Clipper 2011-12 Round the World Yacht Race fleet are currently on day five of race six, from New Zealand to Gold Coast Australia.
With truly champagne sailing conditions, warm sunshine and the worst of the weather behind them, the teams are clearly enjoying this stage of the race. All the more so as they are so tightly bunched they are within sight of each other, which is spurring on the crews to wring every last knot of boat speed from their yachts.
The north-south divide has been an interesting one, with the gamble only really paying off for Visit Finland in the south at this stage, while Geraldton Western Australia and De Lage Landen have installed themselves in the top half of the fleet with their tactic of heading further north.
The situation is summarised perfectly by Singapore’s skipper, Ben Bowley, who writes, 'The race is on! We were joined this morning in the northern group by both Gold Coast Australia and New York and things have really started to get interesting.
'At one point today the distance separating second and eighth place was just over ten nautical miles; this is the kind of close racing that is only achieved by sailing in a matched one-design fleet. Although there are just over 800 miles still to sail, all of the teams are having to dedicate 100 per cent focus in a bid to get a slight edge over the competition,' he continues.
'Kudos to De Lage Landen for timing their gybe to perfection earlier today; it really paid dividends in terms of position and goes to illustrate how 30 minutes can make a massive difference when the racing is this tight! Soon the sun will set and we shall have the added complication of keeping the boat perfectly trimmed in the dark. This is when mistakes get made so coffee and concentration will be required in spades.'
Singapore is enjoying a tussle with Qingdao, although Ben admits they are finding it hard to squeeze past them.
But, he continues, 'The crew have been experiencing the kind of highly competitive champagne, brochure sailing that makes this race the unique in the world of yachting. Sun cream, shorts and big floppy hats were de rigueur on deck today and it was a delight to hear the crew quietly communicating opinions and instructions back and forth amongst themselves.'
Meanwhile on the Chinese entry, skipper Ian Conchie tells us, 'A good night’s sailing under the Yankee 1 making good speed west wards towards Australia was made even better by the wind backing around to allow us to hoist first our medium kite this morning and then swap it for our lightweight kite before lunch.
'The northerly route allowed us to catch up the fleet overnight and this afternoon we were joined there by some of the other boats so the airwaves have been filled with chatter between the skippers. The midday scheds gave us the good news that we had been waiting for in that we had moved up to sixth and we now await the evening update to see where we stand.
'We were also buoyed by the news that our injured crew mate Jo, who we medevac’d in Tasmania, has made it to Sydney and should hopefully be flying home soon. We all wish her a speedy recovery and all the best.'
For the last 24 hours the conditions for most of the fleet have been light and fairly fluky and New York’s skipper, Gareth Glover, describes it as 'moving around us as fast that the leader board is!
'New York has just been holding on to fifth place but with only ten miles from being in second or ninth place the crew are working hard at keeping boat speed and course. The question is do you go north or south of the rhumb line and sail more miles or follow it and sail fewer miles and hope it all works out? Our overall plan has not changed from when we left New Zealand but we are looking at the wind forecasts, trying to work out where is the best place to go. Most of the fleet can see each other and see what sails they are using so it’s going to be hard to make up miles on the others.'
The southerly half of the fleet has begun moving to join the others in the north to take advantage of the more favourable winds but, warns Gareth, 'Looking at the long range forecast there may be a big wind hole opening up over the Gold Coast when we get there.
'This race again is going to go to the wire and that gold flag and much needed points are there for the taking. We will be looking to hold on to our third place overall and get closer to that Number One slot.'
That’s the sound of a gauntlet being thrown down.
But Gareth and his team know that Gold Coast Australia is not going to give up this one easily. If Richard Hewson and his crew win this stage it will be the first home port victory since Clipper 07-08 and only the third in the history of the race. They are also on the verge of equalling the longest consecutive winning streak in the race’s history – six in a row.
With the teams match racing so closely, victory for the Tasmanian skipper and his crew will not come without a fight and, says Richard, 'Gold Coast Australia has experienced a very frustrating 24 hours filled with light winds but very nice trade winds-type sailing.
'Our plan of attack was to use the better winds to the south to sail a more direct course to Southport while the winds lasted and then head north into the wind belt that is developing to the north of us. We had a good run close hauled for the first 100nm from North Cape in fantastic sailing conditions that allowed me to head up the mast to do some maintenance on the mainsail and check the wind instruments at the top of the mast that have been playing up, as well as clear a halyard.
'As the wind backed late yesterday evening it allowed us to hoist our medium weight spinnaker and we were able to make some miles on Visit Finland before the wind completely died out in the morning and we watched Visit Finland once again sail away from us.
'We were left with no option but to gybe to the north and hoist the lightweight spinnaker to try to find some more wind. As we headed north we have come across almost the entire northern fleet and to this point have crossed ahead of all of them. As the northern fleet also gybed to the north it has basically become a sprint between the seven or so boats around us as the crews trim and helm to maximum ability trying to work that extra 0.1kt out of the boats.
'This race is definitely proving how all of the boats are very similar in performance, and we are enjoying the close racing amongst the other yachts in the fleet.'
Today Gold Coast Australia will pass approximately 100 miles south of Norfolk Island, taking them into Australian waters. Richard says, 'I would like to pass an official Aussie ‘Welcome to Australia’ for all the other skippers and crews. This race can still be won by any of the ten yachts, particularly as there could be some very important tactical decisions as the wind changes later in the race. Hopefully Gold Coast Australia can pull out some local knowledge and be the first boat home!'
Rupert Dean, skipper of the English entry, Welcome to Yorkshire, is wishing he and his tacticians had headed north when Gold Coast Australia did, confessing, 'Our strategy to take the Great Circle route once we had cleared North Cape has clearly not paid off.'
