As the six Class40s in the double-handed Global Ocean Race 2011-12 (GOR) entered the funnel between Spain and the African coast, the fleet’s ranking positions altered as the teams squeezed into the 110-mile wide section of the Mediterranean and Alborán Sea leading to the Strait of Gibraltar.
Having led the fleet since the start in Palma Bay on Sunday, Ross and Campbell Field on the Verdier Design Buckley Systems Ltd (BSL) set the pace over the first 24 hours of racing: 'We are off like a robber’s dog,' reported Campbell Field late on Monday. 'Great start and it felt very good to lead around the first mark,' he continued. The Fields held a convincing lead throughout Sunday night and Monday in around 17 knots of north-easterly breeze supplying a fast route south-west towards Gibraltar: 'We’re hooked into it and we are off. Charging along, big gear up and loving every minute. My personal 24 hour high has been finally starting this fantastic event: the only low-point has been bidding farewell to my wonderful wife and beautiful son for the next six to seven weeks.'
However, the Fields’ grip on the leadership was challenged shortly before midnight on Monday as the New Zealand-Spanish duo of Conrad Colman and Hugo Ramon on their new Akilaria RC2 Cessna Citation took the lead south of Cabo de Gata on the Spanish coast: 'The passage passed Gibraltar is the first stumbling block of this leg,' confirmed 26 year-old Hugo Ramon. 'With tailwinds, it seems that the differences in speed are not going to be very important,' predicts the fleet’s youngest co-skipper. 'At the moment the big boss seems to be BSL, but on Cessna Citation we’re still experimenting with the sails, so we’ll have to see how it goes.'
By early Tuesday morning, the Fields and BSL were back in the lead with Cessna Citation under one mile astern with 90 miles to Gibraltar and the Franco-British duo of Halvard Mabire and Miranda Merron in third with their Pogo 40S² Campagne de France just eight miles behind BSL with the leading trio on port gybe averaging between eight and nine knots in 14 knots of westerly breeze.
While BSL, Cessna Citation and Campagne de France took the central track to Gibraltar in stronger breeze, the two first generation Akilarias, Phesheya-Racing and Financial Crisis, gybed onto starboard heading towards the Spanish coast. For the Italian-British duo of Marco Nannini and Paul Peggs on Financial Crisis, the passage towards Gibraltar was near-perfect with their 2007 Akilaria hitting 20 knot surfs: 'The wind picked up and off we went free surfing,' says Nannini. 'Launching the boat down the small Mediterranean waves, with a gust of wind behind, the hull takes off in a wall of spray, grin on the face, concentrating hard on keeping the boat upright... fantastic stuff.' For the South African duo on Phesheya-Racing, the close–quarters sailing following the start was an opportunity to measure-up against the opposition: 'As the day progressed, the wind has been getting stronger and stronger,' Phillippa Hutton-Squire reported on Monday. Nick Leggatt and Hutton-Squire took the opportunity to launch their new, bluQube-branded A6 spinnaker: 'It is now blowing over 20 knots from the ENE and the sea has become quite rough,' she continued. 'Cessna Citation and Campagne de France are both close by, on our starboard side, and flying bigger spinnakers, so it will be interesting to see if we have made the correct choice!'
As the majority of the fleet experienced stunning and fast conditions over the first full day at sea, the Dutch duo of Nico Budel and Ruud van Rijsewijk encountered early problems on board Sec. Hayai in sixth place: 'On Monday evening our gennaker A2 went in the water and we had to cut the tackline,' confirmed Van Rijsewijk early on Tuesday. 'It was heavy work to bring it back on the boat! There is damage to the sail and we’ll see if it is possible to repair it,' he adds. 'We can only sail with the main, very slowly!!' Despite the setback, positioned north-east of the fleet in stronger breeze, the Netherlands duo polled the fastest speed at times throughout Tuesday.
The coastal, northern option taken by Phesheya-Racing and Financial Crisis proved risky and at 08:00 GMT on Tuesday morning, the northern pair of boats gybed back onto port: 'We crossed paths and overtook Phesheya,' explains Marco Nannini on Financial Crisis. 'We had a chat on the VHF and they reported a couple of broken mainsail batten cars and a conservative night - which explains our gains,' says the London-based, Italian skipper. 'After that, we managed to put some distance between us until we sailed into a wind hole and literally the wind died on us.' Throughout Tuesday morning, Financial Crisis and Phesheya-Racing remained on port gybe, picking up speed as they reached the stronger band of breeze further south with the South African team keeping a six mile lead over Nannini and Peggs. 'We are both quite tired, the night was long and windy and we were apprehensive when the wind was gusting well over the range of the sails we had at the time,' admits Nannini. 'We have to balance the desire to catch-up and the reality that we cannot afford to break anything.'
While Nannini and Peggs continue to tread a narrow line preserving their boat and resisting the temptation to hammer their Class40 in all conditions, Leggatt and Hutton-Squire have already repaired the breakages on Phesheya-Racing: 'The wind was blowing around 24 knots when we gybed and unfortunately we damaged two of the mainsail luff cars,' confirms Hutton-Squire. 'We had to put in two reefs in order to repair the sail. One of the batten cars had to be hand stitched back into the sail, while the other car just needed to have the bungy replaced,' she reports. As the South African duo approach Gibraltar, the Mediterranean’s pinch point is becoming crowded with more than the predictable increase in commercial shipping traffic: 'We saw three large turtles and a short while later there was a loud bang from under the boat,' recalls Hutton-Squire. 'A fourth turtle maybe?'
As part of the alliance between the GOR and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), all the teams have been requested to help with valuable scientific research and log and photograph wildlife sightings throughout the 30,000 mile circumnavigation: 'Sea life has included a lot of dolphins and some flying fishes,' she records. 'There has been surprisingly little bird life, though we have seen a few swallows (heading north?!), and for a while we had a small swarm of flies on board!' The EIA has also asked the GOR teams to log evidence of marine debris: 'Today we have seen quite a bit of garbage in the sea, including an inflatable beach toy in the shape of a dog!' adds Hutton-Squire.
By Tuesday afternoon, 80 miles of restrictive, downwind sailing remained before leaving Tangiers to port, exiting the Mediterranean and entering the North Atlantic. While fleet leaders BSL and Campagne de France in third remained on port gybe, Colman and Ramon, holding second place with Cessna Citation, headed off towards the Spanish coast on starboard, polling the best speed in the front trio initially, but slowing dramatically and gybing back south-west, dropping a place to Mabire and Merron on Campagne de France in the 15:00 GMT poll while the Fields and BSL maintained an 11 mile lead.