Clipper Round the World Yacht Race 2011-2012 second race in leg one, which started in Madeira and will finish in Rio De Janeiro, is currently underway. Being at the front of the fleet is never a relaxing place to be, especially when the wind dies and the chasing pack starts to close in.
But that is exactly the uncomfortable position that Richard Hewson and his crew onboard Gold Coast Australia are in as they approach Rio de Janeiro at the end of race two. With Welcome to Yorkshire eating into their lead, pulling back 17 miles in 24 hours, Gold Coast Australia is just 47 miles ahead with just 400 miles to go.
Skipper Richard Hewson admits he is looking over his shoulder: 'As predicted Gold Coast Australia is currently sitting between two weather systems and experiencing very little wind as we continue our run down the Brazilian Coast. This will allow the rest of the fleet to make some ground on us over the next 12 hours or so and we are constantly monitoring Welcome to Yorkshire's position.'
But Gold Coast Australia will be relieved to know that Welcome to Yorkshire is also battling with falling breeze.
Skipper Rupert Dean said: 'The wind is decreasing in the area we are in, causing the fleet to compress. Its direction is slowly backing to the east north east, moving the windex [the arrow at the top of the mast showing the wind direction] aft towards a beam reach. The challenge for Gold Coast Australia, Singapore and ourselves is to keep our boats moving adequately under white sails until the moment comes when we can hoist the spinnaker.'
But timing the switch to the spinnaker correctly is crucial, he explains. 'Hoisting too soon forces you to bear off towards the Brazilian coast, risking losing wind and current close inshore. Hoisting too late adds unnecessary extra distance away from the rhumb line, which may result in the wind backing totally behind you, making it difficult to hold a course exactly where you want to go,' Rupert said.
Like Gold Coast Australia at the front, Welcome to Yorkshire is following every move of her rivals in order to capitalise on any opportunities that arise. 'Even at this late stage, the race is still relatively wide open so we are avidly studying each other's positions at each sched to determine our next move. The distance to Rio might seem relatively small yet to us those cold beers seem some distance away,' Rupert said, in the hope that the distance to the finish provides enough time for his team to reel in the leaders.
Ben Bowley, skipper of Singapore, said his crew has been kept on its toes over the last 24 hours as the wind has backed to a more easterly direction. 'This has meant that the crew has needed to keep a constant eye on sail trim with the direction and strength changing on a minute-by-minute basis. This is where it is so important to keep the focus and ensure that the boat is constantly trimmed just so for the conditions keeping the boat speed as high as it can be.'
Despite the wind angle now being favourable to fly the spinnaker on Singapore, Ben is understandably apprehensive following the steering failure they experienced earlier in the race. 'The wind is now far enough aft that it would be advantageous to set our spinnaker, something that we have not done since our steering failure. We are still very wary of loading up the temporary repair too much but also keen to try and gain some miles on the boats in front,' Ben said.
Like so many things in ocean racing it is a balancing act to push the boat as hard as possible without risking damage that could put the crew right at the back of the fleet. 'I have had to be patient and persuade the crew that it’s better to finish in third than to bust the steering and have some of the boats behind us snatch our precious podium away from us,' Ben concedes.
After encountering very little traffic since leaving Madeira, the fleet is getting accustomed to a much higher level of shipping as they approach Rio and its surrounding oil fields. The ten crews keep a good look out round the clock, both visually and using radar, to ensure that they keep well clear of the giant vessels which are becoming a more common sight.
Geraldton Western Australia set sail in race two (from Madeira to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) of the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race - onEdition ©?nid=87872
Geraldton Western Australia skipper Juan Coetzer said: 'There are a lot more ships about these days and every once in a while we call them up just to check they have seen us. Every time they respond with same question: ‘What are you doing out here?'
As well as dodging shipping, the teams are also dealing with numerous squalls and the resulting wind shifts. Mat Booth, skipper of De Lage Landen, said: 'Last night was a bit like a mine field of squalls, dodging some and taking others squarely on the chin. The main annoyance of these pesky clouds is the considerable, normally unfavourable wind shifts that come with them. The crew has been dealing with them admirably, tucking reefs in quickly and playing the main traveller and sheet like pros!'
