Clipper Round the World Yacht Race - Crews face brutal conditions

The Clipper 11-12 fleet with Corcovado in the background ahead of the start of Race 3 from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Daniel Zeppe/onEdition
Clipper Round the World Yacht Race 2011-2012 third race, from Rio De Janeiro to Cape Town, is currently underway. A third of the way into this 3,300-mile race between two continents and Mother Nature is baring her teeth and reminding the crews that she is in charge.

Conditions have been testing and the teams are proving they have what it takes to race through them in the extreme sport of ocean racing.

A busy, action-filled 24 hours have seen the Scoring Gate points decided and the brutal conditions taking their toll on the boats with injuries to two crew members and steering gear breakage, Singapore coming out of Stealth Mode and New York going in.

Geraldton Western Australia at the start of Race 3 of the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race
Daniel Zeppe/onEdition

While Singapore, Gold Coast Australia and Geraldton Western Australia opted to bypass the Scoring Gate altogether, De Lage Landen, Welcome to Yorkshire and Qingdao picked up three, two and one points respectively. The Dutch yacht was the first to cross just after midnight UTC, with the other two following at 0421 and 0449 – just 28 minutes apart after more than 1,000 miles of racing.

The bonus points give De Lage Landen, in particular, a well-earned boost, lifting the team from eighth to sixth place in the overall table.

They’ve suffered a setback since, though, with a breakage in their steering gear. Skipper, Stuart Jackson, reported to the Race Office, 'The port turning block directly under the pedestal which guides the steering cable has sheared off.'

The team is working on a fix and hopes to be back up to racing speed as soon as possible. They will take inspiration from Singapore’s crew who, in the previous race after a similar setback, solved the problem and re-took their position at the head of the fleet by the end of the day.

The punishing conditions, as well as giving the crews an exhilarating ride, are also proving bruising for the teams. Tim Liverton, a round the world crew member on Singapore, sustained a cut to his head when a huge wave washed him down the cockpit of the yacht. Skipper, Ben Bowley, was helming at the time and describes the moment the wave struck.

'We were running with the wind roughly on the starboard beam with two reefs and the storm staysail off the forestay as a storm jib. The boat was nicely under control making between ten and eleven knots of boat speed in rather confused large swells. I saw one enormous wave with a large breaking crest approaching the boat at speed from dead abeam. I had just enough time to yell, ‘Hold on, massive wave coming!’ before it struck. Next thing I was swept clean off my feet, completely immersed in water with only the wheel in my hands to reassure me that I was still aboard.

'Having regained my position behind the helm and brought the yacht under control I could tell the cockpit was full of water to knee height. I yelled, ‘All OK, anyone hurt?’ to find that Tim, who had been sitting to windward of the companionway, had been swept down to the floor of the cockpit just forward of the main sheet traveller, where I believe he hit his head.'

Tim, a 34-year-old banker, has received treatment from on board medic and fellow round the world crew member, Will Parbury, with medical advice from Falmouth Coastguard in the UK. He has a cut on his head but is otherwise fine and, after some rest and TLC from the crew, is cracking jokes and asking to get back to the business of racing.

Ben continues, 'The south Atlantic is really living up to its reputation as a wild part of the world to go sailing. We have had some pretty extreme weather with squalls passing over us, carrying winds in excess of 50 knots and some truly enormous waves. I was awoken this morning by being thrown out of my bunk as the boat broached during a sudden squall that peaked at 56 knots of wind.'

New York set sail in race two (from Madeira to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) of the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race.

That’s not the highest speed seen. On board New York, which is currently in Stealth Mode, crew member Pat Coppolecchia, a lawyer from the Big Apple, notes, 'Now we have winds generally over 30 knots, a deeply reefed main, waves which seem to climb to the first spreader on the mast and the occasional squall. During an earlier squall, one of the crew stared at the wind speed indicator and watched it go from 35 to 57 to 79 to 99.9, quickly returning to the high 30s. However, we continue to move the boat rapidly.'

On board Geraldton Western Australia, 49-year-old housewife, Hilly Bouteloup, who has signed up to race from Rio to the Gold Coast on the east coast of Australia, was thrown out of her bunk when the boat lurched up against a large swell and has suspected broken ribs. Fellow crew member, Jane Hitchens, a doctor, is looking after her on board.

The South African skipper of Geraldton Western Australia, Juan Coetzer, says he’s taking extra precautions in the gruelling conditions.

'It is cold outside and there is no point having the whole on watch getting mopped around the deck when we go crashing into swell. So, I have some of the on watch below on stand-by, making hot drinks. The helm gets rotated every 30 minutes and then swaps with someone below. The crew are working super hard to maximize boat speed and course so we can pass some boats before the Tristan de Cunha Islands.'

The teams are also reassessing how they stow things on board – anything loose goes flying when the boat lurches in the confused sea state. Perhaps teams should take note of the Derry-Londonderry skipper’s method of keeping a tidy saloon. Anything that is lying around for longer than five minutes ends up in the lost property box and is only returned on payment of a fine or completion of a forfeit. It’s amazing how quickly a couple of bilge-cleaning or head-repairing forfeits concentrate the mind!

Qingdao’s skipper, Ian Conchie, says, 'The best way to describe life on the boat is, to quote Juan, ‘like life inside a washing machine’. The boat is jumping around as we pick up a surf and then a big wave comes along and the boat leans right over and anything not stowed properly goes flying. And this is down wind! It will get worse in a few days when we have to go upwind. Morale is still high if a little damp.'

