Clipper 2011-12 Round the World Yacht Race fleet are on day ten of race eight, from Singapore to Qingdao. The four-way dog fight continues at the head of the pack, with De Lage Landen, Geraldton Western Australia, Gold Coast Australia and Singapore all vying for supremacy.
Just 17 miles separates them in terms of distance to finish, and Gold Coast Australia’s skipper, Richard Hewson, surmises that they are all racing within a 25-mile box.
The lead has changed hands a number of times in the last 24 hours and is likely to continue to do so as the teams deal with local and changeable conditions.
Meteorologist Simon Rowell, who provides the teams with updated information each day, explains what is likely to happen in the next few days, and how the local geography affects the winds.
He says, 'The wind will continue to be changeable, due mainly to the high pressure cell currently south east of Japan continuing to move to the east. The east north easterly winds generated by this are funnelled through the Luzon Straits, and the island of Luzon itself acts as a massive lee, making the winds in the last corner of the South China Sea very fluky. Over the next two to three days another cell of high pressure will come off the Asian continent and will gradually bring back the north east monsoon. This will get pushed around and funnelled by large islands, particularly along the east coast of Taiwan.'
On board Gold Coast Australia, Richard Hewson describes the conditions they have encountered over the last day.
'The wind is very localised and patchy and consequently one yacht may have wind from the north east at 12 knots while another, only five miles away, has wind from the north at eight knots,' he explains. 'As a result De Lage Landen sailed away to the east of us this morning in a completely different breeze than we were experiencing.'
'One minute we have nine to ten knots of wind and then a cloud comes over and we are down to 2.5 knots and have to tack away to maintain any speed,' concurs De Lage Landen’s skipper, Stuart Jackson. 'Notwithstanding this we have made good progress and are working hard to trim, trim and then trim a bit more to eek out every last drop of drive in our sails. Hopefully the wind is forecast to pick up the further north we travel and we can leave behind the light conditions that have been slowing our progress to Taiwan and onto Qingdao.'
While the sun is out today and the crew of De Lage Landen have had to rummage around for sunscreen and warm weather gear, everyone knows it won’t last long as they head further north and Stuart says, 'We are enjoying what could be the last of our champagne days sailing for some time.'
Richard and his crew are enjoying the brief respite from the heat before the cold begins to bite.
He says, 'Temperatures have begun to cool down and down below inside the yacht no longer feels like an oven. Adding to this the sea has calmed down a lot so I’m hoping it will be a good chance for the crew to get some good rest as everybody was becoming quite fatigued after a week of crashing off waves and living in unbearable heat. Increasing singing and karaoke displays indicate that crew morale is on a high with the increased rest which is always a good thing.'
While the winds are unpredictable, the current has been beneficial, particularly to Geraldton Western Australia, according to skipper, Juan Coetzer.
'Yesterday we made the decision to try use the current to our advantage,' he reports. 'It did work for a little while, then the wind began to head us in the wrong direction on both tacks. The boats that went further east got better wind angles than us and made big gains. So we had to make a decision to head east, no matter what. Singapore has done really well, and this morning we met on the western side of Scarborough Reef. Apparently Gold Coast Australia and De Lage Landen went around the eastern end, so we are all very close at the moment.'
Singapore has been closing in on the leaders, putting the crew well in contention for a podium placing in Qingdao and skipper, Ben Bowley, is enjoying the company of the two Australian teams.
'It's good to chat with both Geraldton Western Australia (whom we can see) and Gold Coast Australia (whom we can't) over the VHF. Talk generally centres on the tricky wind conditions we are currently experiencing. I believe it is these localised winds that have allowed us to make such good ground on the front runners in the last 24 hours. Ocean racing tactics have had to be replaced with dinghy-like racing techniques of tacking on every shift and ensuring maximum VMG at all times. The current can't seem to make up its mind in this area either. One minute it is a godsend, adding as much 1.5kts to our speed over ground, and at other times it hinders our progress by shoving us back to leeward!'
In common with the other teams, Ben and his crew on Singapore are using the respite in the conditions to ensure they are ready for what is to come.
'We are making the most of the lighter conditions we have currently to thoroughly prepare for the heavier, colder weather we are likely to see once we get up to the Luzon Strait. Fans are being stowed, the galley stores are being securely wedged deep into lockers, rigging and deck gear is being checked and lubed, storm sails brought into main accommodation areas, water tanks topped off, and possibly most importantly: thermals that were buried long ago leaving the Southern Ocean are being brought to the top of kit bags!
'We are also ensuing that the location and operation of all safety equipment is known to all members of crew. The hydraulic rig cutters get little use and few people aboard could name their location straight off the bat before our drills. The chance of us using any of the kit is slim but we would rather be good boy scouts and be prepared just in case...'
The drills that are practised, practised and practised again during the rigorous pre-race training, as well as in subsequent training sails at the start of each leg of the race, in order that they become second nature, are being revisited.
Visit Finland leaves Marina at Keppel Bay, Singapore, at the start of Race 8 of the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race. - www.howiephoto.com/onEdition
Visit Finland’s skipper, Olly Osborne, describes, 'The passage through the Luzon Straits will not be so pleasant though, and at today's lunchtime meeting we discussed the various preparations to be made for heavy weather, and also had a fairly in depth man overboard refresher. I think the process of preparing for the weather ahead makes everyone feel more confident and is an important part of being mentally ready, too.
'But for the meantime the helms are eagerly watching for the first signs of a wind shift which should allow us to put some good miles under the keel in the right direction, and hopefully provide a chance to better our position.'
