Clipper 2011-12 Round the World Yacht Race fleet are currently on day eight of race six, from New Zealand to Gold Coast Australia.
De Lage Landen and Visit Finland are separated by just one mile and have been on exactly the same course. In fact, it’s only in the last nine hours that you’ll have been able to see their tracks on the race viewer without zooming right in to be able to separate the two.
This race is getting more gripping by the hour as the ten 68-foot yachts close in on the finish line on Australia’s Gold Coast. If the anticipation among the race team is any indication of what is happening in front of computer screens around the world – or on the move using the apps for iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry and Android – there will be many a frayed nerve and bitten fingernail among the teams’ supporters!
'This really is an 'edge of the seat’ experience!' concurs Rupert Dean, Welcome to Yorkshire’s skipper.
His ‘nothing to lose’ move to the west yesterday has paid dividends and the English team has moved up the rankings from eighth this time yesterday to fifth today, having at one stage been in fourth place ahead of Singapore as well.
'So far so good,' he continues. 'Our strategy to head west to get through the depression quicker than the rest of the fleet has paid off well. From ninth position we now find ourselves tied in fourth with Singapore. The crew are understandably very happy with this.
'We are not out of the woods yet, however. With the winds set to back to the north west tomorrow morning, the boats to the north of us could regain many of the miles lost to us. There is also the south-going East Australian Current to account for, which will play into their hands, too.'
The East Australian Current can flow at up to seven knots in places but more typically will move at two or three knots. It is portrayed in the animated film, Finding Nemo, as the fast moving marine super highway.
'Whether the northern boats benefit in the long term will be interesting to see: as the fleet funnels on the approaches to the Gold Coast, the ability to outflank other boats becomes more limited. In the longer term the wind is due to come round to the south west which could help us again,' continues Rupert.
'It's certainly proving to be an intense, closely fought race throughout the fleet. Positions have changed a number of times and they are likely to do so again.'
New York is also putting into play a new tactic for the closing stages of this 1,300-mile race from Tauranga, New Zealand.
'We were sitting in fourth place, with Gold Coast Australia only 14nm ahead of us at the time. As we are not racing to be outside the top three, a new plan was hatched,' explains Gareth Glover, skipper of the US entry. 'We knew we would have a hard time out sailing them to the end as they have 18 crew members to our 12. We also knew that we would go down the leader board fast.
'Our new tack took us to the north and now we’re heading to the finish at good speed, hoping that we can make it in before the wind goes around to the south.
'At this point of sail we can make more than nine knots VMG (speed in the correct direction) and hope this will give us more speed than the fleet to the south and be able to sail over the top of them to the end. But in yacht racing it never goes to plan so we will have to wait and see.'
For Gold Coast Australia, the wind shift is already being anticipated, according to skipper, Richard Hewson, who tells the race office, 'We made some fantastic ground yesterday after placing ourselves in a good position after the storm to take advantage of the south westerly winds and it was fantastic to find at yesterday’s 0600 sched that we had made 14nm on Visit Finland and De Lage Landen and were then ten miles in the lead. The mood on Gold Coast Australia was fantastic when we heard the news, however our winning position has been slowly slipping away at each sked as De Lage Landen and Visit Finland make better speeds towards Southport and the Gold Coast.
'We will be sailing to place ourselves into the best position possible to try to make more ground on both teams before our final run to the finish. The crew are now well rested after the light winds last night and it may our last chance to make some ground on De Lage Landen and Visit Finland before the finish so we will be hopefully sailing the boat hard and fast throughout the night. This race is so close it is fantastic. Hopefully we can bring home our sixth yellow pennant.
'Hopefully there will be more opportunity for tactical advantage to bring us back into the lead later in the race. With less than ten miles separating the first three boats and still 300nm to race, there is still a lot of opportunity to gain and lose ground. The Clipper Race is unique in that all the weather data comes from the one source and yachts are not allowed to obtain outside routing advice or information. Occasionally this is frustrating as it would be very useful to know what the East Australian Current is doing at the moment as we have an unusual amount of current against us at the present time.'
