Leaders closing on Fernando de Noronha gate

Global Ocean Race mid-fleet stuck in the Doldrums

Wednesday October 12th 2011, Author: Ollie Dewar, Location: none selected

As the double-handed, Class40 leaders in the Global Ocean Race dig into the southeast trades, the two mid-fleet boats are snared by the Doldrums with the fleet tail-enders piling into the pack.

Overnight and into Wednesday morning, Halvard Mabire and Miranda Merron succeeded in pushing their Pogo 40S² Campagne de France around one knot faster than Ross and Campbell Field on BSL, banking an extra handful of miles between sunset and sunrise and leading the GOR fleet by 28 miles at dawn. Conrad Colman and Hugo Ramon, in third with Cessna Citation, dug into the Doldrums early on Tuesday, but by Wednesday morning, speeds were falling to below three knots with their new Akilaria RC2, dropping the New Zealand-Spanish team back to 228 miles behind BSL.

For Marco Nannini and Paul Peggs, entering the Doldrums saw a rapid loss of speed and miles following impressive gains as their relatively heavy first generation Akilaria Financial Crisis dropped to just over one knot of boatspeed losing 44 miles to Colman and Ramon in 24 hours and trailing Cessna Citation by 114 miles on Wednesday morning. Meanwhile, the fleet’s two other first generation Akilarias, Phesheya-Racing in fifth and Sec. Hayai in sixth, were piling down from the north in decreasing breeze, taking a massive 100 miles from Nannini and Peggs in 24 hours as the Italian-British team remained stalled.

Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton slowed at midnight on Phesheya-Racing as they ran into the 200-mile wide band of light airs trapping Cessna Citation and Financial Crisis. By dawn on Wednesday, the South Africans where making below three knots, trying to head west away from the wind vacuum as the Dutch duo of Nico Budel and Ruud van Rijsewijk with Sec. Hayai closed up the gap to 16 miles behind Leggatt and Hutton-Squire.

Throughout Wednesday, Campagne de France and BSL averaged between eight and nine knots with Mabire and Merron gradually adding to the distance ahead of Ross and Campbell Field with BSL. By 15:00 GMT both Class40s were making nine knots with the distance deficit at 31 miles. With Campagne de France the windward boat taking the inside track to the Fastnet Marine Insurance Scoring Gate at Fernando de Noronha, there was already an advantage: “The right leg gets a bit longer as the left one shortens,” confirmed Mabire in an email at noon on Wednesday. Both Class40s have found that the south east trades are, in fact, a little southerly, meaning a wind angle of around 60° and a lumpy sea state: “We point the bow into the waves and the rest of the boat follows, using her shoulders to barge through the unruly crowd of waves,” Mabire explains. Coming off the back of a wave badly is deeply unpleasant: “With such a wide hull, the boat, like most Class40s, is a mackerel slapper as she hits the water,” continues Mabire. “Overall, at the moment, the experience is like riding in a rodeo with a fire hose trained on you.” The duo spend time in such conditions sheltered in the fixed, see-through shelter at the forward end of the cockpit. “It’s good to stay outside and watch the water shooting over your head as the inside of the boat is certainly dry, but it is extremely hot and humid.”

One setback for Mabire is remaining stable at the nav station: “One of the hardest tricks is to type on a keyboard as the boat bounces around,” he admits. “It’s fortunate that the backspace key is a larger target than most other keys and it is relatively easy to remove the rogue letters that appear in my text by magic.” In the 15:00 GMT poll, Campagne de France was just one mile north of the Equator – the traditional location for offerings to the god of the sea. However, Mabire has a request ready for crossing the line: “I would ask Neptune to rock us a little less violently as we really haven’t had that much sleep since the start,” he reports. “So, please, Neptune, if you could stop shaking my bed about in such an irritating and persistent manner, it would be much appreciated!”

While too much motion was a problem on Campagne de France, the opposite was true for Marco Nannini and Paul Peggs: “Today was a very slow day, so slow that jokes made yesterday have not yet been understood,” reported Nannini on Tuesday evening. “We knew we had to go through this light patch, but we hoped we’d keep moving. We worked three days to get closer to Cessna and at 09:00 we were again just 66 miles behind and closing in.” However, progress was cut short swiftly: “Then we stopped in a windless slop where the only two or three knots of breeze came from where we wanted to go to and so light was the air that we could only sail at 90 degrees left or right of where we were headed.” The result was very disappointing: “We lost 15 miles to Cessna in just three hours… hopefully darkness will bring some wind, it has done so every day so far.” Unhappily for Financial Crisis, no breeze arrived and a further 20 miles was added to the loss by dawn.

Eventually, Nannini and Peggs found some breeze at midday on Wednesday, although, 104 miles further south, Cessna Citation was welded to the sea: “The Doldrums have struck seriously,” confirmed Conrad Colman on Wednesday morning. “We are now in the same position as BSL and Campagne de France were when they found their stable wind and took off like scalded cats. We, on the other hand, have not been so fortunate and are glued in place.” Colman and Ramon began a desperate search: “All night, Hugo and I skirted the edges of raining clouds like Victorian beggar children, hoping to find scraps of breeze to satisfy our hunger for wind,” says Colman. However, the hunt was fruitless: “All we did was get wet, and the novelty of showering with no wind is wearing thing.”

