Clipper Round the World Yacht Race – Teams tackle the Doldrums

Singapore set sail in race two (from Madeira to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) of the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race.
Clipper Round the World Yacht Race second race in leg one, which started in Madeira and will finish in Rio De Janeiro, is currently underway.

Sponsors align themselves with the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race in large part because the experience of the crews and their attitude towards the challenge of a lifetime that they are undertaking reflects the core values of their own business.

For the sponsor of the Singapore yacht, Keppel Corporation, one of those values is a ‘Can Do!’ attitude and the events of the past 24 hours have shown the international crew on board have that quality in spades.

It would have been all too easy to become mired in self-pity and dismiss this stage of the race as over when they had a primary steering failure yesterday morning but the team, under the leadership of skipper, Ben Bowley, have risen to the challenge, switching to their secondary steering system while they effected a repair and set about reclaiming the lead they temporarily lost to Welcome to Yorkshire.

Ben takes up the story…

'It's been a fairly challenging 24 hours but the crew have really stepped up and taken all the various trials and tribulations squarely on the chin.

'As you have probably already heard, our steering gear failed not long after I sent in yesterday's morning report to the Race Office. We were making fine progress at around 12 knots straight towards Rio in a fresh 20 knots of wind just aft of the beam with the heavy kite and full main. As is so often the way with equipment failures, nothing could be better about the morning until... Bang! The wheel went slack in my hands and the boat started making her way rather gracefully up to windward. As the words, ‘Get the emergency tiller rigged, now’ left my mouth, there was a second bang followed by rip rip flap flap flap as the heavy kite (our favourite) shredded itself into three distinct pieces up forward. The priority (having established that no flesh and bone was damaged) was to get the tiller rigged. This then allowed us to get the big red bus back under control, bear off down wind and drop the kite.

'As the sail came in it became apparent that no amount of patching and stitching would put our Humpty Dumpty of a sail back together again. Swathes of fabric and most of one leach were missing altogether. R.I.P. our default spinnaker.

'With the boat back under control and the carnage of a trashed kite (and the associated snake’s honeymoon of rope) in hand we held a crew meeting accompanied by the obligatory tea and biscuits. We decided that we would be damned if we were going to let this fairly sizeable set back beat us. We refused to be the last boat into Rio and had to come up with a solution for a temporary fix. Repair plans were aired, discussed and a plan of action was decided upon.

'Massive credit to Keith (Hunter) and Dale (Blackwood) who worked tirelessly all day – a particularly hot and sweaty day – in both the saloon with drills and the lazarette (aka: the black hole of Calcutta) to get the jury rig sorted before nightfall. The rest of the crew did a fine job of helming the boat under emergency steering (a three-man operation) and trying various sail configurations in changeable conditions to keep the boat moving.

'The result was we managed to maintain our hard-earned lead over Welcome to Yorkshire and the bodged steering sheave was refitted by the 1700 team meeting (more tea and homemade choc chip muffins). We have to go easy on the boat now and can only really push at 80 per cent for fear of straining the repair.

'The whole experience has galvanised what was already a solid steel team spirit on the boat and has shown us what we can achieve in the face of adversity.'

It’s a demonstration of seamanship that race founder and chairman, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, can be proud of, particularly as more than 40 per cent of the Clipper Race crews have no sailing experience before they begin their pre-race training.

The first man to sail solo and non-stop around the world reflects on two of his own Doldrums crossings on the Clipper Race website, and has been looking at the conditions the teams are facing in Clipper 11-12.

Sir Robin says, 'It looks as if a small depression is forming between the easternmost two boats and the rest. This will move west northwest and slowly increase in wind strength as it goes. It will provide better winds for a while for the two western groups and headwinds for the two eastern boats but, as they progress south, all will come up against southerly winds. It is then a question of which boats pick up the south easterly tendency which is always a feature of the southern side of the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), known as the Doldrums. West is favoured – but not too far west or you start getting too close to south America and will be forced to tack back east.'

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

The two teams furthest to the west are Derry-Londonderry and De Lage Landen.

