Trailing boats find the breeze
After nearly ten days dicing with the multiple features and morphing personalities of a frustrating St Helena high, the majority of the leading pack of the Barcelona World Race can at least contemplate deliverance from its clutches, even if some have not yet started to feel the definitive westerlies which should accelerate them towards the course’s first security gate.
With a deep depression tracking to their south, by tomorrow evening the top nine boats at least should all have exchanged the stop-start progress of recent days, and the nail biting gains and losses to nearby boats, for the big oceanic swell, strong westerly and south winds, distinctive grey skies and cool temperatures and rapid sailing east towards the meridian of the Cape of Good Hope.
The vanguard of the fleet, Virbac-Paprec 3 have already hitched south to take early advantage of the strong westerly flow, co-skipper Jean-Pierre Dick noting today they should see the winds building consistently through this Monday, as they prepare to satisfy the first security gate of the race, which was some 250 miles to their east this afternoon.
“There is always more wind in the South, that is a given. A depression will come and we need to have the best angle to get to it. The wind gets up and it will not stop rising all day. And so through the course of the day it will become more and more interesting with the bigger swells of the south giving us more great surfing and why not beat a record? We left the front and have been wondering how we fared with Foncia, if we crossed them.
"Now the weather is quite nice but we are expecting greyer skies. Loïck saw a small seal this morning which dived, it was a nice moment. We don’t see any sails on the horizon, not just now.
"Virbac-Paprec 3 is an interesting boat. We have strived to reduce weight and keep it light, and is accelerates quicker with less sail power. But we have a strong but lighter structure, and in spite of the problem with the mainsail track which was torn off, we don’t have any worries. And certainly the speed potential is greater than the previous boat I had. It is wet in the middle of the boat but it is well managed because we have the closed pods on either side. Obviously when you have to go to the middle you are properly dressed, but this way it is configured means we can operate more easily, but I will hold off the progress report on the design of the boat until we have finished the race. It is already good to have 500 miles on the next boats, but the course is very long still. Things can happen just as they did with the mainsheet track, and we have scarcely done ¼ of the course, and so things will be tested for reliability
"The weather is already chilly, we have fleece gear on, its not yet the real cold, but I think that the temperature inside will be around 10 to 15 deg. It feels like spring or autumn in Brittany." We imagine this will include his dailysail woolly hat.
Spain’s Olympic 49er champions Iker Martinez and Xabi Fenandez, in third, have already enjoyed some fast sailing on the new, stronger westerly which is propelling them south and east, once more as the fleet’s fastest IMOCA Open 60, the duo approaching Gough Island this afternoon. They have gained some 45 miles on the leaders.
“We are already surfing like crazy people,” reported Martinez this afternoon, “But we are fortunate to have the ice gates and so we miss out on being much more to the South because there are forecasts of 50 knots and of those we do not want… These boats reach their terminal velocities with 25 to 30 knots and over that it gets difficult and serious problems can arise. So we try as far as possible to avoid winds of 40 knots, although sometimes you can’t. “
The passage through the Saint Helena high has been especially tough for some. Dominique Wavre and Michéle Paret on Mirabaud consider they have lost one and a half days on boats which were their near rivals. Wavre reported monitoring boats passing some 20 miles away making six knots of boat speed, while Mirabaud was stuck in mirror like calms, not a ripple on the water.
"We got ourselves planted in the middle of the bubble of high pressure with a speed of zero, so that was very irritating. That is the worst thing there is for a racing sailor, so our morale is somewhere down near our boots. We are getting moving with some westerly breeze which has appeared like oxygen, but looking at the rankings we have lost a day and a half. We are layering up a bit now, the sun is gone and the wind is chilly. We should get the northern edge of a depression, but I am very wary given our recent bad luck. We miss the little peaks that success brings. What the anticyclone reminds us it that you just have to live day to day because we are prisoners to the random weather conditions which we do not control," remarked a wearied, but objective Wavre, who finished third in the first Barcelona World Race and one week ago lay third. Mirabaud now lies seventh with a deficit now of 250 miles on third placed Mapfre.