When they arrive on the Gold Coast all ten yachts will be taken to the Boat Works yard at Coomera to be lifted out of the water and go through a mid-race re-fit. During that time the hulls and keels will be re-anti fouled to help prevent marine growth attaching itself to the bottom of the boats. It appears it’s a job Richard and his team couldn’t wait to get started on.
'Frustrated with our lack of speed I stuck my head over the side today and noticed an unusual amount of growth on the hull,' says Richard, by way of explanation. 'Clipper Race rules make it very hard to clean a hull in port as use of SCUBA is not allowed, therefore only an area half a metre below the water line is accessible to cleaning in port. After five months at sea the growth on the hull has taken over.'
The rules of the Clipper Race are designed to create a level playing field. All the yachts will be in the same situation, but the Gold Coast Australia crew are trying everything they can to ensure they equal the record for the number of consecutive victories in the event.
'I decided to attempt to give the hull a clean using a method that was used on the old square rigged windjammers that used to spend years at sea,' relates Richard. 'A line was dropped over the bow with a man on each side and we pulled it up and down. This method is only good until you get to the keel, but even if a third of the hull is cleaner and it gives us 0.1kt more speed it may be the difference in getting a podium place at the Gold Coast.'
As for the teams causing the skipper of the overall leader so much frustration, they are enjoying themselves in the duel for first place.
Olly Osborne, in charge of Visit Finland, says, 'We are now locked in an exciting battle with De Lage Landen as we take advantage of a fresh belt of breeze form the north. Both boats seem almost identically matched for speed and every sail change is done with extra speed to avoid losing precious ground.
'We are hoping that our northerly route will pay off, and having worked hard to windward over the last couple of days we are hoping to reap the benefits during the sprint for the line. The competition for the podium spots is certainly stiff with everyone so close in the scheds, so it’s going to be a pretty full on couple of days for sure,' he continues.
His opposite number on De Lage Landen, Stuart Jackson, says, 'It is pretty much a game of cat and mouse at the moment as both boats try to edge ahead of the other. As dawn broke we were pleased when the wind gently increased and now we are close reaching with great boat speed, so all in all pretty much perfect conditions to speed us towards Australia. All attention is on boat speed with the others so close in sight and it's great to see manoeuvres done with such urgency and precision. The bets on arrival time are well under way, so I hope the more optimistic crew are right!'
Singapore is chasing down the leading trio and, having parted company with Chinese rivals, Qingdao, are now neck and neck with Welcome to Yorkshire.
'It appears that we made some good progress last night in the light airs,' says skipper, Ben Bowley. 'Deciding what tack to put the boat on was not easy as for a while, either tack was giving us a negative VMG, less than ideal! Eventually, having looked at the new weather information and deciding there was a little more breeze to be found down south, we started to ghost southwards. As the night progressed we were gradually lifted, we also found a little more wind to boot.
'Qingdao seemed to have had a different plan; having initially followed us off to the west, it was not long before they tacked off to the north and we lost our sparring partner to a duel with Geraldton Western Australia. It has been different to be out on our own again and we are hedging our bets by placing ourselves pretty much halfway along the north/south divide in the fleet.'
Ben has some information about the East Australian Current that might go some way to alleviating Richard’s concerns.
'Our new companion is a rather irksome counter current that is slashing our speed over ground by almost two knots at times. The pilot guides do predict these currents but only in as much as a general flow. Technically, we should have this current with us by virtue of being north of the Middleton reef. However, looking at real time data on the Internet before leaving Tauranga it was clear that there are many spirals coming off the main flow and a lot of eddies. This is what we must be experiencing presently.
'It is a little frustrating for two reasons: firstly, our big red bus is going like a scalded cat through the water on a fine reach and the crew are sailing her beautifully. Secondly, we have no way of predicting where these eddies are and how best to avoid them. I think that this is the main reason we are currently losing out to the southern pack right now and all we can do is hope that there will be a reversal of fortunes soon! For now though we are preparing ourselves for another blustery wet night.'
The eddies spiralling off the main current could well explain what has been happening on the entry representing the UK City of Culture 2013 and should bring some peace of mind to skipper, Mark Light.
