by Oliver Dewar
Global Ocean Race (GOR) 2011-12 leg one started on Sunday 25 September 2011 from Palma, Mallorca. In the 15:00 GMT position poll on Thursday, Ross and Campbell Field leading the double-handed, Class40 fleet on BSL are just 117 miles from the finish with an ETA of early Friday morning at the Cape Town finish line with an 87 mile lead over Halvard Mabire and Miranda Merron on Campagne de France in second.
Chased by squalls to the finish line - Global Ocean Race 2011-12
While the final miles for the leading pair of Class40s has been exceptionally tough with squalls delivering two knockdowns for BSL, the pack of four Class40s strung out in a line 670 miles across the middle of the South Atlantic remain frustrated by the collapsing high-pressure system blocking their route to the finish.
After 32 days and 6,700 miles of racing through the Mediterranean and North and South Atlantic, the final route into Cape Town has been exhausting for the Fields on BSL and Mabire and Merron on Campagne de France. Having opted for a southerly approach to the finish in the hope of finding stronger breeze, the Fields found between 20-48 knots with sustained periods of 30-25 knots. 'We wiped the poor old boat BSL out twice and one time was a real beauty,' reports Ross Field on his last day at sea in Leg one. Running under a fractional spinnaker in around 28 knots, Campbell Field spotted a squall and the spinnaker was swiftly swapped for a headsail. 'We did everything correctly and prepared for a squall of 35 knots max, but it just kept increasing to 48 knots and we were charging, up over waves, through waves, down waves at speeds of over 20 knots and then, finally, I planted poor old BSL into the bottom of a huge roller and she came to a grinding halt,' Ross continues. 'She tipped over on her side, keel flapping in mid-air, and I thought the rig was going to be blown out of the boat and land on Table Mountain.'
However, the mast stayed vertical: 'We got BSL back on her feet and we were off again,' he confirms. 'Man, she is a tough boat, and a pleasure to sail,' adds Ross. 'I have said to Campbell on many occasions that BSL is the most incredible reaching boat that I have ever sailed on - sometimes it’s like she is on rails and just goes faster and faster until you start thinking - when is this boat going to slow down - bloody amazing!!' Following the knockdowns, some less demanding conditions were required: 'It’s been blowing dogs off chains and policemen out of doughnut shops for nearly 18 hours and we’re looking forward to some lighter airs.' After a slight drop in breeze early on Thursday morning, the Fields were back up to speed at 10 knots in the afternoon for a fast finish.
With a finish ETA of Friday afternoon, there is no let-up for Halvard Mabire and Miranda Merron: 'For the past few days we have been sailing in the 'Tedious Thirties',' wrote Merron on Thursday morning. 'We’re beset by squalls and malevolent clouds on a boringly regular basis, day and dark night. At times the entire sky can be cloud-free, blue or full of stars, but for ONE large cloud with Campagne de France on the menu.' With just over 200 miles remaining at 15:00 GMT, the run into Cape Town will demand every reserve of energy. 'We are still very much in squally conditions, trying to find the right balance, being vigilant while keeping up speed towards the finish.'
West of Cape Town by a little under 2,000 miles, the main pack in the GOR fleet are staring at an area of light breeze separating the four Class40s from a quick route to the finish line. In fourth place with Paul Peggs on Financial Crisis, Marco Nannini explains the scenario: 'There’s little anyone of us can do about this high-pressure,' admits the Italian skipper. 'Cessna further east will have their path blocked and will have to come south at some stage; Nico Budel [Sec. Hayai] is driving south to this big park up and Phesheya is approaching the pay-and-display area from the north-west.' The outlook appears bleak: 'As none of us will be able to outsail this system, we all have to wait for it to dissipate and the new wind to fill.'
At 11:00 GMT, Cessna Citation in third place made their move: 'We have finally tacked south with our tail between our legs and our fingers crossed,' reported Conrad Colman on Thursday afternoon. 'Our mission over the last couple of days has been to skim the edge of the high-pressure to our south, inching carefully eastwards until we could get fresher breeze on the other side to slingshot us to Cape Town,' he continues. 'Unfortunately, the high has expanded and dissolved into mush that has left us wallowing and wondering if we were back in the Doldrums!' In the 15:00 GMT position poll, Colman and his Spanish co-skipper, Hugo Ramon, were making 4.2 knots with a 165-mile lead over Financial Crisis. 'Imagine our disgust then when this morning’s routing showed that the fastest route to the finish was by diving south in a semi-circle that would add over a thousand miles to our course,' adds Colman.
The navigation software on Cessna Citation delivered a blow to morale on board: 'Up until seeing that, I was feeling pretty good about our prospects, but it feels like we’ve impoverished ourselves to make gains to the east, and we’ve now bet the farm on a pile of iron pyrite. What fools.' Currently, the plan for Colman and Ramon is to keep heading south: 'At a minimum, we’re moving to try to cover the others and recalibrate ourselves with our previous routings,' he explains. 'Let’s see if we’ve bought ourselves a pile of gold, or useless rocks.'
Meanwhile, furthest south and west, Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire on Phesheya-Racing are playing a delicate game between two weather systems. 'Phesheya has been making steady speed despite having the high-pressure system so close to her on her port side, slowly creeping around the edge,' explains Hutton-Squire, who has been studying the clouds intently and watching the pressure. 'The clouds describe the high pressure on our port side with clear skies,' she says. 'On our starboard side, in the low pressure system, there are cumulonimbus clouds and rain squalls. The barometer, which we watch on our Garmin hand held GPS, has been indicating whether or not we are getting too close to the high-pressure and whether we should bear away or head up.' In the 15:00 GMT position poll, Leggatt and Hutton-Squire are now south of the latitude of Cape Town in sixth place, trailing Nico Budel and Ruud van Rijsewijk on Sec. Hayai – 600 miles north-east of the South African’s – by 167 miles.
GOR Race Ambassador, Dee Caffari, has been watching the tactics of the main pack of Class40s: The beers enjoyed by BSL and Campagne de France while they reflect on the race will not be drunk without a thought for the four remaining yachts on the race course,' says Dee. 'These teams have had completely different weather to deal with and have all taken a different option,' she continues. 'The blocking high-pressure in the South Atlantic has been moving to the East and the crews await some new weather to fill in either from a front spinning off an active Southern Ocean low or from activity coming from the Brazilian coast. Patience is being tested and that is tough to deal with as you see the front runners finish, as you know they are enjoying showers, fresh food and a cold beer or two.'
While there is a very long way to Cape Town for the main pack, Caffari explains there are still challenges and risks for the leaders: 'The countdown is reduced to just hours now, but it’s by no means over until the first boat crosses that line as light and often fickle winds can make some staggering changes as the race comes into Cape Town,' says Dee. 'Table Mountain is not only an iconic backdrop to sail towards, but it can have an astounding influence on the weather; the notorious blanket of cloud that rolls from the mountain and that huge wind shadow that can be formed leaving boats floundering in no wind within sight of the finish.'
View a video of Dee Caffari discussing the final stages of Leg one with GOR Race Director, Josh Hall, here.
Global Ocean Race website