Rolling the dice in the Doldrums

Overnight position changes sweep the Transat Jacques fleets as going west pays big time

Friday November 14th 2003, Author: James Boyd/Mary Ambler, Location: Transoceanic
Sam Davies reports from on board Team Cowes

No 5am report yet but we're pretty happy with our gains so far tonight. Let's keep our fingers crossed for a swift Doldrums transition... Look's like we are about to get nailed by a big thunderstorm, so am sleeping in full kit on chart table seat - just in case. Don't want to leave Nick on his own out there. It has been an electric atmosphere out here tonight - literally.

I have just come off the helm, where it is pitch black outside. We are right on the edge with the big spinnaker up, pushing it as high and fast as we dare. It is really difficult to steer, with so little visibility - you are using the instruments and the feel of the wind on your face to steer the boat as there is not even a horizon to see. There are some nice waves and you can eaasily get 20 knots on a surf, but you must be careful not to get stuck too high on the wave (risk of wipeout / spinnaker collapse, damage to boat) or too low at the end of the wave (dog slow.)

So, it is full-on concentration - 100%. The sky is electric too - lit up by continuous flashes of electrical activity (I guess due to the heat and moisture content up there.)
We are nervous that there may be some squalls around, but we can't see enough to make out any cloud formation, so it is aa little like sailing blind. We mustn't get caught out in a squall with all this sail up, so we must be aware and on our toes. The kite is ready to drop (the takedown line already loaded on the winch) but we can't drop it unless we really have to because we must keep going as fast as we can to get past the boats to the east of us. We need to get ahead as much as possible because once we are out of the Doldrums there will be little opportunity to pass, and we know that we are not quite as fast as them in a straight line.

So, that is us for the night - an adrenaline-fuelled roller-coaster ride on the edge - what fun. I'm off to get some rest before it's my turn to drive again.

From Mike Golding on board Ecover

Finally we have arrived in the Doldrums, feared for it's calms and equally feared but less well known for it's violent squalls. Arriving here has been especially difficult for us as we have had to contend with sailing downwind with an imperfect sail wardrobe against some of the best downwind sail boats in the world. We have held our own and feel rightly pleased that we have done so. Now we are moving into a heading breeze as the Doldrums separates the NE Trade winds of the Northern Hemisphere and the SE Trades of the Southern. This is good news for us as we are now back into a nominal sailing mode and can again begin to see what our new Ecover is capable of.

The leader Virbac seems impossibly far ahead, at over 100 miles, but we have closed her down by 100 miles in the last 48hrs so even this is not completely unreachable.

Our nearest rival Sill is to the east of us, last minute jinks in our heading from the shore side weather routers have helped us to manipulate our position on the race track to put us on her right hand side. The latest model runs from Bracknell and the US have shown a slight but important advantage to this positioning. The last position report has confirmed that we have in fact now passed Sill putting us back into 2nd place.

Also on the move are Team Cowes who have held an enviable westerly position for many days, now it ses to be coming good for them as today they past VMI and closed with PRB in 4th.

As we track south through this area we are watching clouds moving in from the east, each one could bring either a calm or a squall - we have our biggest sails set and being caught could spell disaster. During the day these clouds predominantly look friendly, but at night even the most benign clouds take on a look of murderous intent and we both watch with extra vigilance and increased adrenaline.

As I write we are south of 6N, we will not certainly be clear of the Doldrums for another 300 miles, but when we are we will be met by the clear soft SE trade winds which will slowly lift us on the final stage towards Salvador. Can we catch Virbac? Who knows - we need some luck and while sailing is a cruel game, but over the course of time it generally distributes its cruelty fairly - Virbac may be due some misfortune!.

It is sweltering on board now; we dithered about whether to fit fans back in Le Havre, something I now regret deeply. Our one chance of respite is a passing rain shower to both cool and cleanse us. Hygiene is at best difficult, we run with the minimum of water to save weight and the best a man can get around here is a rub down with a wet wipe. - and there's no nice way to put it - the boat stinks and all I pray for is a timely shower so that the race committee don't have to bear the full brunt of three weeks at sea when they jump aboard in Brazil.

Food is becoming more basic, though I think tomorrow we will be able to enjoy a bacon omelette for breakfast one of the few remaining luxuries. Luckily on this I did not dither and luxuries were brought on board aplenty. But now these are either used or adding to the general bad smell below deck and our thoughts are increasing directed towards the steaks and fresh foods we will find on our arrival in Brazil.

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