Global Ocean Race: Storm at the Horn
For the two frontrunners in the Global Ocean Race there has been a tactical dilemma over the past 24 hours as an intense low pressure system rumbles towards Drake Passage and Cape Horn. By Tuesday afternoon, both Cessna Citation and Financial Crisis had committed to their individual options and the next 24 hours will be the hardest sailing of the circumnavigation for the two teams.
Three options were available: Should Cessna Citation and Financial Crisis sail as hard as they can and attempt to outrun a gale that threatens Force 8-9 and pass through the shallow and treacherous passage ahead of the system? Should they battle on into Drake Passage towards a hostile coast with notoriously unpredictable conditions and hope their boats can withstand the punishment? Or should they slow down, judge the system’s track and – in theory - ride through the Felipe Cubillos Cape Horn Gate in the churning water behind the low pressure.
As the South Africans to the west on Phesheya-Racing deal with their own demons in the shape of a high pressure system forecast to frustrate progress to Cape Horn, for Conrad Colman and Adrian Kuttel on Cessna Citation at the front of the fleet and Marco Nannini and Hugo Ramon in second on Financial Crisis, a low pressure system building west of the Antarctic Peninsular to the south of the boats has been a major focus for the past two days. With weather files predicting that the system will sweep quickly north-east delivering over 40+ knots and intercepting the two Class40s as they round Cape Horn, the situation was complex.
Weather files notoriously under-predict the wind strength in the high latitudes and although the GOR fleet has already encountered conditions in excess of 40 knots in leg 3, the nature of Drake Passage and Cape Horn dramatically increases the threat to boat preservation and crew safety. At the 600 mile wide channel between Horn Island and the Antarctic Peninsular the seabed suddenly rises from 4,000 metres to just 200 metres in a matter of miles, creating an underwater cliff face. Consequently, the winds predicted will create ferocious conditions as the large, rolling, Southern Ocean waves are driven hard against the world’s steepest natural gradient at the western entrance to Drake Passage.
On Monday night GMT, email traffic between the trio of boats increased as advice and opinions were traded with each skipper volunteering frank and honest views on strategy in the forthcoming maelstrom at Cape Horn. With the low pressure system beginning to gather pace off Antarctica, any decision had to be made rapidly and early on Tuesday, Cessna Citation and Financial Crisis made their calls. Colman and Kuttel opted to hammer downwind straight for the gate, keeping in the deeper water south of the Isla Diego Ramirez Islands 60 miles SSW of Cape Horn at the southern tip of the Latin America’s continental shelf with the target of outrunning the strongest winds.
Throughout Tuesday, Colman and Kuttel kept the speed averages above 13 knots, giving all they had to clear Cape Horn by the time the storm arrived and by 15:00 GMT, Cessna Citation was 187 miles southwest of Cape Horn heading for the southern tip of the continental shelf at around 14 knots.
Before making the decision on Financial Crisis, Marco Nannini debated the options: “The weather files show sustained winds of around 40 knots, but the reality is that we should expect far more than this,” explained Nannini. “After the cold front the unstable air mass could mean winds gusting 60-70 knots or more,” he adds. “We would need to stay off the continental shelf to avoid the worst of the steep waves that form where the sea bed rises sharply, much the same way as in the Bay of Biscay - unsurprisingly another nasty place in bad weather,” comments the Italian skipper. “Given the wind direction it would be easy to be pushed over the shelf and find ourselves struggling to keep away from land and unable to ride the storm with no space to run downwind.”
With the loss of their big spinnaker, Nannini and Ramon were denied the option taken by Cessna Citation of outrunning the system and heading into the thick of the gale had no appeal: “Serious weather would certainly be frightening, possibly not life threatening, but undoubtedly the risk of damage would be high,” says Nannini. At 02:00 GMT on Tuesday, the Italian-Spanish team made their call, dropping southeast under triple reefed main and staysail into building headwinds ahead of the low pressure.
By 15:00 GMT, Nannini and Ramon had succeeded in slowing Financial Crisis down to below four knots, watching their Distance To Leader figures rise exponentially as they continued their waiting game with the low pressure system. There is currently no guarantee that the storm will miss Financial Crisis entirely and should Nannini and Ramon be forced to run downwind in the gale, they have around 300 miles of sea room before they risk running into Chile.
Meanwhile, on Phesheya-Racing, Nick Leggatt’s sixth rounding of Cape Horn and Phillippa Hutton-Squire’s debut at the Cape has been put back: “The past 24 hours aboard Phesheya-Racing have seen us cover some easy miles in flat water and moderate reaching conditions,” reported Leggatt as the South Africans reach 57°S. “The latest forecast shows that the high pressure has not moved as far north as we might have hoped and it looks as if we are in for a couple of days of light and variable winds,” says Leggatt.
The unreadable conditions make any Cape Horn ETA complicated. “It looks as if it could still take us a good week to cover these final 1,200 miles,” he confirms. “We will try and stay as close to the south side of the high pressure as we can and hopefully by doing that we will maintain predominantly westerly breezes though it could go very light for a time.” On Tuesday afternoon Leggatt and Hutton-Squire were still making good speed, averaging over nine knots, and tracking the high pressure’s progress ahead of them.
The Class40 skippers will be working hard to preserve themselves and their boats in the predicted conditions, but there is also glory and many prizes to be won at Cape Horn. In the memory of the late Chilean round-the-world yachtsman and former GOR competitor, Felipe Cubillos, the first GOR Class40 to cross the Felipe Cubillos Cape Horn Gate running south from Horn Island’s western lighthouse will receive a replica of the Albatross sculpture located on Horn Island; the Class40 team that supplied the most accurate ETA at the Felipe Cubillos Cape Horn Gate submitted before crossing a point 1,000 miles west of the cape will receive membership to the Royal Institute of Navigation in London and trophies awarded by Alan Green of the GOR Race Committee.
An additional prize from the GOR’s Official Time Keeper and sponsor, Luminox, will be awarded to the team supplying the best Cape Horn-related photograph. Before the start of Leg 3 in Wellington, Luminox supplied each team member with a Steel Colormark watch – a rugged design with self-powered, high-visibility illumination on the hands and numerals that has found favour with high-risk sports competitors. The prize winner will be presented with a Luminox Yachting Countdown Timer watch following the Leg 3 finish in Punta del Este, Uruguay.
The GOR-involvement by Luminox goes beyond just branding and time keeping. Andre Bernheim, head of Mondaine Watch Ltd in Zurich, has been racing keelboats for over 30 years at European and World Championship-level: “What the Global Ocean Race sailors are doing when racing around the world on their 40ft yachts is still beyond my imagination and I wouldn’t have the courage to do anything similar,” says Bernheim. “It is high adrenaline, pure adventure and reserved for a few people around the globe who dare to put their lives at such risks,” he adds. “All this fits perfectly with the brand statement of Luminox.”
GOR leaderboard at 15:00 GMT 21/2/12:
1. Cessna Citation DTF 1557 13.8kts
2. Financial Crisis DTL 200 3.5kts
3. Phesheya-Racing DTL 858 9.1kts