Mark Light, skipper of the yacht representing the UK City of Culture 2013, says, 'We’re on the charge south. We have got a lot of westing in, taking a hit against some of the other boats in the fleet but now we are making good speed and covering ground towards our waypoint. The winds are now looking favourable and I anticipate a good run through the Doldrums towards the Equator, King Neptune and his Royal Court of the Deep.

'The only thing that almost stopped our progress rather smartly was Mother Nature, in the form of three whales who appeared to be slumbering ahead of us. We spotted them at the last minute and passed, leaving them about two boat lengths away to port... a close call!'

'Another cracking day aboard De Lage Landen,' reports skipper, Mat Booth. Top speeds of 15 knots and averages of 10+ knots is never a bad thing! I'm hoping we can hold onto this pace as we are around a hundred miles from the official line in the ocean that is the ITCZ. The band of light, unsettled and stormy weather looks narrow in front of us so we're looking good. The GRIB files can be rather unreliable in this part of the world but assuming all is fairly accurate we should break into the south easterly trade winds overnight tomorrow.

'It's a rosy picture but again anything could happen and much of the fleet could be in this wind first.'

Welcome to Yorkshire is with the second westerly pack and is locked in a gripping three-way battle with Singapore and Gold Coast Australia for the lead.

'A big thumbs up to Singapore from Welcome to Yorkshire for their magnificent effort in fixing their wheel steering,' concedes a magnanimous Rupert Dean.

The skipper of the English entry continues, 'Our day yesterday started power-reaching towards Cabo Frio peeling from the lightweight to the heavyweight kite. By mid-day the wind had switched off altogether, leaving a windless, lumpy sea and creating a real test to keep the spinnaker filled. In the end it became too much, the heavyweight snagging on the anti-wrap snap shackle and creating a three-metre tear on the port side. The crew reacted quickly, getting it down before further damage could occur and rigging a poled-out Yankee 2.'

By using the spinnaker pole (which is normally used to help position the massive, tennis-court sized sails when sailing downwind) to hold the back foot of one of the triangular-shaped head sails further out from the mast, the teams can run at a deeper angle to the wind. It’s a less tricky sail configuration to handle than flying the spinnaker, so it is particularly useful at night and when the winds are not consistent in speed or direction and you don’t want to risk the disaster of wrapping one of your kites around a piece of the rigging.

Rupert continues, 'As far as I'm concerned, this was the time that we were truly in the Doldrums. Grey skies as far as the eye could see, low pressure (1000Mb) which had been steadily falling for several days and hot and humid, too, the rapidly rising, moist air creating the complete cloud cover and low barometric pressure.

'So, for how long would we be here? After all the hard work, strategic planning and thinking, would it all come down to luck? Well to be fair, for all the modern day forecasts and gribs out there, there is still a lot of luck involved when transiting the Doldrums. This is because it can remain static or rapidly move, not only north and south in a belt, but east and west, too. It also can form in pockets with bridges of wind across in certain areas.

'Fortunately for us, we were only truly wallowing for two hours before light winds filled in from the south. We've been holding starboard tack ever since, going down through the sail changes from full main and Yankee 1 (the largest of the headsails) to two reefs and the Yankee 3. The next tactical question will be when to switch onto port tack, to take the southeast trades across to Rio.'

Every team has a raft of tactical decisions to consider during this race but the best laid plans are ultimately at the mercy of the wind gods.

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

Describing how his team have been affected in the past 24 hours, Gold Coast Australia’s skipper, Richard Hewson, reports, 'As we neared the ITCZ we were expecting the wind to start to back around as indicated, but rather it stayed from the north affecting our speed as we could not sail the angles we planned.

'Regardless, Gold Coast Australia pushed on, changing from our trusty heavyweight spinnaker to our lightweight. Within an hour of changing to the lightweight, the wind dropped out altogether and all we could do was to pole out our windseeker in hope that it would catch the occasional puff of wind.

'After only a couple of hours, there was a whiff of breeze and it was all hands on deck to change to the Yankee 1 and get sailing again. When the next watch came on, one person asked when we would cross the ITCZ and if this south westerly wind would last for very long. I explained that we were over the ITCZ and the Doldrums and on our way to Rio... This caused disappointment for some as they had slept through their entire Doldrums experience. We could not expect to be blessed any more than having such a short time without wind in the Doldrums and now Gold Coast Australia is experiencing moderate wind from the southwest and is sliding her way south, nicely powered up with a full main, Yankee 2 and staysail. One more tack and we should be in Rio, even if it is a 2,000nm tack!'

