Approaching the Canaries
At 17:00 GMT on Thursday, Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire finally found some breeze following a day locked in a windless bubble 40 miles off Morocco. As the South African duo picked up speed to six knots, sailing Phesheya-Racing directly away from the African coast into stronger breeze to the west, the fleet leaders in the doublehanded Global Ocean Race were 140 miles further south with Halvard Mabire and Miranda Merron on Campagne de France leading the fleet of six Class40s averaging between nine – 12 knots with a lead of nine miles over Ross and Campbell Field on BSL in second place.
Leggatt and Hutton-Squire were extremely relieved to be moving again: “We’ve enjoyed some pleasant sailing overnight,” confirmed Phillippa Hutton-Squire at midday on Friday as Phesheya-Racing gybed back towards Africa after a long gybe west. “We’re sailing in a northerly breeze of 10-12 knots which is great, but ahead of us looks like a minefield of windless areas that we will have to thread our way through very carefully.”
Weather files currently predict winds of around six knots for the duo’s route to the Canary Islands on Saturday. “Normally we should be sailing in reliable northeasterly Trade Winds, but as has been explained to us; the Trade Winds are never as reliable as people make out and they get their name from the fact that once you have experienced them, all you want to do is trade in your boat and buy a farm!” Despite the absence of northeasterly breeze, there is evidence that Phesheya-Racing is in the right neighbourhood: “During the past two nights we have had flying fishes land on deck,” Hutton-Squire reports. “This is a common occurrence in the Trade Wind areas and early morning is a good time to harvest them from the deck for breakfast. So far, the two that have landed on the boat have both managed to wriggle back in to the sea so, unfortunately, we will not be getting our dose of Omega-3 oils this morning.”
By midday GMT on Friday, the race leaders were closing in on the Canary Islands with Campagne de France 35 miles due north of Lanzarote holding an eight-mile lead over Ross and Campbell Field and BSL: “The past few days have revolved around sailing, eating and sleeping - the latter being something that got neglected at the beginning,” reports Miranda Merron. “We have been hand-steering almost all of the time since the start, changing sails whenever necessary, moving every single piece of moveable equipment in the boat to suit the conditions and looking at position reports every three hours to see the whereabouts of our playmates.”
Since exiting the Mediterranean on Monday, the distance between Campagne de France and BSL has rarely exceeded 10 miles and has been as little as one mile and the prospect of close racing for the entire 6,800 miles to the Leg 1 finish in Cape Town is a certainty. However, the three main islands in the Canary group lie directly in the fleet’s path and negotiating the archipelago is a huge tactical challenge and opportunity: “We are picking our way around an ominous looking cloud right now and soon we will be picking our way through the Canaries, notorious for enormous wind shadows which can take you prisoner for many hours.” The sun sets at around 19:00 GMT in the Canary Islands and rises at 07:00 GMT, so in addition to the wind shadows and anomalies produced by the landmasses of Lanzarote and Fuertaventura and the Las Cañadas range on Tenerife or Pico de las Nieves on Gran Canaria, the two lead Class40s will sail close to the islands in darkness with the additional risk of unlit fishing vessels and unmarked fishing pots.
In third place, the youngest GOR team of Conrad Colman and Hugo Ramon have been pushing hard with Cessna Citation, taking 10 miles out of the two leading Class40s in 24 hours. During this time, they were trying everything to coax extra speed from their Akilaria RC2: “Where has the moon gone?” queried Ramon on Thursday night. “We haven’t seen it since we left Palma,” he continued. “Thank heavens that we have luminescent bands on the sails for trimming and we don’t have to mess about with a torch.”
The two former Mini 6.50 sailors are now settling into a routine after five days at sea and the current focus is all about performance: “In our eagerness to reclaim lost miles we have defined our strategy for the next few days and we have dedicated ourselves to sail shape, sail choice and boatspeed. We have been alternating the asymmetric A2 and A3 constantly, matching the sail, the angle of the wind and the best route.”
Swapping spinnakers requires two on deck and some complex activity: “The A3 is furled on a bolt rope and the A2 is in a sock,” says Ramon. “This entails two different halyards – a double-purchase 2:1 for the furling sail and single-purchase halyard for the sail in the snuffer sock - but there is only one tackline at the end of the boom, so we can’t hoist them at the same time,” he explains. “You’ve got to take one down before the next one goes up.” To avoid sailing bareheaded during the manoeuvre, Colman and Ramon deploy a third headsail: “So that we don’t lose any speed, we use the Solent which is totally independent of the other two sails and can be hoisted easily.”
During the rigorous routine of sail changes, Colman had time to ponder the unusual weather conditions in the North Atlantic: “Hugo and I have already raced down this coast of Africa - three times in Hugo’s case - and this time has thrown a big curve ball,” admits the 27 year-old Kiwi. “In order to sail around the world, or indeed cross the street, one has to have a basic understanding of the standard patterns that make the world work,” he explains. “This comes from experience and creates a sense of prejudice, not in the negative political sense, but as a way of quickly categorising the world so we can get on with our day without being floored with surprise that the sky is blue and big dogs bark loudly.” When applied to sailing, there are numerous, embedded preconceptions: “We presume that there is a big high-pressure zone located over the Azores that feeds stable wind down through the Atlantic islands and along the African coast,” reasons Colman. “The fairy tale continues with the fabled St Helena High that controls the Trade Winds in the South Atlantic and with these presumptions in mind, we have all gone and built flat, ocean-going surfboards that cruise at great speeds downwind, but are pretty horrible at going upwind.”
A few hours after the GOR fleet started Leg 1 from Palma, Mallorca, last Sunday, the Mini 6.50 fleet crossed the Mini Transat start line in La Rochelle on the French Biscay coast, heading for their Leg 1 destination in Madeira with a low pressure system blocking their path. “They will now be painfully picking their way down the Portuguese coast, slamming and banging their little eggshells in a desperate bid to make gains to the south,” Colman predicts. “With conditions so far from what they were told at bedtime, I don't think that any Mini sailors out there now believe in the surfing fairy tale or the Easter Bunny! So, don't go west looking for those fairy tale conditions because you'll be disappointed and might learn some hard truths about Santa Claus,” he concludes. “Stay on this side of the ridge, suck in your gut, and squeeze down along the African coast as we plan to do shortly.”
Trailing Colman and Ramon by 14 miles in the 15:00 GMT position poll on Friday, Marco Nannini and Paul Peggs in fourth place are becoming restless on their first generation Akilaria, Financial Crisis: “Today it has been as uneventful as watching grass grow,” Nannini reported on Friday afternoon. “We debated for hours which side of an island 100 miles away we were going to pass, then we rested some more.” Only the prospect of a boat-to-boat skirmish quickened the pulse: “The only excitement has been a close encounter with a fishing boat, unusually small for the distance from the coast, no radar, no AIS and given the risk of small-time piracy in the area we got quite excited imagining a Star Wars-style fight with flares as light sabres - led by Clubby the Seal with his natural, white starship trooper-look.”
In the 15:00 GMT position poll on Friday, Campagne de France has gybed onto port just off the small island of Alegranza north of Lanzarote holding a seven-mile lead over BSL with the Kiwi team making the better speed at 8 knots in the 10-15 knot northerly breeze. Cessna Citation in third trails the lead Class40 by 48 miles maintaining a 14 mile lead over Financial Crisis in fourth. Meanwhile, 157 miles north of Nannini and Peggs, Phesheya-Racing in fifth place is making 4.8 knots, 41 miles ahead of Nico Budel and Ruud van Rijsewijk with Sec. Hayai.