'We are sailing well on Derry-Londonderry but despite all our hard work and good speeds we are continually slipping down the rankings,' he writes this morning. 'It was very strange today as we were sailing with full mainsail, Yankee 1 and staysail in about 20 knots of apparent wind, making great boat speeds of 11 knots directly towards our destination, yet our SOG (Speed Over Ground) only showed us travelling at about 7.5 knots. This continued for about four hours and despite constant checking of helm, course and sail trim we could not improve the situation. All of a sudden and without any warning our SOG suddenly shot up to ten knots while all other contributing factors remained constant (boat speed through the water, wind speed, wind direction and course). I can only put this down to some adverse current, maybe some sort of strange eddy that happened to be present in our area.
'I have told my crew not to be disappointed too much in our position as we have sailed well with no significant errors and no major damage. What we will do is push hard over the next two days to get ourselves back in the sort of position that we feel we deserve... don't be surprised to see us pick up a couple of places in the next 48 hours as this race draws to a very exciting finale!'
Qingdao’s new travelling companion, Geraldton Western Australia, who also have New York for company now they have made their move to the north of the fleet, is being distracted by a question other than who will win this race after a close encounter with some of the local wildlife.
'The Big Question on board at the moment is, do flying fish like peanut butter sandwiches?' asks Juan Coetzer, skipper of the WA entry. 'Sarah (Grossick) was on deck last night, minding her own business having a midnight snack. Out of the Lord Howe seas, a flying fish took flight and snatched Sarah's sandwich right out of her hand!'
Food will be on the minds of the teams in the next 36 hours or so as they approach Australia. AQIS, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, which oversees biosecurity on arriving vessels and will be checking the yachts comply with the strict border regulations on arrival on the Gold Coast, has challenged the teams to come up with a recipe using all the ingredients they are not allowed to land in Australia. Eggs, fresh veg, meat, honey, seeds and other products on the list can all be used. Unlike Masterchef there will be no onshore taste test – the recipes have to be eaten (or ditched if they’re dreadful) before they get to 12 miles offshore to comply with quarantine regulations.
They’ve already had a trial run on board Qingdao where, says skipper, Ian Conchie, 'Today Claire (Allen) tried out her quarantine menu which gave us an amazing lunch in the sunshine. A welcome change to a few days ago when we were hiding from the rain!'
It is a welcome boost after what has been a frustrating night in light winds.
'This morning the wind filled in and veered to allow us at last to point the purple dragon towards the finish. Unfortunately, before we found the wind Singapore found it first! We had to watch them sail away at eight knots whilst we were only doing four and they were only ten miles south of us at the time. But it did allow us to get further north which should help over the next few days.
'Currently we are reaching along at nine knots, making good time towards the finish. We have Geraldton Western Australia and New York with us to keep everyone on their toes and, as we try to chase down the boats ahead, hopefully the northern route will come good again.'
Southernmost of all the yachts, Edinburgh Inspiring Capital has endured a night of beating upwind with a heavily reduced sail plan.
'The wind eventually veered and, taking full advantage of our southerly position, we increased our sail area and are now power reaching with the maximum upwind sail plan fully trimmed for speed,' says Gordon Reid, whose team is also getting into the festive spirit with Christmas just two weeks away as they continue to race towards the Gold Coast.
'Today we have been enjoying some Christmas tunes on deck and preparing our stopover game plan to ensure effective use of our precious time ashore.
'It is the season to be jolly and, even though our thoughts are with loved ones and the joys of seeing them again, we are for now fully committed to driving the Purple Beastie as fast as we can all the way to the finish line.'
There will be festivities aplenty on the Gold Coast once the teams arrive at Southport Yacht Club. The first boats are expected on Tuesday 13 December, with all ten likely to finish within 12 to 18 hours of the winner. Positions at 1200 UTC, Sunday 11 December Boat - DTF*
1 Visit Finland - 239nm
2 De Lage Landen - 240nm (+1nm DTL**)
3 Gold Coast Australia - 246nm (+7nm)
4 Singapore - 268nm (+30nm)
5 Welcome to Yorkshire - 270nm (+31nm)
6 Qingdao - 285nm (+46nm)
7 Geraldton Western Australia - 297nm (+58nm)
8 New York - 297nm (+58nm)
9 Derry-Londonderry - 321nm (+82nm)
10 Edinburgh Inspiring Capital - 321nm (+82nm)
*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