Heading for the gate

Beluga Racer still leading in the Portimao Global Ocean Race

Thursday April 30th 2009, Author: Ollie Dewar, Location: United Kingdom
With the leading boat in the Portimão Global Ocean Race fleet around 24 hours from crossing the vital Leg 4 scoring gate off Recife, Brazil, the atmosphere at front of the race is becoming intense. In the latest 0920 GMT position poll this morning, Boris Herrmann and Felix Oehme on Beluga Racer hold a lead of 30 mile over Felipe Cubillos and José Muñoz on Desafio Cabo de Hornos with both boats currently averaging nine knots.

Since overtaking the Chilean Class 40 late on Monday, Herrmann and Oehme built up a lead of 32 miles, consistently delivering the highest speeds in the fleet throughout Tuesday and Wednesday. Current weather models continue to conflict for the area off Brazil. However, Cubillos and Muñoz have reined in the German team and as the wind begins to drop to sub-ten knots and the loss of the Chilean’s heavy spinnaker earlier in the week becomes less of a handicap. The net result: the race for the gate is now wide open.

Crossing so close in front of the Chilean boat on Monday left a strong impression on the German duo: “The dark smudge on the horizon earlier this week could only have been the Chileans,” recalls Herrmann. “We were heading straight at them. Felix and I checked the bearing every minute and searched to see if there was someone on deck as the boat lifted into view on each surf.” Fixed on converging headings, the situation became tense. “If there was nobody on deck, we would have to make an avoiding manoeuvre despite being on starboard,” he continues. “The hair on our necks is standing up. Finally, as both our boats rose on waves simultaneously, we spotted two pairs of binoculars on the Chilean boat trained directly at us and we shot passed them only 50 metres in front, both crews waving and shouting greetings.”

For the German race leaders, taking maximum points at the gate would secure an almost unassailable grip on the overall points leaderboard, but Boris Herrmann is now cautious. “The challenge of the Southern Ocean is behind us,” he explained yesterday. “On the ascent from Cape Horn to Ilhabela we were probably still in deep sea mode. Now we have a different tempo onboard: an inshore regatta mindset.” The switch from ocean racing to inshore-style competition has highlighted the delicate balance the teams must maintain: “As we were hunting the Chileans in 20 knots of breeze and pushing hard, a thought occurred to me,” continues Herrmann. “Despite this overpowering urge to win, we still have to reach Portimão at the end of Leg 5. Even if we reach the scoring gate first or take first place in Charleston, there’s always the chance we might break the mast after Recife?” Any damage to the fleet at this stage of the circumnavigation will have serious implications. “This could ruin the overall points table completely,” admits the German skipper. “Could one of our Class 40 friends in America arrange the loan of a mast in one week?” he asks. “Our conclusion: we take each wave as it comes and say goodbye to the white surf as it rolls away behind us.”

Meanwhile, on Team Mowgli, 164 miles south of the double-handed fleet leaders, Jeremy Salvesen and David Thomson are recovering from a spinnaker drama. “We managed to twist the masthead spinnaker around the forestay with an hourglass shape towards the top and overlapping wraps half way up,” reported Salvesen yesterday. “We spent three of four hours sailing under full main alone while trying to fix the problem until light failed us,” he continues. “We were unable to go up the mast in the rough seas and with over 20 knots of wind we wouldn't have been able to sort out a big sail like that anyway.” The only option for the British duo was running for shelter. “So we put the staysail up and continued north, hoping for lighter winds and calmer seas.”

However, finding flat water was not simple. “We made first landfall just north of Ponta do Cacurucaia where there are a couple of small islands we hoped to be able to shelter behind,” reports Salvesen. “All the land there is low lying and offered no protection from the wind so we continued northwards with the intention of going into the main port of Santos.” This plan was still beset with problems. “We reached Santos at about 0400 local time in pitch darkness and proceeded up the main channel. We had checked the Admiralty Pilot book and had been warned that the entrance was tricky with sandbanks close by and within the main harbour itself.” As the 40-footer crept onwards, the tension grew. “There were ships everywhere at what is one of the main ports in Brazil,” says Salvesen. “At this time we didn't have detailed charts of the area either although these arrived later compliments of our sponsors at Riviera Charts - thank you Simon!”

Eventually, Team Mowgli found a small bay off the main shipping channel. “In the lee of the land the wind was now under five knots and it only took us just over an hour to sort the problem out and get underway once more,” recalls Salvesen. In the latest position poll, Salvesen and Thomson are 60 miles east of Salvador de Bahia making ten knots. “So, all is now well and we pushing hard to make up lost ground,” reassures the British skipper. Just over 80 miles north of Salvesen and Thomson, solo sailor Michel Kleinjans and Roaring Forty are averaging the best speed in the fleet at 10 knots and are only 83 miles behind the double-handed class leader as the Belgian single-hander delivers solid and consistent speeds and masterful seamanship.

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