Return to the Southern Ocean
The Velux 5 Oceans resumes on Sunday with the start of leg two from Cape Town to Wellington, New Zealand, a 7,000 mile long course via the notorious Indian Ocean section of the Southern Ocean.
This section of the race course has been the downfall of many a skipper in the 28 years of the Velux 5 Oceans. In the 1994 BOC Challenge after her decisive win in the opening leg, French solo sailing legend Isabelle Autissier’s yacht Ecureuil Potiou Charentes II was dismasted and later severely damaged south of Australia in horrendous conditions. The Australian rescue authorities mounted a huge effort in order to rescue Autissier. 12 years later British solo sailing veteran Mike Golding carried out a heroic rescue of fellow competitor Alex Thomson deep in the Southern Ocean following keel failure on Thomson’s Hugo Boss. No sooner had Thomson been rescued than Golding’s own Ecover was cruelly dismasted 1,000 nautical miles from Cape Town.
One man who knows firsthand the dangers and challenges that lie ahead for the ocean racers is Velux 5 Oceans Race Director David Adams, a veteran of two editions of the race and winner of class two in 1994 event, then known as the BOC Challenge. “Ocean sprint two is probably the most physically demanding,” Adams explained, referring to the second leg. “It’s a very tough leg. It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s wet, the sea is a nasty green colour and it is ferocious. For the whole sprint these sailors will be down in the Roaring Forties and the Screaming Fifties.
“It’s a very daunting challenge, but it is also the reason you do this race – good speeds, big surfing waves and the weather is behind you pushing you where you want to go. There are the high points and the low points but then there’s this whole other factor to content with: the ice. There are icebergs out there but nobody really knows where they are. You’ve got to be watching all the time, and that’s a real problem.”
After setting sail from Cape Town on 12 December, the five Eco 60s will head into the Southern Ocean. To minimise the risk of sailing through the most potentially dangerous iceberg-littered section of the Southern Ocean, the boats must stay north of the Kerguelen Islands.
With the reduced danger of ice come more problems. “It’s not so much the wind that is the problem, it’s the size of the seas,” says Adams. “If you happen to get to the Kerguelen Islands at the wrong time, when there’s a low pressure system, it’s really nasty. You’ve got this ocean that is up to four miles deep and then you get to the Kerguelen Islands and it goes to 100 metres. The waves just stand up like four or five storey buildings just coming right for you. You just listen to the roar of the waves as they are coming and you just have to work with them.”
After rounding the Kerguelen Islands the racers will then dip south again to pick up the strongest winds to power them to Wellington. “Sometimes it will be blowing so hard that even with no sails up whatsoever the boats will be doing 10, 12, maybe 15 knots,” Adams adds. “Getting through ocean sprint two is a real skill – it’s all about risk management. The really skilful guys will know when to push hard and when to ease off and just get through the weather systems.”
The organisers have prudently added a safety gate south of Cape Leeuwin, the most south-westerly point of Australia which will further help to keep the boats away from icebergs and will also keep the race course closer to the Australian rescue authorities.
A timed run between longitudes 50 East and 75 East will test the skippers’ speed and provide an opportunity to win bonus points.