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Clipper Round the World Yacht Race - Cyclone risk in Coral Sea

'De Lage Landen and Geraldton Western Australia in the swell - Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race.'    Steve Holland/onEdition    Click Here to view large photo

Clipper 2011-12 Round the World Yacht Race fleet are currently on day five of race seven, from the Gold Coast to Singapore.

One of the major features of the race from the Gold Coast on the east coast of Australia to Singapore, other than the fact that it will be the longest time so far that the crews will have spent at sea in a single stretch, is wind: not enough of it, a situation the teams are enduring today, or altogether too much.

The ten-strong fleet is currently racing north in the Coral Sea and at this time of year it is cyclone season in this part of the world. It lasts from November to April and so far the fleet has felt the effects of two Tropical Cyclones (TC). In the northern hemisphere cyclones are known as hurricanes.

Race Director, Joff Bailey, and the rest of the Race Management team, including the Chairman, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, have been closely monitoring the situation in the region.

Joff explains, 'The first cyclone was TC Fina which was born near the Solomon Sea and tracked south down the Queensland coast approximately 250nm offshore and reaching Category 1 status. Cyclones are measured on a sliding scale from the lowest, Category 1, with gale force or severe gale force winds (up to 125 kilometres/85 miles per hour) up to Category 5, severe cyclone with winds over 280 kilometres/175 miles per hour.

'TC Fina had a big influence on race start day and over the Christmas period when its eye was located due east of the fleet and the Clipper 11-12 yachts actually benefitted from strong following winds but had to cope with a difficult swell. Clipper Race Management had been studying TC Fina as it developed and tracked south east but in the end the only change made was to the departure and race start timings to coincide with high water in order to ensure the yachts could depart the shallow Gold Coast Seaway in the increased swell without any problems.

'The second weather system, TC Grant, is a bit more of a concern and is being closely monitored by the Race Management team. If you look at the +48hr wind overlay on the Race Viewer you can just start to see the stronger winds from TC Grant come in from the west. TC Grant started as a Tropical Depression north of Darwin and hit that area over the Northern Territories during Christmas Day and Boxing Day. TC Grant is now heading due east on a potential collision course with the Clipper 11-12 fleet, and this time the winds may not be favourable.

'The Clipper Race Management team has been considering the potential of a cyclone in this area since we first announced the route 18 months ago, and we are keeping a close watch on any systems that develop and the various forecasting models. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has one of the best websites for tracking cyclones. The various forecast models are starting to agree that TC Grant will be downgraded to a Tropical Depression (TD) once it reaches the Coral Sea. Tropical Depressions can still bring very strong winds.'

The Race Management team has taken a number of actions in order to ensure the fleet avoids running into the path of a cyclone, the first of which is the route. The yachts will pass to the north of Papua New Guinea (PNG) rather than through the Torres Strait to the north of Australia, which is nicknamed Cyclone Alley.

'By taking this route the Clipper Race fleet will spend a shorter time in the areas affected by cyclones,' continues Joff. 'It is a bit like crossing a motorway at right angles rather than walking down the middle lane! If we had not taken this action the fleet would be sailing directly towards the cyclone.'

‘Decision gates’ have also been incorporated into the route and Sailing Instructions. The decision gate relevant to TC Grant was crossed last night by the Clipper fleet. If the teams had not made sufficient progress before they crossed this gate the Race Management team may have suspended racing and asked all yachts to make best speed in a direction that would avoid the cyclone.

'Fortunately all of the teams are making good progress and, based on the latest forecast, all of them will be north of the eye when the remains of TC Grant moves into their area. That does not mean that the fleet will not be affected, it just means that they will not see the dangerously high wind speeds that are near the eye of the cyclone. But cyclones are notoriously unpredictable so the Race Management team continues to keep a close eye on the various forecast models and will take action if required,' concludes Joff.

The Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology’s website has charts and further explanations of the terminology associated with Tropical Cyclones, how they are formed and the impact they can have.

For now the teams are struggling with very little wind and searing heat and, for the majority of the teams, the presence of other yachts close by serves to focus the crews’ minds on the racing.

Gold Coast Australia in front of the Gold Coast skyline at the start of the race from the Gold Coast to Singapore in the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race. -  onEdition ©?nid=92345  

Gold Coast Australia is still in the lead, however their advantage has been reduced to a mere six miles in terms of distance to the finish line in Singapore.

'The past day has been a mixture of perfect sailing conditions and frustrating, oscillating light winds and extreme heat as we try to make miles to windward towards our waypoint. Despite the conditions everybody is very happy on board and lots of maintenance is being done with everybody getting involved,' reports Richard Hewson.

'With the other yachts about 50nm to our east, it is frustrating to think that they may be getting better speeds than us, and with each other in company will no doubt be racing their yacht harder than us as there is more to gain or lose in the immediate vicinity. Out here in the wild west we are on our lonesome apart from Geraldton Western Australia which is not (yet) in sight, and concentration often lapses as we slip silently and slowly through the sea and tack occasionally to try to make the best ground to windward.'

The Tasmanian yachtsman says the topics of conversation on deck have been ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, often not suitable for a family audience and frequently resulting in gales of laughter from the entire crew.

Geraldton Western Australia has again put in one of the best 12-hour runs among the ten yachts.

'Light and fluky winds make it challenging for the helm to stay on course,' says skipper Juan Coetzer, 'but funnily enough I have been explaining to the crew that in these light airs, you could make big gains if you play your cards right. They were overjoyed when they saw us move up the leader board, however I also explained that if we become complacent and lose focus, we could find ourselves at the back again. So, hard, fast and quicker we go...'

