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Global Solo Challenge: Philippe Delamare's delicate final approach to Cape Horn

by Marco Nannini / Global Solo Challenge 5 Jan 08:06 PST 5 January 2024
Philippe Delamare - Mowgli - Global Solo Challenge © Global Solo Challenge

After 97 days at sea and 18,000 Nautical Miles sailed from A Coruna, Philippe Delamare must be certainly starting to feel that the big prize of rounding Cape Horn is getting closer and closer.

With around 750 Nautical Miles to go Philippe could reach the legendary cape in approximately 4 days. The approach to Cape Horn is never to be underestimated, many factors come into play to make this stretch of water one of the most dreaded by every sailor. Thousands of ships have foundered trying to round Cabo de Hornos.

For those who don't know, interestingly, this legendary cape is in fact a small Chilean Island south of Tierra del Fuego. It is not even the southernmost point of chilean emerged land, with the Diego Ramirez Islands some 60 Nautical Miles to the south west, however these were discovered approximately three years after dutch Willem Schouten e Jacob Le Maire discovered the passage to the west on January 16th 1616, believing at the time no further land existed further south. The legend of Cap Hoorn, named after Schouten's birth town, was then born. Despite the Diego Ramirez Islands being an archipelago with 4 main Islands and a dozen Islets, it's the the Cabo de Hornos archipelago and its main and southernmost island that mark the dreaded passage from Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean.

The Roaring Forties and Screaming Fifties low pressure systems sweep the South Atlantic, South Indian and South Pacific Oceans undisturbed by any land masses and the Drake Passage between south America and Antarctica is the only point where water masses and weather systems have to squeeze through this funnel.

The deep ocean rises very rapidly near the islands of southern Chile creating havoc with the perpetual ocean swell and large waves associated with the deep depressions of these latitudes. The winds spiralling around the large weather systems of the South Pacific find their path blocked by the Andean Mountain Range, the longest in the world with many peaks over 6000 meters, often forcing the north westerly winds to squeeze and funnel around the tip of the South American continent.

All the ingredients are there to make this a Cape that earned its reputation for very good reasons.

Let's therefore have a look at what Philippe Delamare on Mowgli may be encountering over the next few days. It is the power of raw nature that decides whether you'll be allowed to pass the Horn and the only mitigating factor that we could bring to the table was to ensure boats round the Horn at the height of summer when conditions are, at least seasonally, a little less prohibitive.

The regulations in fact do not allow any boat that stops by pulling into port to restart into the event if they can't reasonably still round the horn before the end of the Austral summer as heading towards autumn the weather can start to become markedly more dangerous.

As of the time of writing, picture above, Philippe is sailing in favourable conditions, just behind a warm front that places him in the warm sector of a large low pressure system. The warm sector is usually the nicest to navigate, in this case with wind, waves and prevailing surface currents are all aligned to bring nice smooth sailing.

However, the rapidly moving low will soon bring the passage of a cold front and despite not being particularly violent or bearer of exceedingly strong winds, every cold front has its challenges, mostly cross seas, due to the northwesterly and southwestely wave patterns meeting and an unstable air mass which calls for prudence in the choice of sails as gusty cold winds from Antarctica can catch any skipper off guard and sails can be torn at the passage of a sudden squall.

Fast forwarding by another 24 hours, we can see that Philippe will continue sailing in the cold sector behind the cold front which moves towards the south American continent. The funnel and acceleration effect caused by the Andean Mountain range is very clear, luckily Philippe should not be affected by the phenomenon as he won't have quite sailed enough miles to enter the area influenced but the winds sweeping down the continent.

Looking behind Philippe, as we should always do, considering all weather systems move perpetually in a carousel from west to east, we can notice that we do not find a typical ridge of high pressure with lighter winds before the next low and, instead, judging by the forecast we can notice the formation of a secondary low. This means that Philippe will transition from a post cold front conditions to pre warm front conditions with the wind going from south westerly to westerly but not veering to northern quadrant first.

The persistence of winds from the western quadrant is likely to stir up significant waves probably in the 4-5 m range. When wind, waves, and surface currents are aligned this is not of particular concern and can make for fast sailing although we should remember that Philippe's Mowgli is a displacement boat, capable of occasional accelerations but not capable of surfing like a Class40, therefore there is only so much benefit from strong following winds and seas conditions, which oftentimes require a very cautious approach to navigation as rounding up in the wind can cause a very dangerous situation with the possibility of knockdowns and damage to the rig.

48 hours from our initial picture Philippe should have covered approximately half the distance to Cape Horn. The following 24 hours is when things could become more lively. Philippe will be dealing with solid 30+ knots of wind with some sure acceleration caused by the Andean Mountain range that could spice things up. The good news is that Philippe will still be sailing within the stable air mass of between warm and cold front which will hopefully make the sailing more manageable as the right amount of canvas can be carried at all times. In unstable air masses it often becomes necessary to be under canvassed to deal with the gusty winds, which is far from ideal in maintaining a constant speed in dealing with following seas.

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