Global Ocean Race - Southern Ocean bares its teeth

Hugo Ramon at the helm - Global Ocean Race 2011-12
Finanical Crisis
The Global Ocean Race fleet have been at sea on a journey that has reached 17 days and a distance of 4,000 miles of hard racing. They are now set to undergo the toughest sailing so far in Leg 2 from Cape Town to Wellington, New Zealand as the Southern Ocean bares its teeth.

Currently hammering along the GOR’s ice limit at 45S, 700 miles south of Australia, fast reaching in northerly breeze of 30-35 knots, the fleet leader, Cessna Citation, has been consistently polling averages of 16 knots with BSL hard on the chase in second reporting surfs of 25 knots as the two boats pile east on the edge of control.

Passing north of the western end of GOR’s Australian Ice limit at 10:00 GMT on Friday, Campagne de France in third is experiencing monstrous, rolling waves and gusts of 30 knots with the forecast predicting that a solid 40 knots is on the way. Having already spent two days in a violent, three-reef, Roaring Forties centrifuge with gusts up to 45 knots, Financial Crisis and Phesheya-Racing are unable to shake off the strong stuff and with a solid 40-45 knots blasting from the south-west, the two Class40s are barrelling east in building seas.

Having climbed north and rounded the western end of the GOR’s Australian Ice Limit in first place at 08:00 GMT on Thursday, Conrad Colman and Sam Goodchild freed-off and let their Akilaria RC2 go, rapidly climbing through 15-knot averages and sustaining 16 knots for five hours. Consequently, Cessna Citation has spent much of the time semi-submerged:

'We’ve been back to having bricks of water thrown at our heads and outdoor fashion has reverted back to the full sailor’s burka with only the eyes showing,' reports Conrad Colman.

'On my Gill Ocean Smock I can even close this gap by ducking my head inside my collar, leaving me impervious to the spray, but blind into the bargain!' With conditions on deck unsustainable, Colman and Goodchild handed control over to the autopilot. 'We’ve since averaged 16 knots with surfs to 22 on the back of waves and as the wind builds we’ll have to come up with some clever ways to slow the boat down!'

Throughout Friday, Cessna Citation polled averages between 13-16 knots, adding to the lead over Ross and Campbell on BSL building a 71-mile margin by 15:00 GMT on Friday afternoon. Although handing over to the autopilot prevented exposure to freezing water and wind chill, the speed and motion of the Class40 made conditions down below extremely hard:

Conrad Coleman fights the elements - Global Ocean Race 2011-12
Cessna Citation
'Even sitting is a work out as one constantly braces against the wild motion,' Colman explains. 'Somehow I don’t think we’ll see the Southern Ocean Ab-Master 40 in any infomercials anytime soon:

‘Do you want to smell bad, eat crap food but get abs to die for? Buy the Southern Ocean Ab-Master Express 40 for only three easy payments of €200,000! Call now and we’ll give you a race around the world for free!’.'

Celebrating the longest period he has spent offshore, Artemis Offshore Academy sailor, Sam Goodchild, was in good spirits. 'The plus side to all of this bumpy stuff is that we are going fast and since climbing north yesterday, the temperatures have risen to something slightly more bearable again,' observes Goodchild. 'Still, general day-to-day happenings are a bit of a chore, getting dressed to go on deck can take 15 minutes - a length of time I have never associated with putting clothes on before!'

Reaching the Australian Ice Limit four hours after Cessna Citation, Ross and Campbell took BSL up to 13-14 knot averages overnight. On Friday morning, Ross Field was enjoying the chase: 'Bloody exciting stuff and we must keep pushing because the ‘Young Ones’ are sailing extremely well,' he comments acknowledging the team ahead despite dropping 13 miles to Cessna Citation in 24 hours. Throughout Friday, BSL maintained averages of 12-13 knots, keeping eight miles north of the ice limit at 45S:

'Some would question our sanity if they saw what went on these small 40-footers deep in the Southern Ocean,' Ross continues. 'It’s freezing cold and the motion is unbelievable - whether you are on deck or below you are thrown around like you would never believe as the waves crash over the boat, as you blast down along at 25 knots.' However, the adrenaline sailing has extracted a price: 'Both of us have injuries from being thrown around,' he confirms. 'Bashed hips, sprained wrists, bruising to all our bodies.'

With five circumnavigation races to his credit, Ross Field is astonished by the physicality of a Class40: 'I can never remember the other races like this,' he admits. 'They have been in bigger boats which makes it easier, and fully crewed, but these boat are flat out racing skiffs, slightly modified for ocean racing,' explains Ross.

'Last night I wondered how in hell a boat can take this punishment as some waves hit the side of the boat with such force it felt like the boat had been pushed sideways - you blast off down a huge wave and the boat becomes airborne and then crashes down nearly driving the mast through the bottom of the boat….'

