The Global Ocean Race fleet have now been at sea for fifteen days in Leg 1. The Class40s are currently straddling the Doldrums with the leaders some 200 miles north of the equator and sailing over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
Both Cessna Citation in third place and Financial Crisis in fourth are locked into the exhausting and potentially boat-damaging cycle of squalls and calms, the fleet leaders, Campagne de France and BSL, found the Doldrum’s exit and relatively stable south-easterly breeze early on Tuesday morning.
Phesheya-Racing and Sec. Hayai – north of the leaders and taking the most western approach to the Doldrums – continue to make the best speeds in the fleet as their final miles in the North East Trades arrive.
On Monday evening, 26 year-old Hugo Ramon could already see evidence of the Doldrums crackling and hissing just over the horizon: 'Yesterday we began to see lightning very far away,' he reported from Cessna Citation. 'I feel a bit like Frodo Baggins contemplating Mordor in the distance. I know we have to enter into the realm of darkness and there is absolutely no going back.' Overnight, Ramon and co-skipper, Conrad Colman, sailed straight into Middle Earth with speeds dropping to sub-six knots as Marco Nannini and Paul Peggs on Financial Crisis piled down from the north averaging nine knots and taking 20 miles from the lead held by Cessna Citation.
By daybreak on Monday, both the Class40s were locked in the Doldrums with speed averages fluctuating from two to five knots. Conrad Colman had spotted the first towering wall of stacked cumulonimbus clouds on the previous evening: 'These are so large that they can be individually picked out on our satellite images as they develop so much thunderous energy surging vertically through different layers,' he reported at midday on Monday.
'These clouds rule our world completely and the towers of power can flip the wind 180 degrees and quadruple its intensity in an instant.' The immense and rapidly rising columns of air heated by warm seawater build the cloud stacks with the air eventually cooled at high altitude: 'Rain starts to fall and soon all that vertical energy is going the other way. Droplets of rain push the air down which then splays out in all directions, like a jet of water on a spoon when it hits the ocean.'
The trick in the Doldrums is to evaluate which part of the vertical cycle a cumulus cloud is occupying and whether it is a ‘growing’ or ‘crushing’ cloud: 'As the growing cloud sucks air into its centre, the tactic is to pass to windward as its suction will augment the prevailing winds and your speed,' Colman explains.
'As a crushing cloud blows out in all directions, you need to be on the other side of the cloud, relative to the wind, in order to get the boost. Confuse a growing cloud with a crushing cloud at your peril as to pass on the wrong side means to be completely becalmed.' By mid-afternoon on Tuesday, Colman and Ramon had found some breeze – or the correct side of the clouds – and picked up pace to six knots with Nannini and Peggs 81 miles astern.
While Cessna Citation and Financial Crisis deal with the Doldrums, Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire in fifth with Phesheya-Racing and Nico Budel and Ruud van Rijsewijk in sixth with Sec. Hayai were averaging between seven and nine knots 430 miles north of the leader. On Phesheya-Racing, Phillippa Hutton-Squire recorded a landmark: 'Today the log reading reached 3,000 miles which is approximately 10 per cent of the entire Global Ocean Race route, so we are clearly making some progress!' However, their swift descent towards the Equator was threatened as all the signs pointed to a change in conditions:
'The wind has been quite shifty and gusty since midnight on Sunday, so we have been working hard at keeping the boat trimmed correctly and have changed a couple of times between the A4 and the Downwind Code Zero,' she explains. 'At the moment, we have the Zero up as the wind is shifting steadily eastwards as we approach a dark mass of clouds on the southern horizon and early this morning we saw flashes of lightening coming from the same area.'
