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Clipper Round the World Yacht Race fleet face steep seas

by Heather Ewing on 10 Mar 2012
Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race fleet Bruce Sutherland/onEdition
Clipper 2011-12 Round the World Yacht Race fleet are on the fifth day of race nine from Qingdao to Oakland, California. The crews of the ten 68-foot yachts have no sooner begun dipping their toes in the waters of the Pacific Ocean than Mother Nature has issued a stern warning of what they are getting themselves into.

'Quite fruity’ would be a good way to describe conditions off the south of Japan presently,' explains Singapore’s skipper, Ben Bowley. 'Yesterday afternoon saw us tack north again to try and regain the elusive Kuroshio Current. Before long we had a good 2.5 knots of current giving us a good kick in the right direction. This combined with a building headwind to give us some fairly confused and at times breaking seas. The height of these waves is not the tricky element to them, rather the steepness at which they fall away once we have crested them. This makes doing anything down below (sleeping) and on deck (helming) very difficult indeed.

'Before dark we elected to change from the Yankee 1 to the 3 and drop in a reef as the wind was starting to build rapidly and had started to gain some consistency in direction and strength. Within a few hours we had dropped to the second reef and were in the process of dropping the Yankee 3 when the bow submarined through one particularly nasty wall of water masquerading as a wave. All life jackets inflated and one very unlucky Graeme Pettyfer was securing a sail tie one second then over the guard wires hanging from his life line the next.

'At the call of Man Overboard we immediately hove to and plucked Graeme back onto the heaving deck. Due to some swift action and sheer brawn from the foredeck crew, Graeme was lucky to get away with only a huge adrenaline kick and a very wet pair of boots. It was, however, a solemn reminder as to why we not only train for such eventualities but also ensure all safety equipment standing orders (life jackets and harness especially) must be adhered to stringently.'

In their compulsory and comprehensive pre-race Clipper Training the crews are drilled time and again on safety procedures, including Man Overboard, so that in a situation like this the reaction becomes second nature. The importance of being clipped on to the yacht is always stressed. Graeme will be the first to acknowledge the procedure is a vital one.

Singapore continues to race, maintaining their second position despite the drama.

'This morning sees us fully reefed with staysail and storm jib, smashing our way onwards to the Pacific in 35 knots of apparent wind at good speed and course. In the words of a great hero of mine; the experience of last night has left the crew of Singapore a little shaken but not stirred.'

Derry-Londonderry, which was neck and neck in second place with Singapore at this time yesterday, went into Stealth Mode at 1200 UTC on Thursday for 48 hours.

Because the Pacific crossing is so long the Sailing Instructions for this race make provision for two 24-hour periods in Stealth Mode which can be taken consecutively.

Derry-Londonderry’s crew will be hoping that playing their joker so early in the race pays off.

Without giving away their position skipper Mark Light reports, 'We are experiencing a highly charged upwind adrenaline ride at the moment along the southern coast of Japan. We have up to 40 knots of wind at times and since yesterday we have gone steadily down through the sail wardrobe, now flying only our very reliable staysail with two reefs in the mainsail. Down below is like being in a washing machine inside a concrete mixer! Above decks is noisy, physical, very wet and very wild.

'We are making good progress (testament to how powerful and strong our Clipper 68s are) but life is hard and also very tiring. Trying to make best use of the strong and favourable Kuroshio Current has the downside of a particularly short, sharp, steep sea, testing both boat and crew alike.'

While Derry-Londonderry has disappeared from view to everyone but the Race Office, where the watch can still track their position for safety reasons, Welcome to Yorkshire is piling on the pressure on the front runners in what skipper, Rupert Dean, describes as 'trench warfare conditions.'

'The crews on all boats are having to dig deep. That's certainly the case on Welcome to Yorkshire where the crew has been working very hard these past 24 hours. From the relatively light conditions of yesterday when we were flying full main, staysail and Yankee 1, the crew have changed down through all the sail change evolutions to the present plan of a treble reefed main and staysail.

