Running before the zebra's asshole
Complex weather conditions in the middle of the Indian Ocean between 40 and 50°S are forcing some tough decisions in the Global Ocean Race fleet.
Furthest north, Phesheya-Racing and Financial Crisis have made painful tacks to the southwest, beating away from the path of a vicious low pressure system – dubbed the ‘Zebra’s Asshole’ by the South Africa team; right in the middle of the Roaring Forties, Campagne de France in third place has fallen into an area of exceptionally light breeze and, furthest south at 48°S, Cessna Citation is covering BSL as they run downwind in a band of westerly breeze, timing their gybe for the northeasterly ascent and towards the GOR’s Australian Ice Limit at 45°S.
As the South African duo of Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire crossed the Celox Sailing Scoring Gate north of Kerguelen Island on Monday afternoon, netting two points for Phesheya-Racing, they were both monitoring a low pressure system centred approximately 300 miles NNW of their position. As soon as they were through the virtual gate at 69°E, the duo tacked back across the gate on port before tacking again at 06:00 GMT and crossing the gate a third time.
“This is not some misguided attempt to score more points for the leg, though we sorely need them!” reassures Phillippa Hutton-Squire. “To the north of Financial Crisis and ourselves, the isobars on the weather chart clearly show a formation commonly known as the ‘Zebra’s Asshole’,” she explains. “This is a secondary low pressure that has formed on the tail of the front that has been crossing the fleet over the past few days and the tightly-packed, concentric black rings of the Zebra’s Asshole indicate a gale with very rough seas approaching.”
With the core pressure of the system plummeting and forecast to track directly into the path of Phesheya-Racing, there was no option: “Tacking is not a decision we take lightly as it means re-stacking everything,” continues Hutton-Squire. “All the unused sails are shifted laboriously to the high side of the boat, the spares, the food, the tools, everything.” At 15:00 GMT on Tuesday, Leggatt and Hutton-Squire were on starboard tack averaging 6.4 knots, south of Financial Crisis and trailing Nannini and Ramon by 56 miles as the gap closes dramatically. “It remains to be seen how our plan works out, but for now, we’re sailing upwind in 16 knots of breeze, it’s relatively warm - 10 degrees for a change - quite dry and the sea has moderated, though it is still quite choppy.” Throughout Monday, The South Africans were in contact with Nannini and Ramon on Financial Crisis, discussing the weather ahead: “After a wet and windy night, they have also taken the decision to head south,” confirms Hutton-Squire. “So, it’ll be interesting to see how the two boats converge again - did we tack too early, or did they tack too late? It’s all part of the game.”
Marco Nannini and Hugo Ramon tacked south at first light [03:00 GMT] on Tuesday: “By the time we tacked, the wind was already blowing a full Force 7 gusting 8,” Nannini reports from Financial Crisis. “Yet, according to the GRIB files, we should have had about 20 knots of wind and it was due to get a lot worse.” The Italian-Spanish duo weren’t keen to chance any further inaccuracies: “We didn’t want to find out what the predicted 35 knots towards the centre of the low would look like in reality,” Nannini continues. “I think we’d expect something in the region of 40 to 50 knots as GRIB files notoriously underestimate the top winds and any prediction beyond 20-25 knots must be treated with due care and respect for the elements.”
In the 15:00 GMT position poll on Tuesday, their speed average had dropped to just under five knots. “Every hour we sail south is an hour added to hour arrival time as we are not currently getting any closer to Wellington,” he says. “Had we carried on east, we’d be on a better course, but the risk of serious damage in the eye of the storm was not worth taking, especially as Phesheya and us like racing America’s Cup-style, a duel to the finish, so we have to cover them now.” During Leg 1, Financial Crisis dropped to 39°S before climbing towards the finish line in Cape Town; currently at 42°S, Nannini is learning fast: “The Indian Ocean is proving a nasty beast,” he confirms. “When it blows, it always looks menacing, stray surface currents make for very confused seas, it is bloody cold and wet.”