The course of Renault ZE Sailing Team and her crew Toño Piris and Pachi Rivero has not been very different from that of Mirabaud and yet the Spanish duo are sixth, 40 miles ahead of the Swiss-French pair. Piris and Rivero are now only 53 miles behind Estrella Damm, previous race leaders.
Toño Piris commented: “We are sailing with Code Zero or A3, going from puff to puff, from gust of wind to gust of wind, and have finally getting more solid winds of the West. We try to more directly to the South because we are sure that the new wind will come from there and will begin to get a glimpse of the motorway”.
The big revelation of Tuesday will be the return to the screens of Foncia which is due to emerge from ghost mode on the 0400 GMT sched. The question will be how much they have tried to get south of Virbac-Paprec, and if this has paid off.
The first big storm of the south will help Mapfre catch the leaders a little more, but as the breeze rotates more to the southwest, the Roaring Forties will be in true voice with cold winds buffeting up with big squalls and disorderly seas. It will be something of a baptism of fire for those who have never been in the Forties and into the big south.
Iker Martinez reported: “Finally we have left the calms of Santa Helena behind us and already we are looking to the first big storm of the South. We are already surfing like crazy people, but we are fortunate to have the ice gates and so we miss out on being much more to the South because there are forecasts of 50 knots and of those we do not want… These boats reach their terminal velocities with 25 to 30 knots and over that it gets difficult and serious problems can arise. So we try as far as possible to avoid winds of 40 knots, although sometimes you can’t."
For the later boats this first deep, fast moving depression may be just too quick and they will be forced to wait for the next ‘train’ which could be Wednesday.
Andy Meiklejohn reported from Hugo Boss: “There hasn’t been a lot of stress or a lot of wind so we’re just trying to stay relaxed. We’re in the middle of the high pressure, or not quite the middle but all the boats are having to cross through it and so it’s quite light, quite flat water but the wind is very changeable in direction. There’s a lot of little puffs and shifts and things so you have to be on your toes and driving the boat most of the time to get the potential out of it.
“We have all the gear stacked right forward as far as we go in the bow. We have the boat tipped over with the keel, we have very flat sails up and basically the conditions just dictate where you can sail – you can’t sail very low, you can’t put up a spinnaker because it won’t fly, so really you’re just working as hard as you can with the limited options you have, and trying to get the best direction you can. So that’s very challenging.
“Sometimes you can set up a pilot and it’ll drive quite nicely with some small adjustments but other times depending on how the breeze is you’ve really got to be driving all time time.
“It’s quite tough because every boat has different wind and you’ve really got to look at the big picture. Where your position is on the racecourse by 20 or 30 miles makes a big difference in how you get through the light spots. There’s not a lot you can do about watching the other guys, because wherever you are on the water at the minute you’re pretty much locked in and you have to just sail with what you’ve got.
“The mood’s good, it always has been. We’re a little realistic about how we were going to do in that part of the race, so ambitions are not too high, which means mood swings aren’t too big. We’re just talking about everything and keeping on working, as we know all our opportunities are in the future, so we’re not getting too worried about what’s going on at the moment.
“We’ve both commented on how much easier it is [sailing two-up compared to fully crewed]: you have a chat, you decide, you do something. There’s no thinking about the 10 other guys who are in their bunk who you’ve got to wake up, and maybe some guys don’t want to do something and others do… you can get that whole mood go through the boat and it can be really hard to keep a positive mood or it can be really hard to calm people down if they’re excited. With two of you it’s very easy to balance things and very easy to make decisions.
“Physically we’re in great shape. The first few days of the race are always the hardest for that, Wouter had some sore wrists and I’ve got a bad knee that plays up, but after the first week or so those ailments calmed down and we’re actually feeling great. So we’re good to go, just looking forward to the Southern Ocean.”