Global Ocean Race 2011-12 (GOR) fleet are on the third leg of racing from Wellington to Punta del Este.
Exceptional weather continues for the GOR leaders Cessna Citation and Financial Crisis below 56S, while Phesheya-Racing rapidly reduces the distance deficit as the South Africans drop deeper into the high latitudes following severe conditions.
At the front of the fleet, Conrad Colman and Adrian Kuttel on Cessna Citation and the Italian-Spanish duo of Marco Nannini and Hugo Ramon with Financial Crisis are confronted with very unusual weather as they close into 1,000 miles of Drake Passage and the Felipe Cubillos Cape Horn Gate. Centred approximately 370 miles south of the two Class40 at 63S, a high pressure system has formed and will gradually drift towards the boats, while 270 miles to the north, a low pressure system has formed. Sailing between the two systems, the net result for Cessna Citation and Financial Crisis is continued headwinds
At 02:00 GMT on Friday, Colman and Kuttel made a break for the north, tacking onto starboard with Cessna Citation, heading towards the low and tacking back to the south after six hours as stronger easterlies and south-easterly winds began at the bottom of the system. Meanwhile, Nannini and Ramon were dropping below 58S – below the latitude of Cape Horn. At 15:00 GMT on Friday, Financial Crisis had crossed 59S and was continuing deeper into the Southern Ocean with Antarctica 850 miles off the bow. 'Although we are out of dense iceberg territory, a few bergs survive long into the summer and drift north towards our current position,' says Nannini of the iceberg sighting made by Colman and Kuttel late on Wednesday. 'We are keeping a constant radar lookout and visually inspect the horizon regularly,' he explains. 'So far, luckily I can only report an amazing setting of the moon during the night which lit beneath the layer of clouds with an incredible amber glow followed by a remarkable sunrise with spectacular colours in a very crisp morning.'
Averaging just over seven knots on Friday afternoon and trailing Cessna Citation by just seven miles, Nannini reported on the recent conditions: 'We’re still facing very unusual and calm conditions, we haven't seen winds above ten knots for a few days now,' he says. 'We’ve been flying our light winds sails typically reserved for the Doldrums rather than the high latitudes.' During the Wellington stopover, Nannini and Ramon had debated on sending their upwind Code 0 ahead to Punta del Este in the GOR’s shipping container and carrying an extra off wind sail instead. 'Luckily we didn't as it would have been a disaster,' says the Italian skipper. 'The weather has been difficult to read, very often the actual conditions we meet differ from the forecast and it is a bit of a lottery as to what we should expect,' he reports. 'I don't even know if it is an advantage to be south of Cessna,' Nannini adds as the north-south separation between the two boats reaches 120 miles. 'We could gain, or we could lose, but we are pressing on hoping for another lucky break.' The southern position could pay well for Nannini and Ramon as with the wind forecast to go right and to the south in the next 24 hours, Financial Crisis may have good, fast reaching conditions towards Cape Horn.
While the two Class40s fight it out to the south, Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire are making major gains with Phesheya-Racing, taking around 200 miles out of the leaders in three days as they work south through the Furious Fifties. Although Cessna Citation and Financial Crisis have recently encountered relatively calm conditions, it’s a very different environment at 51S: 'We’ve been working our way through a ridge of high pressure between two gale systems,' reported Nick Leggatt on Friday afternoon. The high pressure delivered light winds, clear skies and bearable temperatures, but a dramatic change was on the way. 'As the ridge moved away from us and the barometer started to drop, the wind increased steadily in pre- frontal conditions,' he continues. 'These are the classic Southern Ocean sleigh-ride moments that can be memorised and photographed, producing famous images that make every ocean racer want to be there to experience the thrill of it.'
Then reality took hold as the frontal system approached: 'The clouds have built up steadily and the cloud base has lowered, eventually obscuring the horizon, but why it is always at night is a bit of a mystery,' questions Leggatt. 'Then the rain starts; an icy drizzle at first, but becoming heavier; the seas build-up quickly until we are surfing down five metre waves that break onto the deck.' The risk of hypothermia and exhaustion increases dramatically: 'We retreat to the safety of the cabin once the deck is secured with the main halyard left ready to run so that we can quickly drop down to the third reef,' he explains.
With Phesheya-Racing fully prepared, the speed of the weather change is still surprising for Leggatt and Hutton-Squire: 'Suddenly, the front is upon us with no warning,' continues Nick Leggatt. 'The wind instruments go from 25-30-35-40-45 knots almost instantly, at the same time as registering a wind shift of nearly 90 degrees.' As the icy blast hits the Class40, the first casualty is electronic: 'Unable to cope with the combination of wind and waves, the autopilot simply gives up with the alarm shrieking at us.' Pilotless, Phesheya-Racing was beam-to the sea with a risk of capsize and dismasting. 'This is now the cold, hard reality of the Southern Ocean,' confirms Leggatt. 'The boat is lying on her beam ends at the mercy of the waves with the sails trying to flog themselves to pieces and trying to tear the rig out of the boat.'
For 44 year-old Leggatt, this is the third time he has raced through the Pacific and the GOR will mark his fifth rounding of Cape Horn, but familiarity doesn’t make the conditions any more manageable: 'These moments when a Southern Ocean gale sweeps across your path always bring a mixture of fear and exhilaration,' he admits. 'No matter how many of these gales you weather, you still fear for the safety of the boat and crew,' adds Leggatt. 'The memories of these great Southern Ocean gales are ours alone, as they are almost impossible to record, though we can try to share our stories, and the lessons that we learn should be for the benefit of everybody.'
Since their latest mid-Pacific battering, Leggatt and Hutton-Squire are running downwind in around 15 knots of north-westerly wind, trailing the GOR leader by 779 miles. GOR leaderboard 15:00 GMT 17/2/12:
1. Cessna Citation: DTF 2408 7.8kts
2. Financial Crisis: DTL 7 7.4kts
3. Phesheya-Racing: DTL 779 7kts
Buckley Systems RTD Leg 3
Campagne de France RTD Leg 3 Global Ocean Race website