As Financial Crisis and Phesheya-Racing made the decision to tack, speeds were dropping on board Campagne de France - 550 miles to the southeast - early on Tuesday as Halvard Mabire and Miranda Merron sailed into a windless corridor 130 miles wide, slowing to under three knots by 11:00 GMT. Miranda Merron paints the scene at 45°S: “Lots of patience and good humour required for this job. There is a nice residual swell causing the sails to slat from side to side, but which is helping us drift generally in the right direction – i.e. not backwards! Other than definitely not being in the right place weather-wise just now, it is a rather pleasant day - vast empty ocean, lots of birds and some sunshine.” Positioned 1,500 miles from the south-western tip of Australia and 2,700 miles from the southern tip of Africa, the nearest landmass is Kaiser Wilhelm II Land, 1,200 miles off the Class40’s starboard beam: “Other than a few islands, the closest land is Antarctica,” confirms Merron.
In the 15:00 GMT position poll on Tuesday, Campagne de France was 160 miles behind second place BSL – a loss of 88 miles in 24 hours. Despite drifting east at just three knots, Halvard Mabire is pragmatic: “Thanks to satellite communications, everyone receives current, identical, weather files and then computer software programmes crunch the numbers, supplying you with the best route to follow according to the downloaded files and the potential speed and performance of your boat,” he explains. “The only uncertainty remaining is the accuracy of these famous wind files.” With this glut of predictive technology, human decision making has been eroded, he believes: “There is less and less personal interpretation and everyone tends to follow a rather narrow route because everyone receives the same files and has similar software.”
On Friday, as the leading trio of boats approached the Celox Sailing Scoring Gate separated by under 40 miles, Cessna Citation and BSL began to work south while Campagne de France kept north. “This was driven by the position of the low pressure systems around us, but also heavily influenced by the next ice limit in the race.” Mabire and Merron are at the same latitude as the GOR’s Australian Ice Limit at 45°S with the virtual line’s eastern limit at 100°E currently 630 miles off the bow of Campagne de France. “The fact also that the Global Ocean Race is run on a points system and not on overall time encourages those who are behind to take potentially risky options that may work in the long term,” reasons Mabire. “This said, thanks to the progress of information technology and ballistics, the rôle of hunter is a lot less stressful than that of the quarry,” he adds. “The current disappointment isn’t affecting morale, although it has made everything a bit more complicated and, certainly, more interesting,” he admits. “It’s just all part of the job.”
Since the cold front passed over fleet leaders, Conrad Colman and Sam Goodchild with Cessna Citation, and second placed Ross and Campbell Field on BSL early on Monday, the two Class40s have broad reached south on starboard with speed averages between 11-12 knots and the distance deficit building to 52 miles as the two boats gybed onto port at 48°S at 08:00 GMT on Tuesday. By 15:00 GMT with 46 miles separating Cessna Citation and BSL with speed averages at 12.3 and 11.6 knots respectively, forecasts for the leading pair suggest the breeze will drop today until fast reaching conditions return as the two Class40s approach the western end of the GOR’s Australian Ice Limit, currently 460 miles to the northeast.
For Mabire and Merron, weather models suggest that the waiting game on Campagne de France may end soon and following a short period of headwinds, the Franco-British duo will have fast reaching conditions to the ice limit and a potential rendezvous with Cessna Citation and BSL. For Financial Crisis and Phesheya-Racing there is likely to be a further 12 hours of upwind pounding before the breeze moves aft as the low pressure system tracks east ahead from the two Class40s.
GOR cumulative Leg 1 and Leg 2 points following the Celox Sailing Scoring Gate:
1. BSL: 39 (4 points at the Celox Sailing Scoring Gate)
2. Campagne de France: 36 points (5 points at the Celox Sailing Scoring Gate)
3. Financial Crisis: 27 (3 points at the Celox Sailing Scoring Gate)
4. Cessna Citation: 24 (6 points at the Celox Sailing Scoring Gate)
5. Phesheya-Racing: 14 (2 points at the Celox Sailing Scoring Gate)
6. Sec. Hayai: 6 (RTD from Leg 2)
Sched at 15:00 GMT:
1. Cessna Citation: DTF 3,648 12.3kts
2. BSL: DTL 46 11.6kts
3. Campagne de France: DTL 206 3kts
4. Financial Crisis: DTL 775 4.7kts
5. Phesheya-Racing: DTL 831 6.4kts