Clipper 2011-12 Round the World Yacht Race fleet are currently on day nine of race six, from New Zealand to Gold Coast Australia. Fewer than 100 miles to go for the leading trio, who are separated now by just seven miles, and this race is far from over.
'The atmosphere on board is electric!' exclaims De Lage Landen skipper, Stuart Jackson; 'Nerve wracking,' says Olly Osborne on Visit Finland; and, 'Exciting racing,' notes Richard Hewson as his Gold Coast Australia team move into the lead.
The first yachts are expected at the finish line at the entrance to the Gold Coast Seaway at the earliest at 0500 local time on Tuesday (1900 UTC Monday).
Gold Coast Australia, bidding for an elusive home port victory and to equal the record of consecutive stage wins in the 15-year history of the race, pulled rabbit out of the hat and moved into the lead at the 0600 UTC position report. But if you had asked the skipper earlier in the day he would probably not have predicted it, given a series of problems and an unexpected squall.
'It’s been a day of many first for Gold Coast Australia due to some crazy weather conditions in the Tasman Sea,' reports Richard.
'Last night we were sailing well with our Yankee 1 and full mainsail, heading further south than the northern leaders to try to gain advantage later the next day. Early this morning the wind backed about 30 degrees and I was woken by my watch leader to find us lifting higher than the required course. In the bright light of the moon I saw a large band of clouds rapidly approaching and the order was given to put in a reef and drop the Yankee 1.
'No sooner had we done this but the wind increased from ten to 35 knots. To gain more speed we hoisted the storm jib above the Yankee 1 that was now strapped to the deck. Thirty minutes later the storm jib was back on the deck and the Yankee 1 flying again. This is the first time I have ever changed from full sail to storm sails and reefs and back again – and it did not stop there!
'What followed shortly after was a myriad of problems that the crew handled very well. Later in the morning our mainsheet that we had been nursing since New Zealand gave way, and the crew sprang into action to effect repairs.'
Winds have been unpredictable for the Gold Coast Australia crew, swinging around in direction and varying from six to 20 knots in strength. But what happened next demonstrates Richard’s ability to route the yacht to the team’s advantage.
'As we approached Britannia Bank I analysed what could be the possible oceanographic effects of such a bank and how it may affect the East Australian Current and calculated that it may cause an eddy and we may get some good speed if we sailed up the western edge. Our plan worked, and by mid-afternoon we had De Lage Landen and Visit Finland in our sights.
'After a few wind shifts Gold Coast Australia has come out on top. Hopefully we can maintain our position until the finish tomorrow morning. This is very exciting racing and everybody on board is loving it. Go Gold Coast Australia!'
With a growing buzz of anticipation in the city, victory for the team in their home port would be the fairy tale ending to the race that has had followers on the edge of their seats, counting down the minutes between updates on the Race Viewer.
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But De Lage Landen’s crew would tell you from bitter experience: it’s never over until fat lady sings – or more accurately, the hooter on the committee boat sounds – as you cross the finish line.
'The heavy rains of the morning left a drenched watch wondering if in fact we were approaching the Australian coast at all,' says Stuart in his 0600 report to the Race Office. 'With two reefs in the mainsail, the squally winds kept all on board occupied as we continued the cat and mouse game with Visit Finland. Finally we seemed to pull away from them when suddenly, the wind dropped and the skies cleared allowing for an afternoon of shorts and sun cream.
'Waiting for the wind to back, the key decision was when to make the tack north, made all the more exciting by the appearance of Gold Coast Australia on the distant horizon. We are all now aiming for the finish with very similar distances to run and the atmosphere on board is electric!'
Olly and the team on Visit Finland had the same squally conditions to contend with as they are racing so close to each other.
'After a night of tropical downpours and little sleep our duel with the Dutch entry is far from drawing to a close,' says the Chichester-based yachtsman. 'The last 48 hours have seen us swap positions several times, but having matched her for sail plan and course throughout the night she has pulled out a small lead on us.'
Six hours later and Visit Finland is back in the lead.
