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Global Ocean Race fleet continue to face extreme conditions

'Halvard Mabire keeps his eyes on the road despite the chasing monster - Global Ocean Race 2011-12'    Campagne de France
Global Ocean Race (GOR) fleet continue to face complex and extremely tough weather conditions in the Southern Ocean.

Furthest west, the South African team in fifth place with Phesheya-Racing has been dodging gales 160 miles above the Australian Ice Limit while the Italian-Spanish duo on Financial Crisis in fourth took the full force of a low pressure system on Tuesday morning and was knocked flat in a 58-knot gust. Beyond the eastern extremity of the ice limit, the Franco-British team on Campagne de France in third have remained in the north at 42S in big seas but lighter airs as the low pressure systems rumble passed to the south.

At the head of the GOR fleet, the strong breeze pounced on Cessna Citation and BSL on mid-Monday night GMT before continuing south-east into the Southern Ocean. Both Cessna Citation and BSL in second place picked up pace in 30+ knots of north-westerly wind with Conrad Colman and Sam Goodchild blazing through the storm polling averages of just under 17 knots, breaking their existing 24-hour record as they dived through the Roaring Forties to 48S.

At 15:00 GMT on Tuesday, Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire with Phesheya-Racing were 160 miles north of the ice limit, trailing Financial Crisis by 357 miles and averaging 10.4 knots. 'We’re right in the middle of a fairly complex weather system, but have managed to position ourselves quite nicely for the moment, though things never stay the same for long down here!' warned Nick Leggatt on Tuesday morning. 'Last night our Sat-C satellite data communication system started beeping and flashing,' he reports. 'A quick check on the computer showed that we had received a ‘Distress/Urgent’ message.' Opening their inbox, the South African duo found three simultaneous gale warnings for their immediate area of the Indian Ocean issued by the Australian Met Office. 'At least they have upgraded their wording from ‘vigorous’ to ‘urgent’!' applauds Leggatt.

The first gale missed Phesheya-Racing, moving on to pummel Cessna Citation and BSL on Monday evening and a front passed through on Tuesday morning to the north, en route to hammer Marco Nannini and Hugo Ramon on Financial Crisis at 09:00 GMT. 'So far it seems that our routing is working out quite well and even though the barometer fell so fast this morning that I thought my ears would pop, the cold front has passed north of us and we went straight through the centre of the low with almost no wind and continuous drizzle.' However, nifty routing didn’t completely exclude Leggatt and Hutton-Squire from strong winds. 'An hour or two ago, the pressure began to rise and the wind shifted suddenly and increased to near gale force from the SW,' he adds. 'We gybed and set the appropriate sails and are now blasting along in bright, 15 degree, sunshine, heading in the right direction.'

On Campagne de France, Halvard Mabire and Miranda Merron have exchanged 40-50-knot squalls for relatively benign conditions: 'In sharp contrast today, we are sailing in light breeze downwind in glorious sunshine,' Merron reported on Tuesday morning. 'It’s dry and relatively warm, which makes a pleasant change.' In GOR leg two ranking terms, Campagne de France is the most isolated Class40 in the fleet; 449 miles from BSL and Cessna Citation to the south-east at 15:00 GMT on Tuesday and 518 miles from Phesheya-Racing and Financial Crisis to the west and this Southern Ocean exclusion extends beyond the leaderboard table: 'In our little world out here, we haven’t seen any other life for weeks apart from birds,' Merron continues. 'No whales, no dolphins, no ships, no land.'

However, there are benefits to this seclusion: 'It’s strange to think that it’s nearly Christmas and while missing the opportunity to spend time with family and friends, I am not missing certain things like dreadful xmas musak in shops,' says Merron. 'Or the revolting smell of cinnamon and spices which some supermarkets pipe in to make people buy mince pies - here there is only the smell of the sea, though of course the boat smells of roses after three weeks of damp living!'

Meanwhile, on Financial Crisis, life isn’t so comfortable for Nannini and Ramon. Marco Nannini reported in on Tuesday afternoon: 'We’re running under triple reefed mainsail and staysail and earlier we got flattened on the side like a dinghy in a gust that read 57.8 knots on the one surviving wind instrument,' says the Italian skipper. 'It is pitch black outside and I hope we didn’t damage anything earlier,' he adds. 'Today the conditions have given a new shade, a new facet, to the word ‘miserable’,' Nannini explains. 'Dark, grey, cold, wet, daunting… the only highlights are when it’s your time to sleep and you hide under two sleeping bags, breathing into your hands trying to warm up a bit…'

With the powerful blasts from the north, the conditions continue to deteriorate. 'The sea is simply horrible,' confirms Hugo Ramon. 'The waves are coming from every direction and our speed varies from eight knots when we bury the bow in a wave, to 20 knots when we’re surfing down the face,' he explains. 'The trick is to carry just enough sail to have sufficient speed to make sure a wave doesn’t break right on top of us and knock the boat, the rudder and the autopilot out of control,' says Ramon. At 15:00 GMT on Tuesday, Financial Crisis was averaging 11 knots as the wind continued to register 25-30 knots.