'Every change requires a massive physical effort from the on deck watch, from hauling the heavy sail bag on deck, hanking the smaller sail on, aggressively pulling the larger one down, hoisting the new one, then dragging the redundant one back to be flaked, bagged, then sent below.

'That's in addition to the effort required to put reefs in, trim the sails and generally move and function about the deck. Below it's pretty tough too. The mother watch (Jim Stamp and Michelle Dewhurst yesterday, Richard Simons and Paul Bray today) is valiantly handing hot cups of tea to the on deck team, whilst performing minor miracles to produce wonderful food from the galley. Meanwhile chain gangs of crew regularly empty the bilges to offset the large volumes of water that come below from the submerged decks. That everyone does this with good humour and without complaint is enormous testimony to their character and endurance. It certainly shows the importance of teamwork at every level on this Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.

'The next couple of days will bring more of the same, though with hopefully slightly reduced wind speeds. Assuming this occurs, it will allow my team to re-gather their energies before the next big blow sweeps in, giving us reaching conditions to head north east towards the Scoring Gate. Until then, it's all about battening down the hatches, digging deep and choosing the correct tack to be on, balancing good VMG on port tack against the benefits of keeping in the beneficial Kuroshio Current on starboard.'


Richard Hewson, skipper of the current leader, Gold Coast Australia, says, 'It is certainly a case of a baptism of fire for the new crew on board as we now battle our way towards the low pressure system off the south east of Japan. Tactics for how to get on to the next stage of the race and what side of the low pressure system to take are still undecided and the present conditions that we are experiencing will probably determine this outcome.

'Early this morning while putting in our second reef our first reefing pennant broke, resulting in some quick problem solving to get the sail roughly laid on the boom to prevent sail damage when the reef was put in. A blessing in disguise came a couple of hours after when we found ourselves practically becalmed in between two frontal systems. This gave me the opportunity to get up on the boom and lace a new reefing pennant as well as do some quick repairs on the mainsail where the leach cord had become detached.

'Being on port tack for any length of time is bringing with it some discomforts (apart from the three-metre steep seas, increasing swell and windy, shifty conditions). As our battery charger literally went up in smoke a few days ago we can only charge our main batteries while upright or on starboard tack. As a result we are on power restrictions; lights and communication systems are switched off leaving only the necessary nav systems running to preserve power, hence a drop in emails from us until we can tack.'

There are more difficulties for the other Australian team, Geraldton Western Australia, where illness has swept through the yacht. Bugs can easily get passed from one crew member to another in the close confines of a 68-foot ocean racing yacht.

'Sailing along on the Kuroshio, or black snake, was a pleasurable experience, getting pushed along at ten knots in little breeze,' reports Juan Coetzer. 'Throughout the day the wind had been building steadily. By sunset we had the Yankee 2 up and two reefs in the main. There is a bit of a tummy bug going around, taking most of the crew. So sadly it is time to throttle back and try to get the crew back to health. In the early hours of this morning the wind picked up to 35 knots of breeze. Our only option was to hove to and drop the sail, as there was only three crew on watch. I even found myself on the foredeck pulling the sail down!'

There is no option of taking a sick day and riding it out under a blanket on the sofa watching daytime TV when you’re racing across the largest ocean in the world!

Meanwhile on board De Lage Landen the team has been kept busy with a series of sail evolutions in quick succession.

Stuart Jackson explains that they are planning to reduce their sail plan even further in the strong winds.

'Since the start of this leg, we have been quite lucky with gentle and steady winds. Only after last night we have been putting reefs in, and shaking them out as if there was no tomorrow. Early this morning the weather suddenly turned to a steady 30 knots of true wind. In only one hour we put three reefs in the main sail and swapped our Yankee 2 down to a storm jib. As the massive waves lift the yacht to airborne status we have decided to take down more sail and play it safe and secure until the weather calms down a little.'