'With a little under a hundred miles to the finishing line the podium spots could still fall to a number of boats. With Gold Coast Australia now re appearing from her more southerly course it looks like it could be right down to the last few yards before the finishing order is clear, especially as the wind is likely to become variable as we head further in shore.'
Spectators on Main Beach and The Spit on the Gold Coast will have the perfect vantage point to watch the drama unfold as the yachts race for the finish line.
Welcome to Yorkshire’s brave ‘do or die’ move a few days ago has allowed the English entry to close the gap on the leaders even further. Now just ten miles behind third place, could their southerly position be the correct one to allow them to sneak in at the last minute and claim a coveted place on the podium?
Singapore’s skipper hopes not – and he and his team are throwing everything they have at stopping it happening.
'We have been pushing extremely hard over the last 24 hours to try and prevent Welcome to Yorkshire from drawing out too much of a lead on us,' Ben Bowley says. 'We would dearly love to beat them into the Gold Coast as this would help us eat into the lead they have on us in the series.
'For the first time since leaving the UK we tried employing ‘Über-Watch’; all the crew on watch all of the time. They only place to get any rest was on the rail, preferably with legs and half bodies outside of the guard rails! Keeping plenty of weight to windward in these strong conditions enabled us to carry a little more sail than normal and, although very tiring on the crew, it did slow the rate at which Welcome to Yorkshire was pulling away from us. It also meant that sail evolutions could be conducted immediately and swiftly. The only reason that I can think that they are still making ground on us is because they are further to the south and therefore experiencing less foul current.'
'About two hours ago the wind died completely and now it is a waiting game to see when the new wind will fill in. Hopefully our position to the north of Welcome to Yorkshire should mean that the lighter winds we are now experiencing near the centre of the low pressure will not be as light as that which they are getting. We also hope that as we approach the Gold Coast, being further to the north should give us a better set to the southerly running current that stretches for many miles to seaward from the east coast of Australia. There may only be 100nm to run to the finish but I truly believe that fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh places are still anyone's for the taking. Pretty nerve wracking stuff!'
The squally, wet sailing conditions have been challenging for the Welcome to Yorkshire crew but, says skipper, Rupert Dean, 'To their credit, they have been working very hard, performing numerous sail changes and reefs efficiently under arduous conditions. The latter has not been easy too, with the parting of our boom topping lift yesterday evening.
'The squally weather and heavy rain is due to us sailing through the trough of the low pressure system to the south of us, which links other lows over thousands of miles across northern Australia, following the coast all the way around to Geraldton on the east coast! We have just punched through to the other side now, have got the expected headwinds pushing us south west and are waiting for the header that will enable us to go onto port tack towards Gold Coast.
'It's a very exciting time out here on the water, made even better by the sun finally making an appearance!'
Qingdao, Geraldton Western Australia, Edinburgh Inspiring Capital and New York are all in the mix with Singapore and Welcome to Yorkshire for fourth to seventh places.
'The race is still not over and anything can happen,' according to Juan Coetzer, the skipper of Geraldton Western Australia, which has had a bit of a soaking.
'It’s been a day of change. It started off with the Yankee 2, head sail and full main sail, making good progress, in the thundering rain. Gradually the wind picked up, resulting in a several head sail and main sail changes. Eventually we saw 35 to 40 knots of breeze, the rain was beating down so hard the sea state became flattened. All of a sudden, out of nowhere we sailed into a huge wind hole, and started to drift east.
'It’s been a crazy day. From northerly winds to southerly winds. It looks like the boats that have gone south will benefit from this in a big way,' he predicts.
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Edinburgh Inspiring Capital’s southerly position has helped them up the rankings by a couple of places. They have been closing the gap on the leaders throughout the last 24 hours.
Skipper, Gordon Reid, also recounts tales of a wild night in the Tasman Sea, saying, 'We had some spectacular squalls last night and this morning with thunder and lightning striking only a short distance away from the yacht. The winds rose dramatically to well over 30 knots in an instant, with very heavy, warm rain bouncing off the decks, almost warm enough for deck shower had it not been for the fact that the boat was heeling so far in the gusts.'
