Past the ice gate

As Merron and Mabire extend in the Global Ocean Race

Wednesday December 7th 2011, Author: Ollie Dewar, Location: none selected

As the sun rose over the Global Ocean Race fleet at 02:00 GMT on Wednesday morning, the five Class40s were approaching the eastern extremity of the GOR’s Leg 2 ice limit in the Western Indian Ocean at 49°E. At the front of the fleet, Halvard Mabire and Miranda Merron on Campagne de France had extended their lead since overtaking Conrad Colman and Sam Goodchild with Cessna Citation just under 24 hours earlier and Ross and Campbell Field on BSL in third continued in their role as southernmost boat in the fleet with the leading trio separated by 19 miles after eight days at sea. Trailing the Fields by 191 miles, Marco Nannini and Hugo Ramon on Financial Crisis in fourth place squeezed three miles into their lead over Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire on Phesheya-Racing overnight and were seven miles ahead of the South African team at dawn.

Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire are familiar with high-latitude sailing, but the environment at 41°S is always spectacular, if a little grey: “A watery sun rose through dawn drizzle which later gave way to low grey clouds,” reported Nick Leggatt on Wednesday morning. “The sea is a similar slate colour and early on it was uncomfortably confused and choppy, but it’s now settled into a more regular pattern and Phesheya-Racing is starting to move along nicely again.” Sailing 960 miles south of Madagascar, the closest landmass to Leggatt and Hutton-Squire is the Prince Edward Islands, currently 360 miles off their starboard quarter. “A quick glance at the chart showed the reason for the rough patch of water earlier on - we had just crossed the Southwest Indian Ridge where the bottom of the sea suddenly rises from 3,000 or 4,000 metres deep to as little as 175 metres in the space of a few miles, before plunging back down again,” explains Leggatt who sailed over a particularly shallow area of the ridge known as the Discovery Fracture Zone. “We were lucky to cross the shallow waters on a relatively benign day, when it was just uncomfortable - in a gale, it can churn up very steep waves.”

Studying the electronic chart, Leggatt’s mind began to wander: “What if you changed our latitude from south to north and the longitude from east to west?” he asks. “Interestingly, you would not be far from the position where the Titanic sank 99 years ago!” Sailing 30 miles north of the GOR’s Leg 2 Ice Limit, the coincidence is poignant. “Luckily for us, the Global Ocean Race course has waypoints that we need to keep north of to ensure that we stay away from areas of suspected icebergs in the Southern Hemisphere,” Leggatt adds.

At 11:21 GMT on Wednesday, Mabire and Merron took Campagne de France around the end of the ice limit leading the fleet and freeing off on port gybe, dropping south averaging slightly under ten knots. “On our chart we had marked the end of the ice limit with a northern cardinal buoy icon which we must leave with starboard,” explains Mabire. “In fact, sailing along the ice limit has been a bit like a long coastal race,” he adds. “We were a little disappointed that there wasn’t a GOR Committee Boat there to make sure we left the virtual mark to starboard, but there isn’t a race organisation on the planet that would do this. We would have happily given some interviews, posed for a few photos and a bit of video,” suggests the French skipper. “Perhaps it’s an idea for the next edition of the Global Ocean Race – it’s got to be more entertaining down here in the middle of nowhere than in a freezing race office in the northern hemisphere.”

Just over half an hour later, Conrad Colman and Sam Goodchild left the invisible mark to starboard and pointed the bow of Cessna Citation south-east into the 5,000-metre deep Crozet Basin. Shortly after 13:00 GMT, Ross and Campbell Field cleared the ice limit and while the majority of GOR skippers are happy with the virtual obstructions on the course, this isn’t the case on BSL: “I’ve been on deck for the last few hours, steering, trimming, thinking - which is always dangerous - and watching the beautiful albatross just cruising through the air,” reported Ross Field shortly after daybreak on Wednesday. “They’re totally free and not governed by anything, and here we are going around a stupid mark to keep us out of the Southern Ocean!” he continues. “I expect there will be a yellow racing buoy there that we can round.” As a veteran if five Whitbread and Volvo round-the-world races undertaken on fully-crewed, 60ft-plus yachts, Ross Field has immense experience in the Southern Ocean: “I’m in two minds in relation to these methods to keep us away from icebergs,” he admits. “It seems to me that we are now governed by rules and it is not left up to the individual to take responsibility for his or her own actions,” debates Ross. “We sign a waiver to exonerate everyone in case things go wrong, but still restrictions are put in place.”