While Cessna Citation and BSL continue fast reaching, Halvard Mabire and Miranda Merron in third on Campagne de France, 319 miles due west of the Fields at 15:00 GMT on Friday, were gybing downwind in building westerly breeze:

'It looks like perfect downwind spinnaker conditions on paper with 20-25 knots of breeze - but it doesn’t take into account the sea state, which is like a witch’s cauldron plus the brief, 30-knot gusts,' Miranda Merron reported on Friday morning. 'An earlier attempt with the fractional spinnaker was cut short after only a short while due to the extremely high likelihood of disaster,' she adds.

'Especially given that one of the several competing wave directions was on the nose, so the boat was slamming into oncoming waves downwind at speed, which is a novelty,' Merron continues. 'There are some waves that when the boat is on top it is rather like being on top of a hill from where the view of the surrounding countryside is uninterrupted, but it’s best not to look behind at some of the monsters lining up just metres behind us.'

Weather files suggest that the stronger winds would reach Campagne de France at around midday GMT. 'There’s 30-40 knots of full foam-up of a gale on its way to us very soon,' she confirms.

Meanwhile, 630 miles west of Campagne de France, Financial Crisis and Phesheya-Racing continued to receive a beating as the Roaring Forties dug its teeth in and bit down hard.

At 15:00 GMT on Thursday, the South African duo of Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire - in fifth place and furthest south - took evasive action, gybing onto port in very strong, south-westerly breeze and headed north-east, climbing away from the large, low pressure system churning eastwards to the south of the two Class40s. Marco Nannini and Hugo Ramon on Financial Crisis held their course, dropping south during Thursday night.

Rough conditions for Phesheya-Racing - Global Ocean Race 2011-12
Phesheya Racing

However, both options achieved the same result – horrific conditions. On Friday morning, Marco Nannini took stock of the situation: 'We’re getting a little more entertainment than we had anticipated,' he commented dryly. 'The wind has piped up to 40-45 knots.'

At dawn on Friday as the breeze grew, Nannini and Ramon changed from small spinnaker, down to Solent, then staysail with reefed main and were still surfing at 20 knots. 'One wave, bigger than the others, gave us a fright and we nose-dived into the next wave so deeply that the boat came almost to a halt, decelerating very violently then spinning sideways while the wave that had sent us flying crashed over us,' recalls the Italian skipper.

Disaster was just avoided: 'Hugo was thrown forward out of the bunk and luckily got away with just a sore head, but the wave crashed and gallons of water washed through the companionway and onto the chart table.' The main hatch was sealed shut seconds before another wave broke over Financial Crisis, swamping the cockpit.

With the wind dropping to a relatively sedate 30 knots, Nannini and Ramon could breathe easily for a while: 'It’s been a bit better for some time and adding to the irony there is very pleasant sunshine coming in through the windows,' he reported mid-morning. 'But it takes just a look at the seas to be in total amazement.' Analysing the weather downloads doesn’t help morale: 'We could be in this weather for the next 48 hours before any improvement and hopefully it will mean fast progress and nothing more, but I am worried about waves getting even bigger,' adds Nannini.

In 40 knot south-westerly gusts, 173 miles off the port quarter of Financial Crisis and sailing under triple-reefed main and staysail, Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire were also studying a variety of weather files with mounting confusion on Phesheya-Racing.

'The weather forecast from the Australian Met Office says we should be getting SW/NW winds of 25-33 knots with rough seas and a moderate swell,' explained Leggatt on Friday morning. 'Meteo France, on the other hand, says the seas are very rough to which, I guess, the Aussie response to that would be ‘Harden the ***k up, mate!’,' he reasons. 'Personally, looking out the hatch, I would go along with the French on this one!'

Averaging just under nine knots at 15:00 GMT on Friday, the surfing speeds on board have been astonishing: 'The autopilot is working like a star as we surf down monster waves,' Leggatt continues. 'Maybe not up to the standards of Cessna Citation, but nonetheless, 23.4 knots under autopilot on a 40-foot boat is quite a moving experience.'

The Southern Ocean has been relatively empty of wildlife other than masses of birds following Phesheya-Racing and the South African duo have been missing the company of mammals, until now: 'For the second consecutive day we have been accompanied by dolphins, the first we have seen since Cape Town,' says Leggatt.

'In the flat, grey light of the Roaring Forties and amidst the tumbling, breaking waves we only catch fleeting glimpses of them, so haven’t identified them with certainty, but there are usually ten or 12 of them around the boat.'

GOR Leg 2 leaderboard at 15:00 GMT 16/12/2011:

1. Cessna Citation: DTF 2,776 13.2kts
2. BSL: DTL 71 12.8kts
3. Campagne de France: DTL 390 10.8kts
4. Financial Crisis: DTL 1,005 11kts
5. Phesheya-Racing: DTL 1,178 8.8kts

Global Ocean Race website