In the 15:00 GMT position poll on Tuesday, Phesheya-Racing and Sec. Hayai were still in the easterly breeze, separated by 21 miles and closing down rapidly on Financial Crisis and Cessna Citation, taking over 40 miles from the lead of Nannini and Peggs since dawn as the longer, westerly option began to look increasingly favourable. As the South Africans head towards the Doldrums, Leggatt and Hutton-Squire are consistently logging and photographing wildlife and marine debris as part of the scientific research programme and partnership between the GOR Organisation, the GOR teams and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA):
'Last night we sailed close past a large, white plastic box floating on the surface, the first significant sign of rubbish we have seen in several days,' notes Hutton-Squire. 'Sea life tally today: thousands of flying fishes and a lone petrel. Nothing else.'
On Monday, Halvard Mabire and Miranda Merron were still picking their way through the Doldrum’s cloudscape: 'We still haven’t escaped the Doldrums and there are some spectacular cumulomonsters growing around us, but we have at least had some wind today, and not a moment too soon,' reported Miranda Merron. Campagne de France picked up speed in the mid-morning as Ross and Campbell Field hovered 11 miles astern with BSL.
Miranda Merron - Global Ocean Race 2011-12 - Campagne de France
'The Doldrums have certainly lived up to their name with vast, windless areas and enormous cumulomonsters,' she continues. 'The one thing that we haven’t had so far is violent gusts with the squalls and one moment there is an innocuous-looking, small cumulus cloud and ten minutes later, it has grown into a towering beast, and generally heading in our direction.'
The scenery has been consistently dynamic: 'Yesterday, we saw a waterspout and last night at sunset we were hemmed in on all sides by highly active clouds and we weren’t disappointed with the show - lightning, massive wind shifts and torrential rain which is always more fun at night!'
By 05:00 GMT on Tuesday, Campagne de France and BSL were clear of the Doldrums and into the South-East Trade Winds averaging a little under nine knots. By 15:00 GMT, they were 20 miles apart with Mabire and Merron squeezing an extra handful of miles into their lead since dawn. Campbell Field described the scene on BSL:
'We came out of the Doldrums relatively unscathed,' he wrote on Tuesday morning. 'Only one serious downpour which was very, very welcome and washed all that red Saharan dust off the boat and gave me a well-deserved rinse. There were numerous sail changes, one trip up the rig and a few sleepless days and nights, but it all seems a long time ago as we settle into the easy miles shy reaching to the south-west.'
With Campagne de France the windward boat and the Fastnet Marine Scoring Gate 450 miles to the south-west off the Fernando de Noronha archipelago as the next target, flat-out speed is a priority: 'It’s a two-horse drag race to Fernando right now,' continues Campbell.
'Halvard and Miranda have taken the high road, we have opted for the low road and only time will tell how this will pan out. We think we have it right, but then again, probably, so do they.' Having hand steered constantly through the fluctuating breeze in the Doldrums, the focus is now on sail choice and trim: 'Every spare item is stacked high and aft, the pilot is fully employed and minor trim adjustments are the routine,' he adds.
Sunrise off Africa - Global Ocean Race 2011-12 - Campagne de France
The Fastnet Marine Insurance Scoring Gate: The Scoring Gate for Leg 1 is located off the south-western tip of Fernando de Noronha, a tropical island and UNESCO World Heritage Site located 220 miles off the coast of Brazil. The GOR Class40s must cross a short line between the island’s south-western headland and a waypoint located at 003 52.6S/032 32.0W.
Point scoring at the Fastnet Marine Insurance Gate and all other GOR Scoring Gates during the circumnavigation is based on the fleet size with points awarded in multiples of one. With a six-boat fleet, the winner receives six points; second place receives five points, third place receives four points, last place receives one point.
The same scoring system is applied to points awarded for each leg in the GOR, but with multiples of five. With a six-boat fleet, the winner receives 30 points, second place receives 25 points, third place receives 20 points, last place receives five points.
Having crossed the Fastnet Marine Insurance Scoring Gate, the next mark in the Leg 1 course is a red channel marker buoy at the Cape Town finish line approximately 3,361 miles to the south-east across the South Atlantic.
Global Ocean Race website