Visit Finland is in the second group of four yachts which also includes Derry-Londonderry, New York and Edinburgh Inspiring Capital.
'Progress is very steady as the gradient wind decreases and our boat speed moderates. This calls for even more focus on sail trim and helming as the pressure builds to make the correct tactical call every time,' notes Mark Light, skipper of the Northern Ireland entry.
'We on Derry-Londonderry are sitting in a decent position just inside the top five and although we have consolidated over the last few days I have noticed a small gap beginning to open up between us and the top four boats so a call to all crew went out today to make sure we are operating at over 100 per cent at all times.
'These races are fairly long and one of the key ingredients for success is the ability to remain focussed and concentrated for long periods. I have a very good and capable crew and when the going gets tough (which it will!) nobody is ever found wanting.
'Preparations, mental and physical are being made in advance of the impending heavy weather as we approach Taiwan and the Yellow Sea.'
Further to the west than Derry-Londonderry, their Celtic competition, Edinburgh Inspiring Capital is firmly embedded in the chasing pack.
'Short tacking up the rhumb line, whilst putting in a bit more east on the port tack, seems to be working out well for us,' says skipper, Gordon Reid.
'Currently we are racing in company with the New York yacht which is just six miles to our north and getting closer.
'The Purple Beastie is making the best use of the favourable current as we ride around the various shallow banks, waiting to strike north when the wind veers as forecast in the next 12 hours or so.
'The next stage of the race is all about getting into position for when the wind veers and setting ourselves up to make best use of the significantly stronger currents stretching across the Luzon Strait, ensuring we are on the right side of the set.'
Gordon notes the volume of shipping in the area, both cargo ships and local fishing fleets.
'This area is a highly congested with lots of commercial shipping between the Macclesfield Bank and the Scarborough Reef, and many little fishing boats on the fringes. This is certainly keeping us on our toes as the focussed crew maintain a sharp lookout both visually on deck and on our AIS and Radar systems, carefully monitoring CPAs, distance and bearings to the fast moving traffic,' he continues.
Stuart agrees and explains, 'We now have a fishing watch team during the hours of darkness to ensure that we do not inadvertently get snared in any nets. Last night we were almost surrounded on all sides and had to sensitively weave our way through the multi coloured lights that we could see. Add to this the commercial shipping and this leg is proving to be a busy time for the crew!'
There’s a small fly in the ointment for New York, according to skipper, Gareth Glover, who tells the Race Office, 'In the last 24 hours we have being heading north which give us the best VMG (Velocity Made Good i.e. speed in the right direction) but now we find ourselves too far to the west of the leaders.
'We have now tack to the east but are still not getting a great Course Over Ground and are sailing towards Scarborough Reef, 65nm to the east. We are hoping that by the time we get there the wind is going to be set more from the east and we can tack and head towards our Taiwan waypoint.'
The crew is absolutely focussed on getting onto the podium in Qingdao.
Gareth adds, 'In today's meeting we went over sail trim and helming again and went around the team, taking ideas on how we can make improvements to our racing overall and get into the top three yachts.'
Qingdao continues to hold off Welcome to Yorkshire but, says skipper Ian Conchie, 'The wind continues to confound us, constantly changing strength and direction. This in turn forces us to keep changing sails in order to maximise our speed. In the process of one of the sail changes we found damage to our Number 3 Yankee so we had to spend an hour and a half repairing it.
'In the meantime we are heading north east as best we can and hoping that the promised easterly winds kick in to allow us to make good time towards Taiwan and the finish!'
Welcome to Yorkshire leaves Marina at Keppel Bay, Singapore, at the start of Race 8 of the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race. - www.howiephoto.com/onEdition
Those changeable conditions have also been frustrating the Welcome to Yorkshire team, currently the fleet back marker.
'The crew have been kept very busy alternating between Yankee 1 and Yankee 2, throwing reefs in and out on the mainsail,' says skipper, Rupert Dean. 'To top it off, we were becalmed for several hours yesterday afternoon between two monsoonal squalls, making any progress at all very difficult.
'At least the lack of spray over the bow allowed the crew to change the port (red) light bulb on the pulpit, making our fine vessel easier to see for passing ships. In fact later that night, one of the team mistook our own red light for that of a fictitious ship, much to the amusement of his shipmates!
'This morning sees Welcome to Yorkshire with maximum sail area up again, in the form of full main, staysail and Yankee 1. In the light winds and lumpy sea, progress has seemed sluggish indeed, enough to warrant putting a camera over the side in order to find out whether there were any nets trapped around the hull appendages.'
They didn’t see anything wrapped around the keel or prop but the style of fishing in the South China Sea, where huge and often unmarked nets drift for miles, means the danger of entanglement is ever present.
The teams are due to begin arriving in the Qingdao International Marina and Olympic Sailing Center between 22 and 25 February. Positions at 1200 UTC, Monday 13 February Boat DTF*
1 De Lage Landen 1,239nm
2 Gold Coast Australia 1,239nm (+1nm DTL**)
3 Geraldton Western Australia 1,252nm (+13nm)
4 Singapore 1,254nm (+15nm)
5 Derry-Londonderry 1,298nm (+59nm)
6 New York 1,308nm (+69nm)
7 Edinburgh Inspiring Capital 1,319nm (+80nm)
8 Visit Finland 1,331nm (+92nm)
9 Qingdao 1,397nm (+159nm)
10 Welcome to Yorkshire 1,418nm (+180nm)
*DTF = Distance to Finish, **DTL = Distance to Leader. Full positions are updated every three hours and can be found online
. Clipper Round the World Yacht Race website