Clipper Round the World Yacht Race 2011-12 fourth race from Cape Town, South Africa to Geraldton, Western Australia is currently underway.
After the Southern Ocean showed the Clipper Race fleet just how harsh and unyielding it can be during the previous few days, today’s skippers’ reports are filled with superlatives for the adventurous crew members who continue to battle against one of Mother Nature’s toughest environments.
'The last 24 hours we have not really been racing, more a case of being taken for a very wild ride by one of the most extreme parts of the world in which to go sailing,' reveals Singapore skipper, Ben Bowley.
'Our course and sail plan was dictated by the conditions rather than trying to get to Geraldton as fast as possible ahead of our competitors. Having written in yesterday’s report that I thought we were through the worst of the weather, it appears I was sorely mistaken,' continues Ben, with his team currently occupying seventh position.
'For most of the day yesterday we were seeing winds in excess of 40 knots and the occasional gust up to 60 knots. This was before our instruments decided to give up and not tell us what we were experiencing! We tried several sail combinations to find one that suited the conditions and finally settled on three reefs with a staysail.'
The infamous Southern Ocean is often classed as the ultimate challenge with crews taking on the bitter cold, huge waves and the uncompromising winds.
'Sail too slow and there was not enough steerage to control the boat against the mountainous, steep, breaking seas or carry too much sail and face the terrible prospect of broaching beam to the sea when the wind gusted up and the helm lost concentration for a split second,' warns Ben.
'Once again it was the waves that provided the greatest challenge; this is not to say that the experience was wholly unpleasant; seeing the awesome raw power of Mother Nature in all her fury is an experience few are privileged to see in their lifetime.'
Helming in such conditions is just one of the reasons why people from all walks of life sign up to take on the elements and take part in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.
'Although there were lots of very wide eyes looking aft and upwards as a breaking crest threatened to poop us, again, these were balanced out by the broad grins of the helmsman feeling the thrill of a 40-ton yacht surfing over three waves at a time in excess of 20 knots for up to 20 seconds at a time!'
As the crews look forward to the next sleigh ride today sees a chance for maintenance, kit checks and general drying with relative ‘calm’ conditions.
'Another Southern Ocean depression has passed over us, the strong winds have abated somewhat and the swells have decreased significantly. This gives us a few days to get back to some more sensible and familiar downwind sailing (if you can call 30 knots sensible!)' explains Derry-Londonderry skipper, Mark Light.
'What an experience for everybody on board, big winds, big swells, large waves, very physical helming and all round demanding conditions! Now we have a chance to check over our boat particularly all deck fittings, chafe areas and possibly dry out some clothing.
'This boat, by the way, handles everything superbly well - these Clipper 68s are very strong boats, well proven in these areas and there are not many boats that could stand up to the constant battering that she has - we are very proud of her! People are more likely to get some proper rest as there are some pretty tired looking faces around the boat today. We now await the next large scale onslaught which is sure to arrive within the next few days. This Southern Ocean is definitely one place that you must see and experience... but not necessarily come back to,' signs off Mark.
Meanwhile current leaders, Gold Coast Australia, find themselves being hunted down by New York as skipper Richard Hewson ponders the role of a skipper on board a Clipper Race yacht.
'There are times on board when everything is going well so a skipper will almost feel unneeded during this race and then come the times when you wish that you had a mate along.
'Gold Coast Australia has had a reasonably slow 24 hours in comparison to the ground that we should have covered due to a myriad of small problems caused by damp and cold,' says Richard, as his crew are tested by the harsh conditions.
'Sailing in the Southern Ocean, whilst very beautiful, is very draining on the body’s energy levels, the bitter cold sifts through layers of thermals, mid-layers and shell to bite away at the skin causing crew to get terribly cold. When one gets cold your ability to think and concentrate is depleted leading to small mistakes that unfortunately sometimes can compound to larger mistakes. Daylight brings confidence back as people can see again and the problems seem to dissolve into the night.'