He explains, 'We have positioned ourselves in the southern pack of the fleet with substantially less wind than those yachts to the north and have lost miles accordingly. This is one of those occasions when the ocean racing principle of sailing the shortest distance has fallen foul of another golden rule: positioning your boat closest to the new wind. In my haste to do the former and thinking from the GRIBs that the pressure gradient would be less than it is, the yachts north of us have gained substantially, relegating us from fourth to ninth.
'Naturally the team on Welcome to Yorkshire is pretty disappointed at the moment, for on the race up the New Zealand coast, we felt we had sailed well. Perhaps we wouldn't have suffered so much had we made a bold move north 12 hours ago, upon hoisting the lightweight kite, just as Gold Coast Australia did. I'm feeling a little out-witted right now.'
But Rupert is looking ahead despite the recent set back.
He continues, 'Despite our current situation, we still have 870 miles to go, the fleet is very close in terms of distance to go and there is a low pressure system developing to the west of the Gold Coast which will shake the fleet up once again. We therefore have everything to play for and must continue to remain positive for the duration of the race.'
They are certainly in positive frame of mind on board Geraldton Western Australia. Having struggled with injuries and sea sickness on the previous stage of the race, their new found confidence in their skills and abilities has seen the team move from seventh to a top three spot in the last 24 hours.
'Having another boat in sight has done wonders for the crew,' skipper Juan Coetzer tells the Race Office this morning. 'They have been trimming and driving harder than ever. It has been neck and neck with De Lage Landen all day long. We started off with heavyweight kite, found out that the stitching was coming apart, and so dropped it and hoisted the medium weight kite. The on watch noticed that the winch was making funny noises every time they trimmed the kite, so quickly the sheet was transferred to another winch, serviced the old one and reloaded it again. All is good – happy days!'
'We have been sailing in company with Geraldton Western Australia for most of this afternoon, which is on one hand motivating for the crew, but can also be a distraction,' reports Stuart Jackson, Juan’s opposite number on De Lage Landen.
He goes on to say, 'Bikini sailing is now the order of the day, with temperatures soaring, blue skies above and a following wind, all making the best sailing day yet. Our northerly plan is now finally paying off and we find ourselves improving our position on the leader board.'
Another bonus for the team – they’ve fixed their deck speakers so, says Stuart, 'The party atmosphere is back on deck keeping the crew spurred on.'
'The northerly fleet of four boats has done really well in the last 24 hours and they have made significant gains as we in the southerly bunch have suffered very light conditions and had to deviate onto a starboard gybe to make more headway in a general north westerly direction towards the stronger breeze,' Derry-Londonderry’s skipper, Mark Light, comments in his morning report to the Race Office. Changing sail plans from white sails to medium weight and then lightweight spinnaker through the day, Mark and the LegenDerrys have almost doubled their speed over ground.
'We are now making speeds anything up to 7 knots SOG and hopefully making ground towards the filling, stronger winds,' he says. 'All this has made the race a whole lot closer and this is sure to be a race that will definitely go right down to the wire!'
'Sometimes it is easy to forget why we are out here but days like today remind us it is for the love: the love of sailing, the love of adventure,' reflects Scottish skipper, Gordon Reid. 'The sun is shining, the sea is beautiful, clear and blue, we are flying the spinnaker in an upwind configuration going as fast as the wind crossing the Tasman Sea en route to Australia. Certainly not a bad day at the office,' according to the man in charge of Edinburgh Inspiring Capital.
The Scottish entry is sailing close to the Great Circle route and Gordon hopes to take advantage of a shift in the wind to close the gap on the leaders. In the meantime the flatter conditions are allowing for the yacht to dry out after heavy rain up the coast of New Zealand.
The pace setter in this 1,300-mile race from New Zealand to the Gold Coast is Visit Finland, who moved into the lead less than 24 hours after the start in Tauranga.
It’s often difficult to be out in front, particularly in a close race like this, and skipper, Olly Osborne, is keeping an eye on the chasing pack.
'There is less breeze than we had hoped further south and we are watching the pack to the north carefully to see if they will continue to gain. Nonetheless, everyone is enjoying the great conditions and taking the chance to re-charge and prepare for what looks like a really close finish,' says Olly.
'Today has been the first really hot day that we have had since we last crossed the Equator and the atmosphere on board is taking on a more tropical feel for sure. The wind is gentle but steady and we are able to make a consistent speed with our lightweight spinnaker even if it does not compare to the great reaching speeds we had yesterday.'
It is sure to be a nail biting few days for supporters of the ten teams watching from the comfort of dry land.
Thousands more are playing along online, pitting their wits against the teams on board by playing the Virtual Clipper Race, with its prize pot of €30,000 plus Rotary Aquaspeed watches and Henri Lloyd stow bags to be won. Sign up to play for free online
Will your virtual yacht beat the real ones to Southport Yacht Club? The first of the 68-foot yachts are expected to arrive on the Gold Coast on Monday 13 December. Positions at 0900 UTC, Thursday 8 December Boat - DTF*
1 Visit Finland - 793nm
2 De Lage Landen - 807nm (+14nm DTL**)
3 Geraldton Western Australia - 810nm (+17nm)
4 Gold Coast Australia - 816nm (+23nm)
5 Qingdao - 825nm (+32nm)
6 New York - 828nm (+35nm)
7 Singapore - 831nm (+38nm)
8 Derry-Londonderry - 837nm (+44nm)
9 Welcome to Yorkshire - 845nm (+52nm)
10 Edinburgh Inspiring Capital - 910nm (+117nm) Position at 0600
*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