At the front of the fleet, it has been a ferocious 24 hours for Cessna Citation and BSL. Leading the fleet by 220 miles at 15:00 GMT on Tuesday, Conrad Colman and Artemis Offshore Academy sailor, Sam Goodchild, set a new GOR 24-hour record of 355 miles at 13:00 GMT, but conditions on board were intense: Goodchild reported-in on Tuesday afternoon: 'As the sun came up, the wind started to build and we changed from our small spinnaker to the more robust reacher as a ‘chicken shoot’,' says the 22 year-old. 'We spent the following 12 hours semi-submerged averaging 16-17 knots, with surfs of 26 knots.' Water cascaded aft along the Aklilaria’s decks. 'We regularly lost sight of the front of the boat and occasionally our own limbs,' Goodchild continues.

One particular wave is firmly etched in Goodchild’s memory: 'We took off on an almighty surf and barrelled into the back of the following wave and - as the expected wall of water came flying down the deck - I grabbed hold of the boat and turned my head to cover my face.' Any attempt at resisting the wall of water was futile. 'It picked me up like a rag doll and dropped me in the back of the cockpit wrapped round the main sheet traveller,' he explains. 'As I got back up and re-orientated myself, I was surprised to find the boat not spun into the wind with sails flapping but, in fact, having ploughed through the wave it had then taken off on another surf at 20 knots…we carried on as before!'

Averaging 10.6 knots and sailing a parallel course to Colman and Goodchild just over 100 miles north of Cessna Citation, Ross and Campbell Field had recovered quickly from the spinnaker drama on Monday, but there was to be no relaxing on BSL: 'Over the last 24 hours we have had big pressure with winds in the mid 30’s gusting 40’s,' explained Campbell Field on Tuesday afternoon. 'Some of the most spectacular seascape I have ever seen,' he adds. 'Last night, the skies were crystal clear glistening with millions of stars, lighting up the ocean of massive Southern Ocean swells - only to be superceded by the Aurora Australis – the Southern Lights - putting on a performance.' The father and son team paused briefly to admire the view at 47S. 'Ross and I found ourselves sitting in the cockpit gazing at the horizon to the south with the lights shimmering away and backlighting thunderous storm clouds – it was the stuff of oil paintings.'

However, the high latitudes tourism was soon cut short: 'Day break today and still massive pressure, feeling weary from the constant howling wind, but with cloudless skies, a huge swell running and what can only be described as a boiling sea,' Campbell reports. 'A stunning seascape that no photo is ever going to do justice.' Current weather predictions suggest that the high pressure system to the north-east of the two leading Class40s will slip southwards ahead of Cessna Citation and BSL and a period of headwinds may arrive. 'This has been a relentless and windy leg,' comments Campbell. 'But we are in good shape and the ‘Young Ones’ to the south-east have been charging and they have a good buffer, but there are some interesting scenarios coming up over the next few days - we have not given up the chase looking for opportunities to exploit,' he confirms. 'Never, ever give up!'

While the GOR fleet sail through the remote, Southern Ocean sector of the Indian Ocean, the teams continue to collect data and observations for the research programme initiated by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). With the GOR’s classic circumnavigation route taking the fleet into remote areas far beyond the range or budget of research vessels, the data collection provides an invaluable insight into the overall health of our planet’s oceans and will assist in assessing mankind’s impact on marine wildlife.

Jennifer Lonsdale, Director of the EIA, visited the GOR fleet in Cape Town at the end of Leg 1 and spoke with the teams (view a video interview with Jennifer Lonsdale discussing progress with the EIA-GOR programme here): 'Sailing to Cape Town from Palma de Mallorca was challenging with ever-changing conditions, at times frustrating but often very thrilling,' says Lonsdale. 'While sailing, the skippers were able to collect interesting information for EIA’s Eyes of the Ocean programme, including sightings of swallows and an egret taking a rest on the yachts; pilot whales and dolphins; flying fish; squid and gorgeous albatrosses,' she continues. 'The wildlife was exciting but depressingly contrasted with worrying amounts of marine debris, which causes so much havoc to marine species and the ocean ecosystem.'

Throughout leg two from Cape Town to Wellington, New Zealand, the GOR fleet have continuously logged observations when conditions have allowed. 'Only a few days into their journey through the southern Indian Ocean and competitors were already reporting encounters with albatrosses, interesting fish and dolphins,' adds Lonsdale. 'One yacht had a southern right whale breaching about 30 metres away; the crew was on close watch to ensure it did not come too close to their vessel.' Despite some very strong conditions, the skippers continue to assist with this valuable programme. 'As they sail through the Roaring Forties, they have been asked to document evidence of marine debris if they can and this will make a useful contribution to EIA’s planned briefing on marine debris for the 2012 meeting of the International Whaling Commission,' Lonsdale concludes.

GOR leg two leaderboard at 18:00 GMT 20/12/2011:
1. Cessna Citation: DTF 1527 15.2kts
2. BSL: DTL 220 10.6kts
3. Campagne de France: DTL 669 9.9kts
4. Financial Crisis: DTL 1187 11kts
5. Phesheya-Racing: DTL 1544 10.4kts

Global Ocean Race website

by Oliver Dewar


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7:06 PM Tue 20 Dec 2011 GMT

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2011 -12 Global Ocean Race

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