Clipper 2011-12 Round the World Yacht Race fleet are currently on day six of race seven, from the Gold Coast to Singapore.
The route for race seven is a complicated one. In addition to the challenges of Tropical Cyclones and the energy sapping heat there are many reefs and islands to contend with and the Race Committee has included in the course instructions a number of compulsory gates to keep the fleet away from navigation hazards. This means that in lining up for the Scoring Gate in the Coral Sea, the teams are involved in something akin to a game of chess, where they have to plan several steps ahead in order to then be in the correct position to reach the next gate which takes them around the islands at the eastern limits of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Gold Coast Australia has reported crossing the Scoring Gate at 1121 UTC and is in line for three bonus points as the first team to reach it, while the second team to report their crossing is Geraldton Western Australia at 1440.44 UTC, who are set to claim two bonus points.
For Richard Hewson, skipper of the overall leader, the race to the gate has been a frustrating one.
'The wind at the moment is not playing the game for us,' he says. 'According to the routing chart we should have south easterly wind, according to the GRIB we should have had north westerly wind for the past 20 or so hours, yet it continues to blow from the north east. This is a major setback for Gold Coast Australia as we have been hugging the west side of the course for the last two days in preparation for the new wind from the west.
'Apart from the wind backing a very slow five degrees every two hours for the last few hours, the current weather is about as consistent as it can possibly get, and therefore no good for my tactics at all! Weather is weather and it will do what it wants despite human efforts to predict it and control it, and this is yacht racing and this is why we love our game so much.'
'Aside from the frustration of the wind not doing what it is ‘supposed to’ these have been perfect sailing conditions and with 11-14 knots of constant wind Gold Coast Australia is humming along nicely -even though not on the predicted and desired course.'
There are now two very distinct groups of yachts, one to the west and one to the east.
Qingdao is in the western group and Ian Conchie, the skipper, says, 'How fortunes can change in 24 hours! With the fleet so close we have managed to sail really well and it was a fantastic result for the crew to see this morning that we had made it up to third. But no time for complacency as one mistake could quickly drop us down again.
'With this in mind we have been pushing north west today, trying to close on the Scoring Gate, whilst getting the boat in the best position for the next wind shift. Fingers crossed this should happen in the next few hours, allowing us to tack north towards the Scoring Gate and the next gate on the course as well. Only time will tell if this has worked. In the mean time we have lost our sparring partner, New York, which has been replaced by Singapore.'
As happy as Qingdao’s crew are with their performance, Singapore’s team have been through a frustrating 24 hours.
'Having fought our way back to the middle of the pack after a night of poor decisions; we once again had it demonstrated to us how the smallest mistake can make the biggest difference in one design racing,' explains skipper, Ben Bowley. 'A change in wind strength was not picked up early enough by the on watch and for a few hours we were sailing lower than our potential. This once again set us back and I fear has put us out of the running for gaining any points at the up-coming Scoring Gate.
'At least Singapore is sailing at full pelt again, close hauled with the Yankee 1, staysail and full main. Unfortunately the small amount of spray now coming over the foredeck means that we cannot have the large forward hatch open and once again the boat's interior is sickeningly oven like. The challenge now is knowing how far west to go before tacking for the gate, too soon and you risk a long beat to the following gate; too late and when the wind shifts we'll have over stood the western end of the gate and will have to reach in to the line.'
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 can also attest to the rapidity with which fortunes change in these conditions.
'The last 24 hour has had its ups and downs: we were unable to hold off Qingdao and dropped from third to seventh place in six hours and saw Qingdao, upwind of us, go into second only by a few miles,' says Gareth Glover.
'The yachts are very close. As we are all tacking up wind those places will move each hour and we will not know until we all get to the gate at the same time who is going to get the points. We are now looking past this gate to the next one and the tactics for the Solomon Sea. Any small mistake or loss of boat speed at this point can and will cost some yachts big.'
Geraldton Western Australia and Derry-Londonderry are both in the western group and Juan Coetzer, skipper of the WA yacht says they are also looking at the long game, despite distractions from the local wildlife.
'Last night was a night of fun and games. The question was - how do you chase away a bird that is sitting on your wind indicator, at the top of the mast - some 20+ metres high? First option - shout words of encouragement, next throw an apple, last effort was to send up our scarecrow, Nik Brbora. It was entertaining, however if the bird had flown off with our wind instruments it would have been very uncool.
'Back to racing, the big question is when do we tack for the Scoring Gate? We have a good chance at some points, but we are also looking at setting ourselves up for the gate thereafter.'
Mark Light, Derry-Londonderry’s skipper, is also eyeing up the next gate.
He reports this morning, 'We continue making good ground to the west and north, looking for signs of the wind shift to the north west then a further back to the west which would then allow us to tack over onto port tack and make a final approach for not only the Scoring Gate but also the Adel Gate, currently 155 miles to the north east of us. This gate is mandatory as detailed within the Race Instructions and will signal the entrance into the Solomon Sea. The whole fleet has compressed and the distances between the boats are very small – we can see several of the other Clipper 68s on the horizon, one on our starboard beam and one behind us, so this gives us added incentive to keep on pushing as hard as we can.
