Wrong way around the high
Since the second day of racing in Leg 1 of the doublehanded, Class40 Global Ocean Race, third place has been held by the New Zealand-Spanish team of Conrad Colman and Hugo Ramon with their Akilaria RC2 Class40, Cessna Citation. Since the two leading boats in the GOR fleet crossed the Leg 1 finish line in Cape Town on Friday, Colman and Ramon have held pole position in the main pack of four Class40s, but after 35 days of racing, the two former Mini 6.50 sailors dropped from third to fourth place at 09:00 GMT on Monday morning, as they were overtaken by Marco Nannini and Paul Peggs on Financial Crisis.
Colman and Ramon have been isolated to the north of the GOR fleet in headwinds since opting to head east nine days ago and sail north of the high-pressure system blocking the route to the finish line in Cape Town. While Cessna Citation beat endlessly to the northeast, away from the finish, Financial Crisis, Phesheya-Racing and Sec. Hayai dropped south, hunting for stronger breeze below the system close to the Roaring Forties. Despite tacking back onto port on Saturday, Colman and Ramon’s loss of miles as they scrambled to get south has been dramatic and disappointing for the team, while the three remaining Class40s have been averaging a solid ten knots for the past two days with Nannini and Peggs polling 11 knots for much of Sunday, destroying the lead boat’s advantage.
With the four boats locked in a procession with no change on the GOR leaderboard for almost 30 days, the second wave of Class40s are now closing up with 1,200 miles to the finish. GOR Race Director, Josh Hall, explains the background: “The race leaders BSL and Campagne de France benefitted from a corridor of strong, favourable wind that allowed them to carve a high-speed wake across the South Atlantic towards Cape Town,” says Hall. “Unfortunately for the other four boats in the GOR fleet, the wind gods closed the door on them and they have had to struggle through some unusual conditions including some rather brutal and slowing headwinds in an area which should have provided downhill trade winds.”
With the two leading Class40s building a 1,600 mile lead by the time Ross and Campbell Field on BSL took the leg 1 gun off Cape Town on Friday, the second pack had been struggling with increasingly unusual weather conditions for over a week: “Subsequently, the dominant weather system feature here, the South Atlantic High, which is usually centred close to the island of St Helena, has established itself mid-ocean and much further south - along the latitude of Cape Town itself,” Hall continues. “Cessna Citation, who have had a firm grip on third place for much of Leg 1, chose a northerly option some days ago, but with the prospect of a 2,000 mile upwind beat all the way to the finish line, they have now bailed out, heading south and have subsequently relinquished their position.” The outlook for Colman and Ramon is far from clear: “It could well get worse for Cessna Citation as the other three boats took the southerly option early on and are already benefitting from much more favourable wind directions as they skirt underneath the anti-clockwise rotating high pressure - more miles, but much faster sailing,” explains the GOR Race Director.
At the 14:00 GMT position poll on Monday, Nannini and Peggs on Financial Crisis had built a 45 mile lead over Cessna Citation with Phesheya-Racing in fifth 138 miles behind the new leaders and Nico Budel and Ruud van Rijsewijk on Sec. Hayai in sixth trailing the South African team by 45 miles.
On Cessna Citation, Colman and Ramon have been waiting for the moment to move south. Hugo Ramon explains: “We’ve timed our descent exclusively through studying the movement of the high-pressure and second-guessing what Financial Crisis and Phesheya-Racing will do,” he says. “The closer we can sail between 140 to 150°, the better, and we can cut the corner, intercept the other boats and avoid losing too many miles to them.” Currently, Cessna Citation is just off the target on a heading of 155°, sailing slightly further south than their desired course. “We do run the risk of getting snared by the calm area near the centre of the high,” he continues. “If we free-off and plummet south, we’ll go faster and avoid the risk of the high, but lose a lot of miles to the others. So, we’re constantly watching the barometer to give us an idea of the system’s proximity. At the moment, we’re in 1029 and the centre of the high is 1032mb. As the winds are a bit stronger and a bit more east than north, it looks like the system is heading east towards Africa. If this is the case, we’ve got a good chance to catch them.”
With Financial Crisis in third and Phesheya-Racing in fifth both averaging over 10 knots and Sec. Hayai in sixth averaging just under 10 knots with the four boats spread over 183 miles, Leg 1 is now up for grabs: “The game is wide open for the four boats,” predicts Josh Hall. “Who arrives in which position will depend much on their downwind sailing abilities and capabilities,” he believes. “The high is due to move slowly east towards Cape Town and elongate, offering reaching, then broad reaching and finally dead downwind sailing. The latter is very difficult for these asymmetric boats and the balance between high, fast gybe angles and miles made good down the track will be a tough one which will stretch their minds and sailing skills to the limit.” For Phesheya-Racing – where the bowsprit is unusable due to bobstay failure – the sailing angle will be dictated by the use of their spinnaker pole instead of the boat’s bowsprit. “Hand steering will no doubt be the order of the day for some time to come and any boats which have damaged spinnakers will be frantically stitching and gluing them together – if they can!”
Currently, speed is not an issue for the South African duo of Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire on Phesheya-Racing: “In the last 24 hours we’ve done 247 nautical miles,” reports Leggatt from the 2007 first generation Akilaria. “Not too bad for a 40-footer,” he adds. “The waves are about four metres high at the moment and the next 24 hours should be more interesting as the waves are getting bigger and we are getting some longer surfs, even though we don’t have very much sail area up,” he continues. “This makes life quiet exciting at sea!”
It is clear that none of the teams will back-off for the remaining miles – equivalent to two Rolex Fastnet Races – and with 36 days and 6,000 miles of hard racing completed, there is the additional risk of gear failure. On Cessna Citation, Conrad Colman had to climb the mast and swing across to the mainsail’s leech on Sunday in 25 knots of wind and an uncomfortable sea: “The lazyjacks for the mainsail became untied and subsequently tangled around the third reef point,” explains Colman. “This would have stopped us from reefing or dropping the main, so just before nightfall, I went up the mast to reassemble the system,” he says. “It was a tricky thing, hanging onto the leach of the main, trying not to break the battens, but afterwards we were able to reef without incident.”
For the GOR Race Director and the GOR teams already in Cape Town, the battle taking place 1,200 miles to the west is gripping: “These four boats and the unusual South Atlantic weather are serving race fans up with a fascinating week of racing,” says Josh Hall. “Brilliant to watch on our screens, but very testing for the crews. But then no-one said that racing around the world would be easy!”