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Transatlantic Race 2019 fleet could experience slow going across the pond

by James Boyd 24 Jun 18:04 PDT 25 June 2019
Transatlantic Race 2019 fleet could experience slow going across the pond © Chart imagery courtesy Expedition

It would be nice to imagine that the 3,000-nautical-mile route for the west-to-east Transatlantic Race 2019 has changed little since pioneers from the New York Yacht Club braved the route from New York to Cowes via the Lizard back in 1866.

By modern standards, their voyage was reckless, leaving in December on boats designed to be raced inshore. In addition, today we have more contemporary problems such as the Greenland ice sheet melting at an alarming rate, increasing the ice flow drifting south.

Taken down by the Labrador Current, the icebergs splay out across the Atlantic south and east from Newfoundland. In order to avoid them the New York Yacht Club (the race's organizer alongside the Royal Yacht Squadron, Royal Ocean Racing Club and Storm Trysail Club) yesterday announced the sizable exclusion zone, "Point Alpha."

In fact, Point Alpha is one of three exclusion zones the competitors must negotiate. The first requires competitors to remain south of a west-to-east line along 40 degrees 56'N in order to keep them away from the Nantucket Shoals. These ever-moving shallow waters extend some 40 miles southeast from Nantucket Island. Mike Broughton, navigator on the 82-foot Aegir, being campaigned this year by New Yorker Clarke Murphy, remembers crossing them in 2011. "It was very scary. The depth was going down to less than 1 meter beneath the keel, but we got away with it," said Broughton.

Next up is the critical habitat area for right whales to the east of Cape Cod. For race competitors, this exclusion zone extends down to a point at 41 degrees 00'N/069 degrees 05'W, the shape of the zone roughly conforming with the 1994 critical habitat area, as designated by the NOAA Fisheries.

But these diversions are trivial compared to the Point Alpha ice exclusion zone. Considering that the rhumbline from Newport to Land's End passes through east Newfoundland, this zone's reach extends some 340 miles south, 500 miles southeast and 600 miles east of Newfoundland's coast. This zone means that the Transatlantic Race 2019 fleet will pass some 120 miles south of the Grand Banks, thereby avoiding its spooky and danger-laden mix of shallows, thick fog and fishing fleets.

Keeping competitors south also means that, until they are able to start turning north at 047 degreesW, they will be sailing in the unnaturally warm waters of the Gulf Stream. In the 2015 race competitors were still experiencing these half way across the Atlantic.

According to Broughton, the Gulf Stream currently has a slightly different complexion. "Its 'west wall' is much more fragmented than usual - there are lots of little short bursts of hot water," Broughton said.

Through judicious use of satellite thermal imaging, which clearly contrasts the Gulf Stream's 21-22 degreesC warm water against the Labrador Current's cold water, that can be as chilly as 2-3 degreesC, it is still possible to identify and benefit from favorable eddies. "There are some areas where it is still 4.5 knots, but the 'river' has split up over a bigger area," notes Broughton.

For competitors, the large size of Point Alpha means that they'll be around one-third of the way into the race before they'll be able to sail a free and unconstrained course. This will last until they are into the English Channel when they must pass through the Lizard Point Gate - a line running 4 nautical miles south from this famous landmark that has served as the reference point since the very first transatlantic races. The present 6-day, 22-hour record from Newport to the Lizard was set by George David and the crew of Rambler 100 in the 2011 race.

Scratch boat this year is Seng Huang Lee's 100-foot maxi SHK Scallywag, skippered by Australian David Witt. Navigator Miles Seddon, who scored line honors in a time of 7 days and 2 hours in the Transatlantic Race 2015 aboard Lloyd Thornburg's 70-foot trimaran Phaedo, believes if the forecast comes true, Rambler 100's record looks safe.

"It will be fairly decent getting out of Newport and reaching off towards the Nantucket Shoals and Point Alpha, but then once we get beyond that we're going to have a massive 500-mile wide ridge of high pressure that just blocks everyone," said Seddon. "So, there is a good chance that the slower boats will just come charging into the back of us."

According to Seddon, they will hit this meteorological brick wall around two and a half days into the race. How long it will take to sneak through that remains to be seen, but it seems likely that the fleet will compress. Beyond that the forecasts are not yet aligned.

"Most forecasts are saying it will be downwind back to the UK and it could get light again off Ireland," said Seddon. "We are looking to get to the ridge and then reappraise."

If the Azores high is on station, it could allow the boats to recover some ground after exiting the ridge into the westerlies around its north side. This was the scenario for Phaedo four years ago when they were parked in a smaller ridge, but once out were able to average 610-mile days to the finish. At present the best guess time to Cowes for Scallywag is 8.5 to 9.5 days, says Seddon.

Normally in yacht races scored under IRC corrected time, a compression in the fleet typically favors the small boats. However, given the length of the Transatlantic Race 2019, there is likely to be many more hurdles than just the ridge. For example, the race could be decided in the English Channel where the powerful tide affects the bigger/faster boats comparatively less.

"If we have 10 knots of breeze coming up the Channel, we'll be alright against the current, but the smaller boats will really struggle," said Seddon. "A lot of it will come down to that. Plus, we have the gate off the Lizard and if you get to that at the wrong state of the tide you will have a lot of current going against you." A similar park-up can happen should a boat's arrival at the western end of the Solent coincide with the start of the ebb tide.

What is certain is that with or without course constraints, the Transatlantic Race 2019 will be as fascinating as it was 153 years ago, albeit with much more ability for the public to follow it in real time on the YB tracker and via our daily updates from the moment it sets sail tomorrow at 1100 EDT off Castle Hill Light in Newport, R.I.

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