The GOR Race Committee has implemented further course restrictions to reduce the threat of the fleet encountering ice: Kerguelen Island, currently 933 miles south-east of the fleet at 49°S, must be left to starboard, and a second ice limit is place at 45 degrees South, 720 miles south-west of Australia, effectively pulling the GOR fleet north towards the South Australian Basin and within the range of rescue services. Although the GOR skippers were consulted over the ice limit locations in Cape Town before the Leg 2 start, Ross Field finds the concept distasteful: “What happened in previous round-the-world races when there were no restrictions?” he asks. “You went where ever you liked and I remember being at 60°S. I remember in one particular RTW race a boat got caught on the wrong side of a low pressure so far south that they were sailing through ice sludge, but nobody died.” The fact that Loïck Peyron and his team on Banque Populaire are currently 1,000 miles south-east of the GOR fleet off Kerguelen doesn’t improve his mood. “Right at the moment there is a 140ft trimaran charging through the Southern Ocean doing 40 knots, planning their own route and, we hope, missing the icebergs,” he points out. “Go the French! Even though they can’t play rugby, they know how to sail with freedom!”

However, Field’s irritation with rules extends beyond ocean racing: “You now can’t organise anything without Health & Safety or crowd control issues being addressed,” he adds, building up steam. “You can’t make a pot of jam and sell it at a market without a license; you can’t go cycling down the road without wearing a helmet; I’m not a smoker, but you can’t smoke anywhere now….you can’t do this, you can’t do that, the list goes on.” This intrusive culture has crept on board BSL: “Even my sleeping bag has a warning on it - MIGHT BLOW UP IF YOU SMOKE IN IT WITH THE ZIP DONE UP!” Possibly, there’s an answer: “What about everyone taking personal responsibility for their own actions - if you want to race in the Southern Ocean you go down there, icebergs and all.”

At 15:00 GMT on Wednesday, Marco Nannini and Hugo Ramon were 160 miles from the end of the ice limit in fourth place with Financial Crisis. “The albatrosses are getting bigger,” notes Nannini. “Is that good or bad? Today an enormous albatross came to circle the boat, it was twice the size of any we’d seen so far, quite amazing.” Leading Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire on Phesheya-Racing by ten miles and trailing the Fields by 174 miles, the Italian skipper is feeling the isolation: “Our distance to Phesheya has been fairly constant, but we’ve lost VHF and AIS contact which is a shame as a friendly voice in the middle of the ocean really makes your day,” says Nannini. “We also made some gains on the leaders, but the separation is such that they will stay in the following winds longer than us so not many hopes of catching them.” Averaging ten knots, Nannini is content with progress: “In the last few hours we’ve been reaching in fairly stable winds and it gets a bit monotonous,” he admits. “I’m in no way complaining as it looks like we’re going to get our backsides kicked in a few days by a cold front with strong and gusty winds, so we may as well enjoy the easy ride for now.”

As Marco Nannini points out, Campagne de France, Cessna Citation and BSL will enjoy downwind conditions as the high-pressure system ahead of the fleet continues to track eastwards, while Financial Crisis and Phesheya-Racing will taste a Southern Ocean front as they drop south towards Kerguelen and the Celox Sailing Scoring Gate at 69E with a potential of 30-knot headwinds.

GOR Leg 2 leaderboard at 15:00GMT:

1. Campagne de France: DTF 5,378 8.6kts
2. Cessna Citation: DTL 7.7 8.9kts
3. BSL: DTL 17 9kts
4. Financial Crisis: DTL 191 10kts
5. Phesheya-Racing: DTL 201 10kts

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