Clipper 2011-12 Round the World Yacht Race fleet are currently on day twelve of race seven, from the Gold Coast to Singapore.
Five of the ten international teams competing have been racing close together over the last 24 hours, their varying fortunes showing just how localised the weather conditions can be.
New York’s skipper, Gareth Glover, says, 'We were all making the same way with some getting squalls passing over them and making some miles whilst others like us just had to sit there and watch them sail past.
'With Gold Coast Australia, Geraldton Western Australia and Qingdao many miles to our north it’s going to be hard to make back the miles in the light winds we have. Do we head north like the rest of the fleet and sail more miles or try and take a more direct route where there is less wind forecast? Time will tell.'
There was a magical moment for the New York team when they spotted two fin whales and their calf only metres from the yacht.
'As we were not moving they were not bothered until we were on top of them and then they swam off very slowly,' continues Gareth.
Welcome to Yorkshire is racing in close quarters with New York and Rupert Dean says the English entry’s aim is to shape as north westerly a course as possible and cut the corner on the leading boats further to the north.
'It's been a pretty good 24 hours on Welcome to Yorkshire,' writes Rupert. 'From being quite a few miles back on the five boats ahead in the fleet, we pulled ourselves back into contention magnificently last night. We did so through a combination of good trimming with the lightweight kite and through our competitors being stranded for a few hours in a wind hole between New Ireland and Feni Islands. As the seaward vessel we so nearly overtook them all, before being becalmed ourselves close to the dramatic Feni Islands and watching the boats inside us pick up some wind from a passing squall. Ho hum, such is life in ocean racing.'
The Singapore team should take heart from Welcome to Yorkshire’s performance which has seen them climb back into contention for the podium.
'Finally we have been able to make a little progress to the north!' writes Ben Bowley in his 0600 report to the Race Office. 'Although we are currently placed ninth in the rankings, this is a little misleading and I am feeling much more confident about our decision to head away from the rhumb line and strike out toward the Equator. Last night saw us slowly working our way to windward via a series of short tacks in the shifting wind and today we have been making good steady progress northwards in far more consistent breeze than we have seen this past few days.
'There are still some prodigious great squalls stalking us but the sky has the tell-tale signs of settling to a more stable set of air masses soon. The tricky call will come when we have to decide how far north to go before starting to shape our course to the west. Turn too soon and face the risk of the breeze dying away again; turn too late and our competitors will get past us by cutting the corner. The nautical game of chess continues...'
De Lage Landen is another of the teams for which the wind blew kindly.
'Finally this morning the wind has filled in again and to our surprise it has been for more than 20 minutes!' Stuart Jackson reports to the Race Office. 'Five of us were still sitting within a few miles of each other all night with each of us making small gains on the others when we had clouds pass over us, however now everyone has chosen their routes for the best passage to Singapore so we have all dispersed a little. It looks like we will still have light winds to contend with for a few days until the trades kick in, so we'll have to carry on being patient for a little longer in the fickle conditions.'
Patience is a valuable commodity in this race, particularly when the mercury is rising and tempers can begin to fray.
'Yesterday was probably the most frustrating day of this race so far when we sat becalmed off New Ireland, in sweltering conditions, watching helplessly as other boats behind us in the fleet, sailed almost right past us and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it,' says Mark Light, Derry-Londonderry’s skipper.
But what a difference a day makes.
'Today has definitely signalled our escape from the Solomon Sea and the evil clutches of the Monsoon Trough. It started with our lightweight spinnaker flying to capture what little breeze there was and then a small squall with very little wind but lots of rain. Shortly after, clouds began to form in the sky to windward and the wind began to fill, slowly at first, then more and more. Before very long we had our largest number 1 Yankee headsail up in addition to our staysail and full main and we were making nine to ten knots directly north, heading towards the Equator and north easterly trade winds.'
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Olly Osborne, the man in charge of Visit Finland, reports his team, too, has left the Solomon Sea.
'After a frustrating night of wind seeking we have got into some good breeze and are enjoying making good speeds. We passed the Tanga Islands this morning on our port side and are now striking north in search of the trade winds. During the last 24 hours we have again been within sight of several boats which makes the competition more exciting, and I was able to talk to Mark on Derry- Londonderry this morning over the VHF set.
'So farewell to the Solomon Sea and, as we enter the next phase of the race, we will be looking to squeeze every mile of north out of this favourable breeze, and hopefully we will be able to wedge ourselves into a strong position over the coming days.'