Just 14 nautical miles ahead of New York in second, Gold Coast Australia hope to maintain their lead in the race to Western Australia.
'We will soon be altering course for Geraldton but we have decided to make the most of the westerly winds in the south before heading north. Whilst the nights are cold, temperatures do seem to be warming up as the wind from the north has increased sea and air temperatures and while we are as far south as we were four days ago, temperatures are at least double what they were being 11C.'
Focused on putting an end to Gold Coast Australia’s winning streak is New York skipper Gareth Glover, as his crew relished the Southern Ocean’s recent conditions.
'With all the crew briefed and mainsail reefed and with the head sail down the barometer got to a low of 998 at around 1400 UTC and with the winds blowing 40 to 50 knots plus. We were in for a great night of racing, with speeds up to 22 knots as we surfed down waves in the pitch black.
'Sometimes a wave hit the side of New York and it must be what is like to be hit by a bus at 40mph; the whole yacht would stop in the water and crew were thrown around like dolls from one side of the yacht to the other. You can try and hang on but you just got ripped from where you were to where you got put by the sea. Most of the time it was more like racing a sub than a racing yacht,' reports Gareth.
'Everything is wet from the crew bunks to the 14 pairs of gloves trying to dry on the water heater. The wind has fallen and the barometer has risen so all eyes are on the weather coming our way and which yachts’ tactics pay off and which don’t...'
Currently making good ground on Qingdao in fourth, fifth placed Welcome to Yorkshire felt the full brunt of the tricky conditions as their surroundings become a little more placid.
'What a difference a day makes!' comments Rupert Dean, the Yorkshire entry’s skipper. 'Yesterday saw Welcome to Yorkshire absolutely flying along under deep reefed sails on a beam reach. With good boat speed and the help of the Southern Ocean current, we were regularly achieving VMG speeds towards Geraldton of 13 knots!'
However racing through one of the most extreme environments on the planet did not come without a cost as two of Welcome to Yorkshire’s intrepid adventurers suffered minor injuries.
'Helming and living conditions during the gale were challenging to say the least. Chief of Staff and Media Guru, Ann Finch, took a tumble out of the cockpit when a rogue wave lay our boat onto its beam end, illustrating the importance of being clipped onto the vessel at all times. The same wave produced carnage below decks too. Guy Jackson, on mother watch for the day, was hurled onto one of the galley surfaces, badly bruising his lower back in the process, whilst jam and Branston pickle pebble dashed the whole area. Both are now ok and are recovering well. A big thanks to Keith Pickering for taking on Guy's duties for the rest of the day, for cooking on board can be challenging at the best of times, not least on a gale ridden day.'
Qingdao in the Parade of Sail in Cape Town, South Africa, at the start of Race 4 - Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race - Bruce Sutherland/onEdition
Looking to hold off the advancing challenge of Welcome to Yorkshire is the Chinese entry Qingdao.
'In the last 48 hours our conservative approach has allowed our friends on Welcome to Yorkshire to eat into the gap between us, which in a way is fair as they lost so much avoiding the icebergs. Now we are starting to focus to getting the purple dragon back up to full racing speed again to hold them off!' reveals skipper, Ian Conchie.
'The low pressure system has passed over us and some blue sky has returned. During the night we were slowly able to start shaking reefs out as the wind dropped until this morning we had the full main again.
'This morning we hoisted our medium kite and made good progress for a while until the wind picked up a bit and at the same time we spotted that the bearings in one of our spinnaker sheet blocks were starting to fail. A quick drop later and the number 2 Yankee rigged polled out and we could inspect both spinnaker blocks and we found that both bearings needed servicing so that work is now under way.
'We are approaching half distance now and it will feel great to pass that milestone. We just need the wind to hold to speed us towards Geraldton. Unfortunately with the approaching high pressure the wind gods may yet foil us again.'
Currently in a battle of their own are Visit Finland and Edinburgh Inspiring Capital as the Scottish entry’s skipper, Gordon Reid, cherishes the recent ocean racing.
