by Oliver Dewar
The Global Ocean Race's first leg was undoubtedly changed by the Doldrums and with just under five days to go, the leaders are edging into the zone being led by Halvard Mabire and Miranda Merron with Campagne de France who are being chased by Ross and Campbell Field on BSL. These teams spent less than two days in the Doldrums, picking up easterly breeze before locking into SSE winds and bolting south-west towards the Fastnet Marine Insurance Scoring Gate off Brazil.
Marco Nannini and Paul Peggs - Global Ocean Race 2011-12
For the remainder of the GOR fleet, it has been a different story. In third place, Conrad Colman and Hugo Ramon with Cessna Citation entered the Doldrums on Tuesday trailing the leaders by 200 miles with the main pack of four boats spread over 350 miles. Since then, frustrating, unpredictable conditions and light airs have seen Campagne de France and BSL build a lead of two days over the competition while the main group of Cessna Citation, Financial Crisis, Phesheya-Racing and Sec. Hayai have compressed to 180 miles.
By Thursday morning, it was becoming critical on Phesheya-Racing: 'Around noon yesterday we were completely becalmed in blistering sun,' reported Nick Leggatt. 'We dropped all the sails to the deck as there were a few details we wanted to attend to with regards to their maintenance, and then promptly went for a swim.'
Holding fifth place, Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire were averaging under two knots. In third place, 170 miles to the south, Conrad Colman and Hugo Ramon had also ground to a halt with Cessna Citation, while Marco Nannini and Paul Peggs on Financial Crisis, 88 miles north of Colman and Ramon, were making seven knots and the Dutch duo of Nico Budel and Ruud van Rijsewijk with Sec. Hayai, 60 miles west of Phesheya-Racing, were also averaging seven knots.
Throughout Wednesday night and Thursday morning, the Doldrums lottery continued with speed averages for the four Class40s rising and dropping randomly: 'We had some quite pleasant sailing, but at night the heavy rain squalls started again,' Leggatt continues. 'We sailed into the evening under downwind Code Zero, but had to change it very quickly to the Solent jib as one of Miranda's famous cumulomonsters hit us with torrential rain and winds over 20 knots.' The squall passed through very quickly and left the South Africans beating into a southerly wind. 'Then, in the early hours of Thursday morning, Phillippa called me on deck with the mother of all cumulomonsters bearing down on us in a hurry.'
As the squall struck, Leggatt and Hutton-Squire bore away onto a broad reach and ran with winds of over 34 knots and bucketing rain for over an hour. 'It was quite a wild sleigh ride in pitch darkness with no visible horizon,' adds Leggatt. 'We have discussed the idea of spreading the wind around a bit, so that rather than getting all 34 knots in one watch, I could get 17 on my watch and Phillippa could get 17 on her watch.' At 15:00 GMT on Thursday Phesheya-Racing and Sec. Hayai were separated by one mile, 72 miles behind Financial Crisis, with both boats making between two and four knots.
On board Financial Crisis, the situation was little better for Marco Nannini and Paul Peggs: 'Frustration gave way to desperation, but soon these gentle feelings were replaced by the onset of insanity and murderous instincts at the sound of flogging sails,' reported the Italian co-skipper. Even analysing the clouds made little difference: 'I studied the clouds, trying to practice recognising suckers from blowers, but during the night they all sucked, for sure, as we went absolutely nowhere.'
As Financial Crisis remained static, Colman and Ramon picked up the pace and the Equatorial Accordion began to play: 'Impending insanity due to lack of wind was temporarily avoided during the night when we found some breeze in a few clouds, but this morning it all died off and we are left drifting helplessly.' With this endless cycle jangling the nerves, envy is inevitable: 'It's amazing how lightly BSL and Campagne de France got away with the Doldrums,' says Nannini. 'Conrad and Hugo were treated quite harshly by the wind gods yesterday, which gave us a chance to do some catching up, so at least we know all those hours spent sticking pins in a Cessna Citation voodoo doll have had the desired effect.'
Despite the black magic, Colman and Ramon picked up speed mid-morning and may have found the Doldrums exit door. By 15:00 GMT, Cessna Citation was continuing to average just over six knots and the South-East Trade Winds escape route was confirmed although – 108 miles north of Colman and Ramon - Nannini and Peggs would have to wait a bit longer to take advantage.
Conrad Coleman and Hugo Ramon aboard Cessna Citation - Global Ocean Race 2011-12
While the main pack of Class40s tangled with frustrating conditions, Campagne de France and BSL were increasing speed towards the Fastnet Marine Insurance Gate and at 14:49 GMT yesterday, Campagne de France were the first GOR Class40 across the Equator.
Having both made the trip across the line many times before, Mabire and Merron forsook any trials of humiliation and discomfort that traditionally accompany crossing the line. However, the moment sparked thoughts of global travel for Halvard Mabire: 'If you cross the Equator in a plane, it is really pretty meaningless, but crossing the oceans at the kind of pace we’re making gives you the true scale of how vast the world is,' he comments.
'Crossing oceans and continents in a jet is of little value other than pure practicality and if you ask many travellers to pinpoint where they have just been on an atlas, they usually have difficulty,' he adds, warming to the theme. 'Moreover, when they return from their ‘voyage’ they often claim they have ‘done’ India, or China or wherever they’ve been. I really don’t think you can say ‘been there, done that’ about a voyage. If a guy explained to me that he had walked across the Gobi Desert unsupported, I think he has the right to claim he has ‘done’ it.'