Completely static in the middle of the Atlantic, a diversion was required, fast: “Instead of despairing and counting the bubbles float languidly by, I went swimming!” Colman explains. “I swam around the boat half a dozen times and then put in some long hitches away from the boat in order to get some exercise in. Hugo and I did a lot of physical training before the race but now, two weeks in, our legs have forgotten how to walk more than seven paces at a time.” In the 15:00 GMT position poll, Nannini and Peggs continue to make six knots, reducing the gap to Cessna Citation to 88 miles while Colman and Ramon remain stuck, making under two knots.

Back in the UK, round-the-world yachtswoman, GOR Race Ambassador and nominee for the 2011 Rolex World Sailor of the Year Award, Dee Caffari has been following the fleet: “As temperatures drop in the UK and we see the nights draw in and the mornings get a little darker already, we await the clocks to change,” says Dee. “For the teams in the Global Ocean Race, they are battling the intense heat of the Equator, with relentless heat from the sun during the day and dark, inky black nights. The only break they are getting from the unforgiving scorching heat is from the towering clouds that deliver thunder and lightning, rain squalls and big wind shifts.” Caffari is especially aware of the struggle facing the four GOR boats still locked in the Doldrums: “This infamous zone of the Doldrums is tougher to sail in than a Southern Ocean depression,” she believes. “The GOR sailors will be working harder to achieve very few miles and frustration builds. Huge clouds that dump loads of wind are closely followed by those clouds that suck all the wind away leaving the boat speed battling to get above zero.”

During the second week of Leg 1, the GOR fleet was forced close to the African coast and Caffari identifies this route, caused by light winds further offshore, as the cause of the problematic transit south: “The passage down to the Doldrums made the sailors remain quite far to the east so their quest to get west for the best crossing has been tough,” she explains. “The leading pack has now escaped the clutches of this fickle area and they’re enjoying the refreshing breeze and heeled angle of upwind sailing as they push for the first scoring gate,” Caffari continues. “The back runners have made a good move getting west while they still can and those left floundering in the middle are desperate to get south and leave the Doldrums behind. As is always the case, as the front runners break free they easily reduce the miles to the finish and the slow boat speeds of those behind can only watch as the gap gets bigger.”

Meanwhile, having come to an abrupt halt at dawn, Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire were up to six knots by midday. “The last 24 hours has been all about having the right sail up at the right time and being on the right gybe or tack,” explained Hutton-Squire. “We had six hours of rain last night where we didn’t see the moon at all.” It is the 28 year-old co-skipper’s first trip through the Doldrums: “I’ve been very surprised at how beautiful it is,” she comments. “One moment you are sailing in the most glorious weather with the most incredible clouds that tower above you, but don't be deceived by this as the enormous clouds can quickly disappear or they can be full of wind and rain.” Despite the appealing scenery, the South African are always alert. “It can be very dangerous if you don't watch out,” she warns. “Nick and I have both been awake most of the night on watch together, helming, trimming and making what we think is the most appropriate sail change.” At 15:00 GMT, Phesheya-Racing had slowed to under two knots with Sec. Hayai closing down to just two miles behind the South Africans.

As part of the Eyes of the Ocean project organised by the GOR and the Environmental Investigation Agency, Hutton-Squire is ceaselessly logging observation: “There has been a lot of sea weed since we entered the Doldrums,” she notes. “Big patches of it. It’s almost like a fishing boat came and turned up the sea bed, but the sea bed is over 4,000 metres deep here so that cannot be possible.” Wildlife, though, has been on the decrease: “We haven’t seen a single flying fish and the boat has been free of the smell of dead fish since the rain squall last night. Rather pleasant!”

While the GOR fleet leaders have 220 miles remaining to the Fastnet Marine Scoring Gate at Fernando de Noronha off the coast of Brazil, the leading pack in the GOR’s Virtual Race have 330 miles remaining. Led by Tronquitc, only one mile ahead of francois31Danfers in second, with the front five virtual Class40s spread over 22 miles, the online fleet leaders took a route far further west of the Cape Verde Islands than any of the GOR fleet before heading south and committing to the Doldrums.

The GOR game’s software includes Class40 polars and real-time weather files, supplying the virtual yachts with similar performance and wind conditions to the real boats. As a result, the real and virtual fleet leaders are making very similar speeds in the sprint to the Fastnet Marine Insurance Scoring Gate with Campagne de France and BSL averaging nine knots and the virtual race leaders averaging 8.5 knots.

It should be noted that while the GOR fleet have a small scoring gate, the GOR’s Virtual Race has a considerable larger gate stretching from Fernando de Noronha west to the Brazilian coast to accommodate a fleet that currently stands at 1,060 entries. While there are prizes for the podium yachts in each leg of the Virtual GOR, the overall virtual winner for the complete circumnavigation over five legs will be decided on the best-of-three legs, so it isn’t too late to sign-up.

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