The team representing Scotland’s capital city is hoping to maintain their pace all the way to the finish line.
In the meantime, Gordon has a special message to all of his family, 'In particular my beautiful daughter, Poppy. I will be thinking about you today especially. x'
It’s been a wet and wild day for the Qingdao crew as well. 'The wind topped out at nearly 40 knots, causing us to change through all of our sails and giving an exciting ride,' reports Ian Conchie. 'Then as we cleared a rain bank the wind dropped to eight knots. It’s not often you see such a rapid change in weather. We are now ghosting along trying to get west to the southerly breeze that will take us into the Gold Coast,' concludes the skipper of the Chinese entry.
There’s a note of despondency in Gareth Glover’s missive from New York which has slipped to eighth place.
'Our tactic of heading north looks like it’s not going to pay off,' he observes. 'Unlike the fleet to the south we had wind of up to 40 knots in the last 24 hours, and have been down to just three reefs and staysail at times. Winds from five knots and then back to 40 knots in hours has made sail changes very hard and getting the right sail combination difficult, as is keeping a good speed as we were under or over powered.
'Our plan was to get to the north before the wind went to the south around 100nm to the finish but we are now 170nm from the end and have the head winds ten hours ahead of when they were forecast, so this now puts us in a poor position from which to beat the others.
'Sometimes tactics work out and sometimes they don't. It’s been a very hard 24 hours after also breaking two Yankee sheets and the second reefing line. We dropped the main in the light airs and replaced this line. The crew have worked non-stop on this race and are now looking to have some R&R in the Gold Coast. I hope the yacht club know how much drink we can eat and drink!'
Food won’t be a problem – each of the teams has been adopted by a Gold Coast restaurant, and representatives from three of them will be out on the water to welcome them to the city as they arrive.
Derry-Londonderry’s skipper, Mark Light, has been frustrated by the rapidly changing weather and wind conditions which, in common with the teams, have run his crew ragged over the last 24 hours.
'We have been well and truly hammered (once again) by a small, vicious low pressure that has come off the land,' he writes. 'This system, although not very big, has been very fast moving and particularly aggressive with massive changes in wind speeds.'
Sail changes in rapid succession, reefs in and out and torrential rain have exhausted the team.
'I feel so sorry for the crew as they have put in so much effort, yet we still slip further down the rankings,' comments Mark. 'I'm sure it is not the case but right now it feels like we are the only boat who is getting hammered while others seem to sail away from us. I hope our fortunes change for the better before very long. We certainly deserve a break!'
The yachts will be open to the public during the stopover in the Gold Coast with sessions on Saturday 17, Wednesday 21 and Thursday 22 December when visitors to Southport Yacht Club will be able to get on board, meet the crews and see for themselves what life is like on board the stripped down 68-foot yachts that are ‘raced by people like you’.
Berths are now available for Clipper 13-14 when the new fleet of twelve 70-foot yachts will be introduced. Places are filling up fast and levels of interest in Australia and New Zealand are at unprecedented heights with strong turn outs at presentations in Sydney, Fremantle, Wellington and Auckland.
For those interested in getting on board in the next edition of the race there are presentations at Moreton Bay Yacht Club, Scarborough, QLD on Thursday at 7pm and next Monday at Southport Yacht Club on the Gold Coast. You can also meet crew members from past editions of the event on the Clipper Race stand in the race village at the ISAF World Sailing Championships in Perth, WA, until 18 December. Positions at 1200 UTC, Monday 12 December Boat - DTF*
1 Visit Finland - 68nm
2 Gold Coast Australia - 68nm (+0nm DTL**)
3 De Lage Landen - 75nm (+7nm)
4 Welcome to Yorkshire - 84nm (+17nm)
5 Singapore - 107nm (+40nm)
6 Qingdao - 125nm (+57nm)
7 Edinburgh Inspiring Capital - 136nm (+68nm)
8 New York - 146nm (+79nm)
9 Geraldton Western Australia - 150nm (+83nm)
10 Derry-Londonderry - 175nm (+108nm)
*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