On a 7,000 nautical mile leg from Portugal to South Africa there are a number of legs within the leg. For example, the first stage is from the start in Portimão to the equator. Well perhaps the doldrums to be more precise.
It’s generally fair sailing down the African coast dealing with steady trade winds during the day with an occasional squall at night. The days slowly get hotter and the humidity rises. This stage of the race is all about boat speed and tactical positioning. You want to sail as fast as you can bearing in mind three big obstacles; the Canary Islands, the Cape Verde Islands and the big one, the doldrums.
As a general of thumb the doldrum belt can be anywhere from 200 to 500 miles wide and they get narrower the further west you go. This of course is subject to change as global warming and other climatological factors make meteorological analysis more of a guessing game than a science. The sailors, however, have to base their plans on historical data and a general gut feeling so as they sail south they will be studying the weather closer to the equator. The boat that transits the doldrum belt the quickest will make big gains on the others, and the boat that gets through to the new wind on the other side will slingshot out into the lead for the second half of the leg.
On board each of the boats they have sophisticated weather programs to receive satellite weather, crunch the data with the performance data of the boat and predict the best course to sail. As I said, it’s an inexact science so the teams also make use of land based weather experts that study the same data and give them routing advice.
It’s clear from the race tracker that Boris Herrmann and Felix Oehme on Beluga Racer feeling the first effects of the doldrums. Their speed has dropped to 4.6 knots, the slowest of the fleet by a large margin. It will be a trying and tense time for the two German sailors as the watch their hard earned lead evaporate. The race will compress at the equator and the distance between the leader and last boat will narrow. There is nothing Boris and Felix can do other than to stick to their strategy and keep their nerve. The absolute worst thing they can do is second guess themselves and try and get over to a different part of the ocean. They will have made their decision where to cross the doldrums a few days ago and now they are going to have to deal with it.
Desafio Cabo de Hornos, Roaring Forty and Team Mowgli have been getting similar advice from their weather routers; go west. As weather expert Chris Tibbs who is giving advice to Salvesen and Thompson on Team Mowgli said in his analysis: 'Streamline analysis indicates getting as far west as possible over the next 24-36 hours as the wind due south of you is likely to be light and variable. Hopefully Beluga Racer will find this out. After 36 hours the ITCZ (doldrums) should narrow and a path to the south through it will be possible.' The race tracker shows Mowgli trying to get over to the west without giving up distance on their competitors. Desafio Cabo de Hornos has made a lot of westing and looks to be in a good position and Michel Kleinjans on Roaring Forty is playing the middle ground.
Further back in the fleet Kazimir Partners and Hayai are through the Cape Verde Islands. Nico Budel on Hayai was abreast of Brava, the smallest island in the chain. Brava is a sparsely populated, mountainous island and it’s unlikely that Nico would have seen many lights. The South African’s on Kazimir Partners were not worried about land or lights, they had other issues to deal with as Peter Van Der Wel described in his log. 'After a great evening and probably one of the few boats with wind this morning, we were making up some lost ground but lost it all again when the spinnaker halyard snapped at the sheave. The sail ended up in the water and it took a great effort to retrieve it from the ocean. The spinnaker sock acts as a good sea anchor. We tried to run another halyard but were not successful and we have decided to wait for better sea conditions. This has been my second trip up the mast, and am getting a little tired of it. The good news is that the sail was recovered.'
Side story - in 1989 I raced the Whitbread round the world race with the Russian entry Fazisi. The boat was late to launch and underfunded. As we approached the doldrums we were dead last, 15th out of 15 boats. Satellite weather and real time data was just being introduced and the navigators on the big budget entries were all below crunching numbers and analysing data. All we had was a bad weather fax out of dakar with a few isobars scribbled on it. So we did what all good sailors should do; we looked out the window. We found the breeze that was there and by skill and gut instinct we managed to come from 15th to 5th place. It’s a good lesson, one I am sure that Nico Budel will appreciate.