of the mast and was confident that the jury rigged system would hold until reaching Portimão. On Friday, however, the communications system on Roaring Forty failed. “He has no email capability,” confirmed Kleinjans’ wife, Marlene, last night. “But he is well and everything is OK.” The fixed Iridium satellite phone on board the Open 40 has broken – possibly through water ingress sustained after the collision with a container ship in Leg 4 – and Kleinjans has switched to his, backup, handheld satellite phone.

This problem may seem minor, but the reality is harsh. The handheld unit has a small antenna and as the Belgian Open 40 is constructed entirely of carbon fibre – a material that blocks any satellite signal - Kleinjans must sit in the cockpit of Roaring Forty and attempt to make calls. The fixed antenna system was linked to the onboard computer at the chart table and was the main communications route for all emails including weather updates and position reports. Since the system failure, Kleinjans has called his weather router for meteo updates and his wife for position reports. “Michel is coping well and realises that in the grand scheme of things, this is not such a big problem,” reports Marlene.

With a long history of offshore racing, Kleinjans is accustomed to the hardship and setbacks of single-handed racing, but his major concern at the moment is food for the remaining 1,200 miles ahead. “I had to leave Charleston a few days before the start of Leg 5 and was unable to help him with shopping for supplies,” continues Marlene. “The food he has on board is – shall we say – a little repetitive and he is getting very bored of eating the same food every day!”

Although Felipe Cubillos and José Muñoz have outpaced Beluga Racer over the past few days, the Chileans realise that the German team’s spreader damage is a contributing factor. “For us it is quite clear that the German boat is carrying less sail than us and they are protecting their mast,” reports Cubillos. “Meanwhile, on board our boat, everything is going well and we have three main preoccupations,” he explains. “First of them is that we are a little tired. Since the beginning of the leg we have been without any main electrics and this has forced us to helm the boat without rest. Now that we are in spinnaker territory, we change watch every three hours. It’s a little bit like the closing stages of Leg 3 before finishing in Ilhabela,” he recalls. “Last night it was very dark with the boat sailing at 15 knots and we couldn’t see a thing and without instruments, it was – you might say – quite interesting!”

With speeds now dropping for Desafio Cabo de Hornos, the legacy of the Azores High remains a tactical priority. “The second preoccupation is that we know that ahead us there is a zone of calm that all the boats will have to face,” predicts the Chilean skipper and current weather models suggest that the breeze could drop to around five knots for the Chileans by Wednesday evening UTC. “After this light patch, the new wind settles in and should take us all the way to Portimão,” summarises Cubillos. “But what is going to happen when we hit this area is a mystery. In any case, we know that the boats coming from behind are going to catch up as we will be the first boat to hit the area of light breeze.” There is, however, a bright side to the situation. “If everything goes well, we will also be the first to leave,” he adds.

“The third preoccupation is that we are in a zone that is heavily populated by whales,” notes Cubillos. “Now, we understand that they were hunted almost to extinction, but they are everywhere, which is OK….during daylight. The water spouts they blow can be clearly seen on the horizon and this morning we have already seen three whales: one of them was directly off the bow.” Consequently, the danger of a collision is a constant worry for the Chilean team. “Therefore, we are permanently watching out for them,” reassures Cubillos. “At night it’s a different matter and there is nothing we can do. In fact, it’s better to try and not think about it.”

Despite constant vigilance on board, Desafio Cabo de Hornos suffered a collision. “I don’t want to dramatise this risk, but it’s a fact of life,” continues Cubillos. “Indeed, on Monday morning we did hit a whale, pretty hard too,” he confirms. “We had the spinnaker up doing 15 knots and we suddenly hit something and the boat was quickly broaching out of control. At first, I thought we had run aground, but José disagreed and when we checked the depth, we had 1,800 metres under the keel.” Having quickly recovered from the incident, the Chilean team reached a conclusion. “We think the answer is we hit the whale with the keel bulb which drops three metres below the hull and this gave a sensation like running aground in soft sand,” says Cubillos.

Had the Chilean Class 40 collided with a whale on the surface at 15 knots, this impact at the waterline could have had extremely serious consequences with potential structural failure to the yacht, personal injury and possible mast damage or dismasting from the whiplash shock of slamming from 15 knots to zero boat speed. “We’ve checked the keel and everything seems to be alright,” he reports. “However, if the whale had been on the surface and not three metres down, I very much doubt you would be reading this email now.”

Leaderboard 0620 UTC Wednesday 17 June:

Double-handed class
1. Desafio Cabo de Hornos – DTL 0.0nm Spd 8.5 kts
2. Beluga Racer – DTL 153nm Spd 5.9 kts
3. Team Mowgli – DTL 284nm Spd 4.7 kts
Single-handed class
1. Roaring Forty – DTL 0.0nm Spd 9 kts

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