Qingdao, Edinburgh Inspiring Capital and Geraldton Western Australia are also maintaining a central position in the fleet, and also report a day of the fluky winds associated with this part of the world.

Ian Conchie, skipper of the Chinese yacht, says, 'Yesterday was a frustrating day’s sailing. The wind dropped right down as the temperature and humidity rose. It was a case of trying to keep the boat moving in roughly the right direction. This continued through to this morning when the final breath of wind died and then in the space of ten minutes it switched to a southerly so it was all hands on deck to get the spinnaker down and get the boat reconfigured for upwind sailing. We’re changing to the Yankee 2 now as the wind is dying again.'

Sail changes are the order of the day on board Geraldton Western Australia where, says Juan Coetzer, 'For most of the day we held the medium weight kite. Eventually the wind died off, resulting in our first kite peel to the lightweight spinnaker. This did not last for very long and we had change back to the medium kite. In the evening the wind became very eventful and in one and a half hours we did three more sail changes. At about midnight the wind started to play games, shifting back and forth by 30 degrees and increasing and decreasing. Now it is raining. Fun, fun, fun!'

One thing the rain does bring is momentary relief from the heat and, if you time it correctly so you’re not left covered in soap suds as the squall passes you by, a restorative fresh water shower.

The team representing Scotland’s capital city has also had a frustrating time as skipper, Gordon Reid, describes. 'Edinburgh Inspiring Capital have had a tough night as we make south, conditions becoming very variable, massive wind shifts and squalls, many changes and adjustments to sail plans,' he says. 'We are almost through the worst of it and will be back on track soon.

'We are sticking to our game plan and we will continue south before turning west to Rio. The next few days will determine who has made the right choices and who has followed the pack regardless.'

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

With a game plan of their own – and one that looked as though they might be heading straight for Cape Town and bypassing Rio altogether at one point – Gareth Glover and his team on New York have gambled on an eastern transit of the ICTZ where, traditionally, the Doldrums zone is at its widest. Visit Finland is also gambling on the same routing tactics.

New York crew member Andrew Priest, writes, 'New York began the day with no real wind, leaving us virtually becalmed once more in the Doldrums which have severely affected our progress in the last two days or so.

'We passed the time on deck watching a couple of whales spout water into the warm air and flick up the occasional tail fin as they dawdled close by, presumably checking out this strange looking craft from around 100 metres away as we drifted idly in the soft breeze.

'As the day progressed and we headed south we found better wind and were able to notch up some impressive speeds of around six knots as the morning wore on! Such has been the lack of wind in the last couple of days that even such a meagre pace felt encouraging and off watch crew could hear water slushing past the bow as they dozed in the still steamy hot front cabin area.

'By late afternoon the wind had built and by nightfall we saw gusts of 25 knots and more of apparent wind, heeling the boat back to the 45 degree angle which has been missed during the week-long downwind leg so far from Madeira. Overnight winds have been steady and we have even begun to make our most direct course to Rio, although needing to tack several times as the wind tends to be southerly.

'Mothers produced cake for the night watches despite the lean and it was enjoyed on deck as the wind whistled through the rigging and occasional squalls doused us with tropically warm rain to complement the briny seawater spray. Salty damp cake never tasted so good!

'We are now hoping to capitalise on our southern position and head towards the Equator where the trade winds should offer an opportunity to reach into Rio which is still 2,400 miles off.'

Positions at 0900 UTC, Saturday 20 August
Boat / DTF*
1 Singapore / 2,245nm
2 Welcome to Yorkshire / 2,249nm (+4nm DTL**)
3 Gold Coast Australia / 2,252nm (+7nm)
4 Qingdao / 2,323nm (+78nm)
5 Derry-Londonderry / 2,348nm (+103nm)
6 De Lage Landen / 2,367nm (+122nm)
7 Edinburgh Inspiring Capital / 2,375nm (+130nm)
8 Geraldton Western Australia 2,411nm (+166nm)
9 New York / 2,416nm (+171nm)
10 Visit Finland / 2,454nm (+209nm)

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