Increased shipping traffic is also keeping Mat’s crew on its toes. 'As we head towards Rio shipping has increased. With over a hundred oil rigs between us and the finish I've reminded the crew of the importance of vigilance when it comes to keeping a sharp look out,' he said.
Ian Conchie on Qingdao said his crew is regularly tracking up to four ships at a time as they progress southwards. The extra vigilance is paying dividends though as they have also spotted a number of large whales as well as lots of flying fish. A less welcome sight for the Qingdao crew is the increased level of rubbish in the sea they have seen over recent days.
'After a couple of weeks out away from land we have got used to lovely clear water and now to start seeing plastic bottles, bags and so on floating past is proof if any were needed that we are nearing land again,' Ian said.
New York set sail in race two (from Madeira to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) of the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race - onEdition ©?nid=87872
Crew member on New York, Andrew Priest, admits that the crew is starting to feel the strain after its first Atlantic crossing of the 40,000-mile circumnavigation. 'Ocean racing requires 24 hour vigilance and effort and we are all starting to feel the strain of the four weeks we have been at sea since Southampton, excluding our short, and now seemingly long-ago, pitstop in Madeira. Heads need servicing, clothes need a fresh water wash and most of the crew need a very thorough high pressure hosing down,' he said.
To help break the monotony of a long ocean race, the New York crew has been indulging in some liquid refreshment that is proving popular with various Clipper teams according to recent reports: the UHT chocolate milkshake.
For Gareth on New York, the recipe involved mixing milk powder and chocolate powder with water and then shaking the concoction in an empty five-litre juice bottle.
'It might not have been Monaco style and Tom Cruise in Cocktail it certainly was not, but it was something different and helped make our dinner of beef stew taste even sweeter,' Andrew reported.
Meanwhile, trailing Edinburgh Inspiring Capital by 203 miles at the back of the fleet Derry-Londonderry has been tackling the Ocean Sprint with mixed fortunes. As the point is on offer to the fastest boat between five degrees south and 10 degrees south, approximately 300 miles, the team’s position relative to the rest of the fleet is immaterial.
Derry-Londonderry’s skipper Mark Light, said: 'Although we didn't have a great wind angle, we were travelling directly south so had the benefit of the shortest route between the two points. We started well with speeds up to 9.5 knots but then got totally becalmed after a squall for about an hour and since then we’ve suffered one squall after another all night.'
In the middle of the fleet with some 314 miles to the leader, Visit Finland is still pushing hard. Skipper Olly Osborne said: 'We are now making great speeds and really pushing hard to maintain a 10-knot average speed. The wind is further forward than it has been over the last couple of days allowing us to push for greater speed on a fine reach during the last sprint towards Cabo Frio [the final waypoint].'
Although a podium finish might be out of reach, an inter-watch competition is underway to see which watch will cover the most miles to the finish. 'I am sure the overall effect on the boat speed has been very beneficial, and the winning watch will be treated to a three-course meal with wine by their crewmates,' Olly said.
Olly said that things might reshuffle as the boats reach the more fickle breeze along the coast. 'We are hanging on to our fifth position and although it seems unlikely that we will reach the lead boats the crew are focused on making the extra miles,' he said.
As every ocean racer knows, the race is not over until you are safely over the line and that line is still a nerve-wracking distance away even for the leaders. Right at the front of the fleet, Richard Hewson on Gold Coast Australia will be all too aware of this. 'It’s never over till the fat lady sings,' another skipper has reminded him this week. He will be hoping that the big woman is tuning up as his crew battle to stay ahead as they eat up the miles to the finish over the coming days.
The first boats are expected to arrive in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday. Positions at 0900 UTC, Monday 29 August Boat / DTF*
1 Gold Coast Australia / 400nm
2 Welcome to Yorkshire / 447nm (+47nm DTL**)
3 Singapore / 483nm (+83nm)
4 New York / 636nm (+236nm)
5 Visit Finland / 715nm (+314nm)
6 Geraldton Western Australia / 812nm (+412nm)
7 Qingdao / 874nm (+477nm)
8 De Lage Landen / 877nm (+477nm)
9 Edinburgh Inspiring Capital / 923nm (+523nm)
10 Derry-Londonderry / 1,127nm (+726nm)
DTF* = Distance to Finish, DTL** = Distance to Leader. Full positions are updated every three hours and can be found here
. Clipper Round the World Yacht Race website