'Not that we need any more motivation as the effort, work rate and concentration of the crew has been very high so far. The key is to keep up these levels of performance, given the sweltering conditions and also given the fact that there is over 3,500 miles of ocean yet to be raced. From my personal point of view this has been a very enjoyable race so far and I am looking forward to sailing ad racing through parts of the world that I have never been in before… and, if the truth be told, I had never even heard of before!'
Over to the east, Visit Finland, De Lage Landen, Welcome to Yorkshire and New York are hoping their approach to the Scoring Gate will prove more advantageous.
'After two days of light air sailing, the wind has finally filled in from the north. Still with only a couple of miles separating the whole fleet, we see that the different crews are pushing hard to make it through the Scoring Gate as one of the three first yachts. On the leader board we can see that the positions are changing very quickly and it's only once we've passed the Scoring Gate that we'll have a better view on who stands where,' comments De Lage Landen’s skipper, Stuart Jackson.
Olly Osborne on board Visit Finland notes, 'It looks like the wind is back as we try our luck on the other tack towards the Coral Sea Gate. With such close competition and several boats still in sight it makes great racing, and it is pretty interesting from a tactical perspective, too, as choosing the right tack is key.
'The temperature below decks is becoming pretty fierce and we have had to develop an upwind wind scoop arrangement to stop the off watch becoming casseroled in their bunks. But none the less it is great to be striking north, and as the Equator draws nearer the prospect of rounding Papua New Guinea is very exciting.'
The yachts are beginning to feel the effects of ex Tropical Cyclone Grant, which is tracking due west and is currently over the northern tip of Queensland, Australia and forecast to pass to the south of the fleet. The clockwise wind direction means the teams will have some pretty uncomfortable headwinds to contend with in the next 48 hours.
'Tropical Depression Grant may not be forecast to pass this longitude for a couple of days, but its extremities are already being felt on Welcome to Yorkshire,' says Rupert Dean, who notes that tactically this is a fascinating time of the race, while describing the weather indicators he and the crew have been observing.
'For the past two evenings we've been treated to some amazing cloudscapes. Lots of high, wispy cirrostratus, mackerel skies and high altitude tiger strips have adorned our views, above the normal cumulus pods below. Last time we saw skies like this it was off the east coast of New Zealand, before the heavy weather set in for the beat into Tauranga.
'To be fair, diurnal pressure ranges so far have been far from abnormal and no long low swells have come so far, criteria that might herald trouble ahead. The forecasts also suggest Grant will move south east beneath us. However, the wind has started to increase a little and back indicating something is on its way. It's been enough to warrant a change from the Yankee 1 to the Yankee 2.'
While all the yachts are equipped with all the necessary technology to receive weather forecasts and monitor air pressure, wind speed and direction and sea temperature, probably the most important piece of kit is Eyeball Mark I and Richard on Gold Coast Australia has also been describing some of the weather phenomena that indicate a change is on the horizon.
'The weather at the moment is definitely extraordinary and we saw cat’s paws and mare’s tales (cloud formations) in the sky yesterday which normally indicate an approaching storm. Until now there has been little change in the wind for the past 20 hours apart from a slight increase and shift to the north east where we do not want it to go. As the afternoon builds there is bluish grey haze filling the horizon all the way to the clouds: signs of monsoon type weather. There are also signs of upper level activity in the clouds above us and the barometer has started to drop and the air is cooling which also tell us of a change in wind soon to come.'
And, although there is plenty to observe in the sky, Richard says, rather worryingly, in the ocean it is not the case.
'The only thing really missing from this perfect scenario is wildlife, and apart from a small pod of dolphins this morning and a booby bird that keeps trying to steal our wind vane, we have seen very little wild life for this part of the world where usually turtles, dolphins and sharks are a common occurrence. This makes you wonder what has happened to our ecosystem over the past few years to reduce such numbers in ocean wildlife and what will become of us if the oceans become barren.'
Furthest south of all the teams is Edinburgh Inspiring Capital, whose skipper, Gordon Reid, tells the Race Office, 'As we approach the Scoring Gate and the following one which shepherds us around Rossel Island (at the south east extremity of PNG) avoiding the numerous reefs, it looks like we will be in the safe semicircle of ex-Tropical Cyclone Grant. Even today we are starting to feel its effects with the increase in wind strength, even though we are several hundred miles away from its centre.
'The fresher winds are most welcome as we are able to funnel fresh air below decks using our improvised wind sock, made out of old sail cloth. It is important for the crew to keep well hydrated in the tropical conditions but also equally important to get some rest and with the lighter winds of previous days this was not so easy to rest in the sweltering conditions below, now it's a breeze!
'The next phase of the race up towards New Ireland should be fairly interesting as we get ever closer to the Equator and the ITCZ (Inter Tropical Convergence Zone – commonly known as the Doldrums) and its associated variable and squally conditions.' Positions at 1500 UTC, Thursday 29 December Boat - DTF*
1 Gold Coast Australia - 3,648nm
2 Geraldton Western Australia - 3,671nm (+23nm DTL**)
3 Qingdao - 3,677nm (+29nm)
4 Singapore - 3,679nm (+31nm)
5 Derry-Londonderry - 3,684nm (+36nm)
6 De Lage Landen - 3,694nm (+46nm)
7 Visit Finland - 3,695nm (+47nm)
8 New York - 3,701nm (+53nm)
9 Welcome to Yorkshire - 3,703nm (+55nm)
10 Edinburgh Inspiring Capital - 3,722nm (+74nm)
*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