When Campagne de France and BSL escaped the Doldrums, the two boats were separated by around ten miles and in the past three days since finding the South-East Trades, the distance grew to 30 miles before the Fields wound it down to 22 miles in 15:00 GMT position poll on Thursday with just 20 miles remaining to the Fastnet Marine Insurance Scoring Gate. While the competition between the two Class40s continues to be intense, the elder skipper on each boat became distracted. For Ross Field, on his sixth circumnavigation race, the topic was expedition food: 'Campbell likes the freeze dried food so much he is going to take some packets with him on his flight back to UK so he doesn’t have to eat airline food,' he explained on Wednesday night.
Campbell Field aboard BSL
'That is an outstanding endorsement for Back Country Food from NZ.' There is, however, a hitch and the Fields are becoming selective: 'We’re starting to get fussy about what we are eating now and the five-day packs of food are being raided for the good one,' says Ross. 'I have suggested that we just put all the food in one bin and we eat whatever we like and leave the ‘not so good stuff’ till last which will motivate us to push harder to get into port, but Campbell doesn’t like the idea.'
On Campagne de France, Halvard Mabire – a veteran of five Whitbread Round-the-World Races – was side tracked by geography: 'We passed 60 miles west of a small heap of rocks in the middle of nowhere rising out of the 4,000 metre abyss,' he reported late on Wednesday night. 'On the chart, they’re marked as the St. Peter and St. Paul Islands and appear no bigger than fly-droppings. They’re the sort of place you’d find by mistake and although in the vast ocean hitting one of these remote islands is about as likely as walking into a door in the middle of the desert, it’s always worth keeping an eye on the chart, but I’ve no idea what happens on this rocky little outcrop or its history.'
Mabire’s archipelago was discovered by a fleet of six Portuguese caravels – under the command of a Captain Noronha - in 1511, and as a warning to the six Class40s, the islands were named after the expedition’s ship, Saint Peter, rammed straight into one of the islands. Charles Darwin stopped-by three centuries later and logged some seabirds and, having dug around in the guano, identified a range of beetles and parasitic ticks.
In the 1920s, Sir Ernest Shackleton dropped-in en route to the Antarctic and in 1960 the archipelago was the start/finish location for the world’s first underwater circumnavigation by the nuclear submarine, USS Triton. More recently, floating wreckage from Air France flight 477 was located nearby. The islands are currently occupied by a team from the Brazilian Navy undertaking research, while there are rumours of a diplomatic link between the archipelago and the Independent State of Wikipedia.
While all observations offshore by the GOR skippers are interesting, the alliance between the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and the teams in the GOR is providing invaluable input for scientific research with the Eyes of the Oceans programme. During Leg 1, the Class40 teams have recorded and photographed marine wildlife and debris with accuracy and detail that will assist greatly with the evaluation of natural trends, wildlife behaviour and population and human impact on the marine environment. So far, observations have included whales; dolphins; tuna; insects at immense distances offshore; plastic and polystyrene debris; oil spills and floating fields of seaweed.
As the GOR fleet sails close the Equator, marine wildlife sightings are declining slightly and even the nocturnal attacks by flying fish are decreasing in frequency. However, both Financial Crisis and Phesheya-Racing have been bird-spotting (see the latest Featured Gallery). On Tuesday, Marco Nannini and Paul Peggs found an elegant, white bird clinging to their bowsprit.
Hugo Ramon takes 'Flashy' for a swim in the Doldrums - Global Ocean Race 2011-12
The egret-like wading-bird, named Giusy by the Italian-British duo, has since moved aft and has taken-up residence: 'Showing no fear and no respect, she’s one attention seeking, annoying little princess,' says Nannini.
'It turns out she works in the fashion industry, does some modelling and acting and is used to the finer things. Tall and slim, she eats very little but shits a lot, which suggests she may be on a laxative diet.' Moving to the boat’s interior had unpleasant consequences: 'Last night she picked my cabin, made it her room for the night only to move to the starboard side in the morning once she’d run out of places to cover in bird poo and looked at me expecting to clean it all up.'
Since then, the atmosphere on board Financial Crisis has developed a distinct chill and the bird has been evicted from the Class40’s cabin: 'Now Giusy hangs around at the back of the boat with that sad look of someone that clearly does not make friends easily, to which I always say, good control of bowel movements is a big plus in modern society,' reports Nannini. 'We have no idea what type of bird it is, nor have we any idea what to do with it.' One thing is certain, the bird now considers that the boat is home: 'It won’t fly away, or if pushed off, circles around the boat and lands back in the cockpit,' he continues. 'Land is far from here in any direction, so perhaps she’s hitching a ride back to Brazil or islands such as Fernando da Noronha.'
While Nannini and Peggs play host to Giusy, Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire had a baffling encounter: 'Today Phesheya-Racing would like to announce the discovery of a new species of bird: the Equatorial Sea Owl (Phesheyus Pippapotamusus, named for the place and the discoverer),' says Leggatt. 'This unique species appears to inhabit the pelagic waters of the Equatorial Atlantic over 550 miles from the closest land,' he confirms. 'It does not appear to roost on the water, but hunts by foraging by day around yachts.
'Unlike other owls which have a call sounding like ‘who, who’, this species sounds more like ‘where, where’,' Leggatt explains. 'If anybody would like to dispute our discovery, they need to explain in detail how a land-based owl came to be flying around 550 miles from the Cape Verde Islands and 850 miles from Brazil. They also need to tell us exactly what type of owl it is so that we can verify it independently.' However, Leggatt adds an unlikely explanation: 'For anybody who thinks it may have been a pet that escaped from the captain's cabin on a ship, please would they inform us and we can forward the last known position.'
Phillipa Hutton-Squire aboard Phesheya Racing - Global Ocean Race 2011-12
Global Ocean Race website