Heading the other way, Singapore’s crew have seen their position change for the worse, although it has to be noted just 21 miles separate second and ninth place and, in the light airs, gains and losses are quickly made.

Skipper, Ben Bowley, knows where it went wrong, saying, 'We hoisted our lightweight kite a little before dark last night and for a while it was working out well for us. Unfortunately we kept it flying for a little too long and ended up heading too far off to the east. By the time the situation had been rectified and we were sailing under white sails again we had lost three places. There is still very little in it between the fleet however and we are confident of getting some points at the Scoring Gate.

'The whole of today has been spent drifting around in a floating sweat box. With no wind to cool the boat, conditions below and on deck are becoming a little ridiculous: temperatures below in the 40s and patches of deck that burn people’s knees when they kneel down to adjust a car position. We are eagerly awaiting nightfall for some respite from the heat.'

New York at the start of the race from the Gold Coast to Singapore in the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race. -  Steve Holland/onEdition  

New York’s crew has been working hard to maintain their third position, according to skipper, Gareth Glover.

'We are just making way and have Qingdao hot on our tail. At first light they were around seven miles behind us and now we can see their faces. The crew having been working all day trying to keep up the boat speed and stop them sailing over us but they’re just getting bigger and it’s going to be hard to hold them off in this very light wind.

'We just need the wind to build to over 10 knots and New York will pull away and keep her lead but until then we just have to hope we can keep them at bay. In the night we lost the other yachts around us and just now we can see two others around us but are unable to tell who they are and we are hoping it’s not Visit Finland and the other yachts we were in front of.

'The big question is to tack or not to tack to the west to put us in place for the new wind that is forecast to build but at this time our VMG is too low and we are waiting until that goes up. Our tacking angles are very low in light airs and tack is over 120 degrees from tack to tack until the wind builds.

'The Scoring Gate points look like it’s going to get down to metres, not miles at this point.'

Describing the reverse angle from on board the Chinese entry, skipper Ian Conchie, says, 'We spotted New York on the horizon this morning and set ourselves the target of catching them and I’m happy to report that we have managed it! Now we just need to pass them!

'The next tricky decision is when to tack over to try and make it to the Scoring Gate. The wind is due to shift to help us but tack early and we will have to tack back: a costly problem if the wind shifts; too late and we’ll end up sailing a longer distance.'

Ian says the new crew members have been getting to grips with the fine art of helming in light airs. They have also made a trip to the top of the mast to fix one of the wind instruments which was bent by a bird perching on it to hitch a ride overnight.

Summing up the last 24 hours on board for his team, Welcome to Yorkshire’s skipper, Rupert Dean, puts it succinctly: 'Blue skies, sweltering hot temperatures and close racing continue to dominate out time in the Coral Sea. Great racing, though, with Derry-Londonderry, Singapore and De Lage Landen on the horizon and Visit Finland right next door.'

Derry-Londonderry at the start of the race from the Gold Coast to Singapore in the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race. -  Steve Holland/onEdition  

On board Derry-Londonderry, where the philosophy is ‘work hard, sail well and enjoy every minute,’ skipper, Mark Light, says, 'We are fully concentrated on keeping our boat moving in these fickle conditions, focussing on sail trim, accurate helming and balance on the boat. We have made good gains through the night and also have the advantage of seeing what is happening to the other boats ahead with regard to boat speeds and courses steered. Traditionally we have been very good at the light wind sailing, managing always to keep good speeds and gain on lots of our competitors. After studying the latest weather data we have hatched a plan that will hopefully keep us gaining on the fleet and possibly see us in with a much better chance of making a reasonable attack on the Scoring Gate and some valuable bonus points.

'As the sun beats down relentlessly we are very careful to keep ourselves protected, hydrated and to keep the racing mind set. Motivating each other is key as it would be all too easy to sit back, relax and rest, letting the day pass us by with thoughts of cold beers, BBQs and gin and tonics on the aft sun terrace, instead a round of squash (cordial) is passed up by the mothers and sail trimming continues!'

Welcome to Yorkshire, Singapore and De Lage Landen are neck and neck and Stuart Jackson, skipper of the Dutch entry, says, 'With less than 170 miles to go to the Scoring Gate the teams are racing with everything they have to take points available there. Since yesterday we have been racing in close quarters with Singapore and Visit Finland, and since early this morning Welcome to Yorkshire and Derry-Londonderry have joined the party. With only a few miles in between all of us, everything can still happen. The next 24 to 48 hours will determine who will claim those bonus points.'

Edinburgh Inspiring Capital has also closed in the rest of the fleet and, says Gordon Reid, 'we are pulling out all the stops to find the wind and maximise our boat speed as we slowly but surely close on the fleet en route to the Scoring Gate. We are fully focussed on getting ahead of the remains of TC Grant, which should now pass to the south of us.'

Despite the heat and humidity Gordon says the team is enjoying the brief respite from the upwind conditions that have characterised Clipper 11-12. And, after another trip up the mast, they have now rewired their wind instruments which are fully functioning again.

Positions at 1500 UTC, Wednesday 28 December
Boat - DTF*
1 Gold Coast Australia - 3,793nm
2 Geraldton Western Australia - 3,799nm (+6nm DTL**)
3 New York - 3,812nm (+18nm)
4 Qingdao - 3,812nm (+19nm)
5 Derry-Londonderry - 3,815nm (+22nm)
6 Welcome to Yorkshire - 3,817nm (+24nm)
7 Singapore - 3,817nm (+24nm)
8 De Lage Landen - 3,818nm (+24nm)
9 Visit Finland - 3,820nm (+27nm)
10 Edinburgh Inspiring Capital - 3,830nm (+36nm)

*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




by Heather Ewing

  

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6:29 PM Wed 28 Dec 2011 GMT






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