All of the yachts are reducing sail area in the testing conditions, knowing they must preserve yacht, equipment and crew for the remaining 4,700 miles of this race.

'As we head east we have worked down through reefs and head sails and are now beating with a fully reefed main and our staysail in three to four-metre seas. With waves breaking over the yacht it’s making working on deck very hard and wet for the crew. Helming is more like wrestling a tiger!' notes New York’s Gareth Glover.

'We have lost the other yachts that we had on AIS and are now out on our own, planning our next move or tack in very changeable weather. Both watches are working hard under the guidance of the watchful eyes of watch leaders Lloyd Cosby and Martin Woodcock, keeping them safely on deck and focused on racing hard.'

It isn’t only on deck that races are won and lost – the teams’ mother watches play a vital role in helping to maintain morale by keeping the crew fed and watered with tasty and filling food just when it is needed. The sheer physicality of simply moving around a yacht in these conditions burns energy, never mind then having to manhandle sails.

'We have just had a great hot lunch of meaty bread and tomato soup which has warmed up the off coming watch ready for their bunks, and the guys on deck are managing well despite the constant soaking,' Olly Osborne, Visit Finland’s skipper, reports.

'The weather has become more severe as the low to the south of the fleet deepens which is providing some fairly lumpy conditions as the wind runs against the prevailing current. But we have set the boat up with a suitable sail plan and life on board is still fairly comfortable.'


Equally, on board Qingdao, the crew are coping well in the 'bouncy' conditions, according to skipper, Ian Conchie.

'Our decision to head inshore seems to be working as the fleet stays close. We have had up to three knots of current pushing us east which is helping maintain some great speed but the wind has picked up and at one point we had 40 knots, forcing us to drop the Yankee and run under staysail and thee reefs alone.

'This linked with the sea state is starting to take its toll on the crew with sleep hard to come by as the boat launches off waves before slamming down hard. By the end of a watch the crew come down soaked by the constant rain and spray. But, thanks to the Qingdao spirit and some amazing efforts from the mothers, the mood remains good. It has been a baptism of fire for some of the new crew doing their mother shifts in this weather; one commented that he didn't think he would need climbing gear just to get around the galley!'

Edinburgh Inspiring Capital’s crew, too, have been working their way through different sail plans to accommodate the varying conditions.

'Last night brought us fickle wind, either very light or totally blowing it's bits off,' says skipper, Gordon Reid. 'We have been working hard with lots of sail changes and tacking to stay in the current. We are pretty much maxed out on our VMG in almost 40 knots of breeze. The sea state is a little rough but we can still make excellent progress in our chosen direction.

'As we continue to close on the fleet we are keeping a keen eye on the developing lows both behind us and to our north and how they have been impacting the position and movement of the North Pacific High. Soon it will be time to strike out in some deep blue water and cross the planet’s biggest ocean. Can we make it above the high with the northern limit set at 42 degrees north?

'The race is about to get a whole lot more interesting so keep watching!'

Positions at 1200 UTC, Friday 9 March 2012
Boat - DTF*
1 Gold Coast Australia - 4,715nm
2 Singapore - 4,734nm (+19nm DTL**)
3 Welcome to Yorkshire - 4,735nm (+20nm)
4 Qingdao - 4,740nm (+26nm)
5 Geraldton Western Australia - 4,750nm (+35nm)
6 New York - 4,764nm (+49nm)
7 De Lage Landen - 4,774nm (+59nm)
8 Visit Finland - 4,778nm (+63nm)
9 Edinburgh Inspiring Capital - 4,798nm (+83nm)
10 Derry-Londonderry - 4,914nm (+199nm) Stealth Mode: position at 1200 UTC 8 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race website

Barz Optics - FloatersInSunSport - NZBakewell-White Yacht Design

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