The Global Ocean Race 2011-12 has now began week four with a fast dash south for fleet leaders Campagne de France and BSL as a high-pressure system north-east of the Falkland Islands was predicted to spread across the South Atlantic and shut the door for a downwind Leg 1 finish line in Cape Town, South Africa.
By Wednesday, Halvard Mabire and Miranda Merron on Campagne de France and Ross and Campbell Field on BSL had built a 600-mile separation over the remaining Class40s as the long-awaited cold front rolled over the leaders and a knockdown for the Fields signalled the beginning of the New Zealand duo’s steady gains on Mabire and Merron.
On Friday, Cessna Citation leading the fleet’s second wave was into south-easterly headwinds spinning of the top of the high-pressure system as the leaders chased a low pressure system towards Africa, fast reaching in an Antarctic blast of south-westerly wind.
Early on Saturday morning, Ross and Campbell Field took the lead, ending Mabire and Merron’s 24-days at the front of the fleet as the gap between BSL and Campagne de France and the following pack opened to 1,000 miles with the four chasing Class40s hammered by headwinds gusting over 30 knots.
With 1,100 miles remaining to the Cape Town finish line for the leaders, the final week at sea and the Leg 1 title will be decided by sheer determination, boat reliability and stamina. At 15:00 GMT on Sunday, BSL and Campagne de France were separated by 17 miles with Ross and Campbell Field sailing 50 miles to windward of Mabire and Merron averaging just under nine knots.
The four Class40s over 1,000 miles to the north-west of the leaders are now confronted with the centre of the high-pressure system 300 miles to the south, directly in their path. Conrad Colman and Hugo Ramon in third place with Cessna Citation have been making painful tacks to the east over the weekend while Marco Nannini and Paul Peggs on Financial Crisis and the South African duo of Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire on Phesheya-Racing have remained on port tack, heading west of south.
Meanwhile, the Dutch duo of Nico Budel and Ruud van Rijsewijk on Sec. Hayai are furthest north, taking the eastern option. Budel and Van Rijsewijk switched onto starboard tack late on Saturday afternoon to hitch further east: 'We changed course and in about ten minutes the wind increased to 33 knots and every ten seconds there was a very heavy bump,' 72 year-old Nico Budel reported on Sunday. 'It doesn't matter where we go, east or south, it’s the same weather everywhere. It ain't going to get better soon, so we will have a very rough and bumpy night.'
South of Sec. Hayai by 198 miles at 15:00 GMT on Sunday, the picture was very similar on Cessna Citation: 'I’ll admit, I was beginning to get depressed,' confesses 26 year-old Hugo Ramon, the youngest competitor in the fleet.
'We’re permanently soaked to the skin and each time a wave comes back down the boat you just clench your teeth, put your head down and prepare for the impact. It was getting endless.'
However, Ramon soon pulled himself together: 'Then I reminded myself that I’m down in the South, racing on a powerful boat and living the dream – it doesn’t get much better!' At 15:00 GMT, Colman and Ramon were furthest east in the main pack with a 179-mile lead over Nannini and Peggs, further to the west with Financial Crisis.
Despite the good spirits on Cessna Citation, the conditions are becoming brutal: 'It feels like you're going round for round with Mike Tyson,' explains Ramon’s co-skipper. 'Conditions out here are seriously uncomfortable,' Conrad Colman continues. 'The waves are huge, steep and irregular. Even hand steering it’s impossible to miss the holes in the ocean that swallow the boat with jarring ferocity and under pilot, the falls from waves are truly terrifying. I fear constantly for the boat and the rig.'
While both Campagne de France and Financial Crisis have lost their primary and secondary masthead instruments, this vital equipment is still intact on Cessna Citation: 'We haven't lost anything, except our minds and our sense of humour,' confirms Colman.
'While we have both of our wind wands, they are getting scrambled and the information cannot be trusted, either by us or the pilot. Three times just now we fell of a particularly large wave and the boat has tacked by itself, sending Hugo and I rushing into the cockpit to right the boat and rescue the stacked sails that were on the windward side and were then perilously close to being washed away.'
While the Akilaria RC2 has survived intact, Colman hasn’t been so lucky: 'Last night I fell from the bunk as a gust hit, sending me sprawling and straining the thumb on my right hand,' confirms the 27 year-old Kiwi. 'Not normally a deal breaker when at home, but it’s been a real impediment out here, especially with unexpected tacks that require instantaneous attention.'
Sunrise in the South Atlantic - Global Ocean Race 2011-12 - Finanical Crisis
Furthest west in the fleet with Phesheya-Racing, Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire were also taking a hammering: 'Last night it was 20 degrees below deck,' reports Hutton-Squire. 'As the waves were still rushing over the decks, the spray was coming straight down the hatch,' she continues.
'Everything got covered in salt spray, the bilges started to fill up with salt water making life a little uncomfortable and the sea state is still confused this morning with big swells and short choppy waves on top.'
At 15:00 GMT on Sunday, Phesheya-Racing was in fifth place trailing Sec. Hayai to the east and closer to the direct route to Cape Town by 133 miles, but making the best speed averages in the fleet at just below nine knots despite the poor conditions. 'You sail up the back of the wave and suddenly there is nothing and the boat comes crashing down with an almighty great big smack,' explains Hutton-Squire. 'The whole boat shakes while you grab something to hold onto, close your eyes and hope that everything will be OK. When this happens twice a minute, you start to get a little frustrated and start talking to the sea and the boat!'
For the main pack of Class40s, a decisive moment in Leg 1 has arrived as options have to be taken shortly to avoid being sucked into the windless centre of the high pressure system squatting to the south. As Conrad Colman explains, there is no easy or obvious choice: 'We are currently sitting at a fork in the road as regards the routing and the favourable path changes with each updated GRIB file,' he reveals. 'So, for the moment we are trying to keep our options open while still covering Marco and the others. What is sure is that there will be a lot more bashing and crashing in the days to come.'
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