Morale boosted, no doubt, by a bonus Scoring Gate point.

Despite the physical and mental effort required to race a 68-foot yacht in these conditions, the crews are revelling in the experience.

Welcome to Yorkshire/Edinburgh Inspiring Capital ahead of the start of Race 3 - Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race
Daniel Zeppe/onEdition

'What a ride!' exclaims Edinburgh Inspiring Capital skipper, Gordon Reid. 'Described by Csaba, our Hungarian engineer, as ‘better than a bad encounter with a close friend’, that's the adrenaline rush we are all getting from driving the Purple Beastie on the edge of a full blown South Atlantic gale. On the surf we topped 23 knots and the competition is on to top the skipper. To be fair it was a monster wave and I managed to ride it all the way as well as holding on tight!

'The amount of pressure exerted by the near gale force and gale force winds is enormous and takes its toll on lines and sails, so we need to be very vigilant, exercising sheets and halyards to minimise chafe or heat spots. Even our best efforts are sometimes not enough; last night during a 46-knot gust our reefing pennant snapped. We all had to dig deep, get the boat under control, lower the main and re-attach the reefing line and, whilst we were doing that, a quick head-sail change and we were off again!

'Unfortunately a number of the crew including the skipper have been very ill for the past 48 hours. A very nasty bug is making everyone sick and even the skipper had to have a wee lie down for more than his customary three hours a day, but now we are all feeling better and getting on it again.

'As well as the rush from riding waves in gusts of up to 40 knots, every so often we get side swiped by less than friendly wave and boom, everything goes flying. We are revisiting our stowage plan and can't leave anything lying around otherwise it will fly. The race team on Edinburgh Inspiring Capital are holding on tight and, with huge grins all round, we are loving the ride.'

So, too, are the crew of Welcome to Yorkshire, according to skipper, Rupert Dean. 'Feisty conditions all round as the South Atlantic flexes its muscles,' he reports. 'What an awesome place, so carnal, wild and free! If experiencing nature in the raw is what the crew on Welcome to Yorkshire were looking for when they signed up, they've got it in spades!'

His words are echoed by Olly Osborne, skipper of Visit Finland, who says, 'We have had some really exhilarating sailing over the last 24 hours with squally conditions overnight producing gusts of 45 knots or more across the deck. Everyone is double clipped on deck as the boat lurches violently in a beam sea, making our attempts at repairing our spinnaker below difficult to say the least!

'We passed below the Scoring Gate this morning having narrowly missed the third position, but we are making good speeds and our sights are now set on how to best tackle the weather for the coming week.'

Winds are forecast to come around from the south east in the next 36 hours and the teams will soon be racing into headwinds, which will make their task doubly difficult.

Furthest to the south and now leading Race 3, Gold Coast Australia’s skipper, Richard Hewson, reports, 'The winds have backed towards the south earlier than I expected, bringing with it the coldest conditions we have seen since leaving the UK. Winds have generally eased slightly, though still require the use of a second reef in the mainsail which unfortunately means our pride and joy, the Boxing Kangaroo, is now tucked in a pouch with only his ears showing above the boom. One squall this morning at 50+ knots brought with it hail which stung our hands and faces like frozen needles as we eased sails and ran away with the massive gusts of wind.

'The changing wind direction has required us to change gears slightly and we are no long running with the wind and surfing big waves. Instead we are power reaching at speed. This brings a different angle to life on board as the boat heels over and walls of water fly down the deck as we punch through the big waves ahead, drenching the people on watch.

'Down below the crew can only appreciate the warmth of their sleeping bags and rest as they know it won’t be long until it is their turn to go on watch. The mood on board is surprisingly jovial and there is still the occasional whoop on deck as we surf down a confused sea and laughter and chatter below as the crew discuss the change in conditions and the ground we are making on the rest of the fleet.'

Derry-Londonderry at the start of Race 3 of the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race
Daniel Zeppe/onEdition

Mid fleet and just 29 miles behind the leader, Derry-Londonderry skipper, Mark Light describes the roller coaster ride of the South Atlantic where the conditions call for 'extreme concentration on the helm and a lot of physical effort to keep the boat travelling in the right direction. Add to this many squalls bringing increased wind, torrential rain and sometimes thunder and lightning and you have a high octane adventure that is not for the faint-hearted!

'During a couple of squalls we had terrific wind and ended up flying down waves with the boom in the water and the deck covered in water and foam. Throughout the day we have gone through lots of different combinations of sail plans. The crew have worked tirelessly up on the foredeck as every single sail change takes planning, huge effort and lots of communication. These guys might well get cold, tired, wet and hungry but I'll bet right now that many of them wouldn't swap it for the world!'

Positions at 1200 UTC, Friday 16 September
Boat - DTF*
1 Gold Coast Australia - 2,154
2 Welcome to Yorkshire - 2,158 (DTL** 4nm)
3 De Lage Landen - 2,159 (+5nm)
4 Visit Finland - 2,169 (+15nm)
5 Qingdao - 2,177 (+23nm)
6 Derry-Londonderry - 2,183 (+29nm)
7 Singapore - 2,208 (+54nm)
8 Geraldton Western Australia - 2,263 (+109nm)
9 Edinburgh Inspiring Capital - 2,266 (+113nm)
10 New York - 2,358 (+204nm) Stealth Mode: position at 1902, 15 September

DTF* = Distance to Finish. DTL** = Distance to Leader. Full positions are updated every three hours and can be found here.

Clipper Round the World Yacht Race website