Crossing the Indian Ocean

Keith Taylor updates us on the process of Great American II's Hong Kong to New York record attempt

Thursday April 10th 2003, Author: Keith Taylor, Location: Transoceanic
24°21'S 66°07'E / Indian Ocean -- The trimaran Great American II which is attempting to set a new sailing record from Hong Kong to New York today fell slightly behind the pace set by the current record holder 154 years ago.

Reporting today from the Indian Ocean, 1,000 miles south of the US military base in Diego Garcia, sailors Rich Wilson and Rich du Moulin said the ghost of the square-rigged clipper ship Sea Witch had passed them overnight on their 15,000-mile voyage to New York City.

A week ago the 53ft trimaran from Marblehead, MA, was clear of Sunda Strait at the south end of the China Sea and had broken into steady tradewinds after trailing Sea Witch by up to three days. Driven by the trades, the duo spurted a day and a half's sailing ahead of the record set by skipper Captain "Bully" Waterman, who raced his cargo of tea to New York's waiting markets in record time a century and a half ago. But Sea Witch's performance in the trades has proved stronger.

"As of noon yesterday Sea Witch's comparable position was just 10 miles behind us," Rich du Moulin reported by satellite email. "We estimate she passed us in the night and our chart now shows her out in the lead by 70 miles! We could imagine her silhouette moving past us on the horizon."

After logging a 300-mile day, Captain Waterman, in his log, preserved in the Peabody Museum in Salem, MA, reported his ship was carrying every stitch of canvas it could. "Strong trades all through (the day)," he noted. "Royal, studding sails and topgallant staysails set."

From their position about 1,000 miles east of Madagascar, skipper Rich Wilson reported that Great American II was treating the strong winds and big seas of the tradewinds with caution. However, with two reefs in the mainsail and carrying only a staysail, his vessel was making miles towards the Cape of Good Hope at a 10-knot average.

"At 180 feet in length, Sea Witch could span several waves; at 53ft, Great American II is affected by every one," Wilson said. "We are forced to be conservative and relatively slow, while the hard-charging Sea Witch had a great day's run in ideal conditions for her.

"Last night I could imagine her on the horizon. A sliver of moon barely lit the sky behind the heavy overcast, but there she was, where you wouldn't see a star, right on the horizon. It had to be her! Sea Witch all sails set and reflecting the glimmer of moonlight, charging hard in the SE trades.

"These were her conditions. She had been coming on strong for the last several days. Captain Waterman was surely on the windward deck, inspecting the set of every sail, and feeling every puff on his cheek. He was advising the helmsman nearly wave by wave. He would stand there for hours, making sure his ship was driving hard toward the Cape of Good Hope, making sure that these trades would not be wasted.

" GAII is gamely hanging on, but we are saving ourselves for the lighter breezes in which we excel. This is a race of strategy more than machismo, to go hard when you can make the easy miles, and to back off, when the sea state gets up and rattles her three hulls. Captain Waterman, hard driver that he was, also knew when to back off.

"Like a basketball team trying to stay close when the opponents make a run, we are trying to keep a good average speed so that when our chances in smoother seas come, we can make our own run.

"What a horse race! In marathon racing they talk of the rubber band, that a runner may sag back behind the leader, but always stay close enough to surge back. If the rubber band breaks, it is over; the trailer will just keep falling back further and further.

"Coming out of Sunda Strait, our rubber band was stretched to the max. If we had been another day and a half behind, perhaps we could not have pulled even; it would have been too much to make up, but fortunately it didn't and here we are, passed again, but still in a horse race.

"A huge high pressure system lies to the south of us and has just passed to the east. The winds are wrapping around it, and a frontal system lies several days ahead. As we exit the trades, we will come into more weather related decision-making, and our current direct course to Cape of Good Hope will not be so obvious.

"We must not get so far south that we encounter the strong westerlies coming off the South Atlantic, and we must not turn too early toward the west coast of Africa where we could fall into the light winds now forecast to be south of Madagascar in this new weather system.

"In the murk yesterday afternoon, I thought I saw a structure, and I wasn't even looking. Lo, a big automobile transport, but they wouldn't respond on VHF. Another ship, out of sight over the horizon did. She was a sugar carrier, from Sydney bound for Durban. We'll have to keep a very sharp lookout as we approach Cape of Good Hope with its heavy maritime commercial traffic."

While working watch and watch, around the clock, to get to New York as quickly as possible, Wilson and du Moulin have been busy corresponding with schoolchildren who are following their live adventure in a unique educational program called sitesALIVE! Children have emailed questions about sailing, life at sea, leaving port, and wildlife; both sailors have written back with answers to help make this voyage a vivid learning
experience for some 360,000 children.

Great American II is roughly half way across the Indian Ocean with 2,600 miles to go before reaching the southern tip of Africa, where they will turn north into the Atlantic Ocean. To beat Sea Witch's record of 74 days 14 hours, the two sailors must arrive in New York the week of May 26.

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