'With the good comes the bad and with bad comes the good, life is like a lesson you learn when you're through. The ocean racing team on Edinburgh Inspiring Capital have learned a few lessons and all had their lives enriched by a good old Southern Ocean kicking!
'Sometimes it gets a bit splishy and a bit splashy and you have to dig a little deeper, once more the team delivered the goods when it counted! If you think it sounds dramatic and scary reading the blogs, get yourself down here and feel the awesomeness of Mother Nature in her full untamed, wild, furious glory!'
The conditions recently experienced by the ten-strong fleet are the exact ones in mind when the Clipper 68s were designed and built as they surf on swells bigger than buildings, breaking helming records in the process.
'Everybody wants a piece of the action but for now our helming record stands at 25.4 knots set by our very own elusive Scarlet (Nick Barclay). In second place we have Trrriiiinnngg (Rich Abraham) with 25.2 knots, Keith (aka Capt. Haddock) is in third with 24.8 knots follows by the Skipper (aka Capt. Scotland) with 24.5knots. We have had lots of 18s and 19s but only over the 20s make it onto the skipper’s league table.
'The good Ship Edinburgh Inspiring Capital (aka the Purple Beastie) rode the storm and she awaits the next one... we are all standing by to stand by!'
Just 12 nautical miles behind the Scottish boat is Visit Finland, skippered by Olly Osborne.
'Some really exiting sailing has been had as the weather peaked about lunchtime yesterday. With the boat able to carry only the smallest of sail plans we surfed down the faces of waves that we had only moments before been looking up at.
'At this end of the fleet we experienced a really defined front, and the temperature dropped noticeably as the wind backed and often gusted up into the 50 knots. Everyone enjoyed the sheer might of the elements although we were all glad that it reached its worst during daylight for us. Occasionally when you reached the peak of a wave as it passed beneath the boat you could see for what seemed like miles over the furrowed, white streaked seascape, and it does serve to remind you how remote this place really is.'
Geraldton Western Australia races away from Cape Town - Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race. - Bruce Sutherland/onEdition
Racing into their home port is Geraldton Western Australia, whose crew currently find themselves in sixth position after the most ferocious weather of Clipper 11-12 so far.
'The sea state was rather confused at times, boiling with anger as the winds came roaring through. We weren't too sure of the highest wind gusts, as we had no instruments, but spin-drift starts at about 45 knots (this is where the wind lifts the water and creates long streaks of spray across the water),' explains Geraldton Western Australia skipper, Juan Coetzer.
'Our top speed was 25 knots, which was more like falling down a canyon’s cliff face and then skidding along rapidly when we hit the bottom. This morning everything has calmed down, we are currently cruising along with our medium weight spinnaker and full main, possibly a good day for showers and a boat tidy up.'
Also set to savour the comparative settled conditions are De Lage Landen.
'It's another cold, grey morning on the Big Blue Canoe as we continue our traverse of this lively but inhospitable stretch of sea,' reports skipper, Stuart Jackson.
'Despite the cold, the crew is enjoying a well earned and most welcome reprieve from the stormy conditions. The flatter sea state has allowed everyone a chance - and footing! - to pick through the wreckage of wet hats, gloves and socks and they're wringing buckets of water from personal kit. We're pleased with our performance relative to the rest of the fleet and will keep the pressure on the front runners.' Positions at 0900 UTC, Tuesday 18 October:
1 Gold Coast Australia 2238nm* 0nm**
2 New York 2253nm 15nm
3 De Lage Landen 2295nm 58nm
4 Qingdao 2391nm 154nm
5 Welcome to Yorkshire 2411nm 173nm
6 Geraldton Western Australia 2462nm 224nm
7 Singapore 2495nm 257nm
8 Derry-Londonderry 2581nm 343nm
9 Edinburgh Inspiring Capital 2618nm 381nm
10 Visit Finland 2630nm 392nm
*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