Bringing up the rear, Edinburgh Inspiring Capital is the last of the teams in the Solomon Sea.
'We are in a wind hole but had a temporary respite last night as we got a nice lift from some massive electrical storms close to New Ireland,' comments Gordon Reid, skipper of the Scottish yacht. 'We were riding right in the sweet spot on the edge of huge dark clouds as the lightning lit the night sky right above our heads, with lots of strong gusts to lift us along and heavy but warm rain bouncing off the deck as the thunder cracked deafeningly overhead. We had the moon (now over half), loads of stars, and Venus was shining so bright right next to the moon!
'Early this morning at first light as we were becalmed again we dropped the main to replace two broken battens and re-stitch the pockets as we drifted north. We had another beautiful sunrise and just a wee while later as we repaired the sail we had a visit from a pod of about 50 or 60 dolphins. They all came swimming towards the boat leaping and playing all around us; it was very cool!' signs off Gordon.
At the opposite end of the fleet the two Australian teams continue to dominate, Richard Hewson, Gold Coast Australia’s skipper, likening the match racing to a 72-hour America’s Cup race.
'Geraldton Western Australia is still close by and, while we occasionally manage to lose them behind, a few hours later they are back on top of us,' Richard describes. 'This morning we would have been a good ten miles ahead and to windward of them and I thought that we finally had them, then only a few hours later the wind vanished and they sailed right around us. It seems luck has been in their court more than ours and they deserve it as they are obviously pushing themselves very hard and have a great desire to beat us.'
The squally conditions require a constant, exhausting round of sail changes.
'Every four to six hours the weather seems to randomly follow the same pattern. Every four hours the wind will box the compass, and every four to six hours we have at least four Yankee or windseeker changes, six staysail changes and one spinnaker hoist. Each of the sail combinations lasts about half an hour, then the wind will completely change direction or drop out altogether and we are forced to change our game plan.'
Geraldton Western Australia has pulled out a 17-mile lead over Gold Coast Australia. Skipper, Juan Coetzer, says, 'After yesterday’s excitement, we were able to make some ground in the general direction we wanted to go. At one stage there was a water spout a mile down wind of us – an amazing sight to see. As we reached Lyra Reef we met up with Gold Coast Australia again and it became a snail race. This morning the kite went up twice, only to come down again. The good news was that it came down in one piece.
'The big question is - how much further north do we have to go before we can hook into the trades?'
It is a question all of the teams will face – how long do they hold their nerve before making the turn to the west? They will need to go far enough north to pick up the north easterly trade winds, but if they hold their course and hesitate for too long, will all be lost as the other teams sail on by?
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Qingdao’s skipper Ian Conchie explains his team’s plan, saying, 'We have continued to make north whilst attempting to get as much west as possible, wind allowing. This morning we had to tack around the Lyra Reef and this afternoon finds us hard on the wind, heading north west up the western side of the reef.
'We have to keep a safe distance away from any known dangers as the charts around this part of the world can be inaccurate so we have kept a safe ten miles off. We also have local shipping to deal with. A fishing boat was overtaking us last night when the wind died, leaving us dead in the water. I suspect the fish must have found us interesting as the fishermen seemed to want to lay their nets exactly where we were but they soon departed.'
You can find out how to get on board for the Clipper 13-14 Race at the London International Boat Show from 6 to 15 January. Visit us on stand G102 in the North Hall to meet former crew members and to discover more about the exciting new Clipper 70 fleet which will enter service in the next edition of the race. You can also try your hand at the Harken Coffee Grinder challenge and there are presentations each day at 12.15pm in the Knowledge Box, next to the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race stand. Positions at 0900 UTC, Wednesday 4 January Boat - DTF*
1 Geraldton Western Australia - 3,055nm
2 Gold Coast Australia - 3,072nm (+17nm DTL**)
3 Qingdao - 3,074nm (+19nm)
4 Visit Finland - 3,105nm (+50nm)
5 New York - 3,105nm (+50nm)
6 Derry-Londonderry - 3,106nm (+51nm)
7 Welcome to Yorkshire - 3,114nm (+59nm)
8 Singapore - 3,128nm (+73nm)
9 De Lage Landen - 3,138nm (+82nm)
10 Edinburgh Inspiring Capital - 3,157nm (+102nm)
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