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Global Solo Challenge: Winter storm on Philippe Delamare's route to finish

by Marco Nannini / Global Solo Challenge 20 Feb 09:20 PST
Philippe Delamare - Mowgli © Global Solo Challenge

Philippe Delamare is charging on towards A Coruña and the end is in sight. His distance to finish is now approximately the same as a Fastnet, Sydney to Hobart or Middle Sea Race, just over 600 nautical miles.

These are the classic long distance races that are the highlight of many sailors' racing seasons. For Philippe it is just the final run home, after sailing more than 25,000. However, the oceans once more decided to prepare one last farewell storm for him. The weather forecast is absolutely unforgiving, and worrying.

Having arrived on sunday in A Coruña to prepare to welcome Philippe, I mentioned the nice weather to the taxi driver and his immediate reaction was "this is a false spring breakout, just wait for the storm at the weekend, it will be one of the worst this winter". The weather charts seem to agree with the knowledgeable taxi driver, very strong north westerly winds will blow for days and pump up waves in excess of 10 meters in the north Atlantic and even A Coruña will be hit by 9 meter seas.

To give you an idea, this is when the port authorities monitor the situation to decide whether to close the entire commercial port to shipping and when the promenade behind the breakwater gets closed for fear that massive waves crashing over the concrete barrier wash people in the water.

I was not surprised to hear from Philippe on satellite phone, enquiring about the navigable channel in between rocky shallows in front of A Coruña where these seas break into a white froth. There is only one approach marked on the charts, two lighthouses need to be aligned on the coast to pass between the coast and a rocky bank, until a further alignment is provided inside the bay of A Coruña to guide ships on a "safe" southerly approach. The approach is marked for huge commercial ships, but it is the only viable in heavy weather, unless the port is altogether closed to traffic.

We don't know what Philippe will decide to do, he is currently sailing on his proverbial straight course towards the finish and we wonder whether he has decided to simply press on, whether he'll slow down to avoid some of the worst of these conditions or if he'll use is abundant margin on second placed Cole Brauer to take no risks at all and wait to pass behind the storm, just as many skippers had to do in waiting to round Cape Horn. To be fair, 9 to 10 meter waves is more than any skipper had to face in the Global Solo Challenge so far. Waves of 8 to 8.5 meters are what most had to deal with in the deep waters of the south Pacific. Big waves in shallow waters are far more dangerous.

Philippe may well be still monitoring the evolution of the weather before making a final decision as the forecast could develop favourably and he may find himself having slowed down for no reason. However, he will have to decide either way relatively soon as his ability to move in relation to a weather system is fairly limited. There is little point enduring 9 meter waves 100 miles to the finish line, in that case he may as well press on to reach the safety of A Coruña as soon as possible.

Watching him having to deal with such nasty conditions brings back in me some of the tension and apprehension of last week, with two rescues in a matter of days. Dealing with Ronnie Simpson's dismasting and evacuation and William MacBrien's ordeal was tough. As organiser I was aware of these possible scenarios and dangers since announcing the event and my university studies which included exams in statistics were telling me things had gone rather smooth up to that point. It is however difficult to suddenly deal with a situation as it evolves, with the uncertainty and apprehension and always wondering if all is being done to ensure the best possible outcome.

Dismasting or hitting something at sea is far more common than non sailors imagine. I personally dismasted three times, never in life threatening situations, and even then it was never a pleasant experience, especially solo. In 2008 I ditched my mast overboard just like Ronnie whilst "only" 200 miles from south-west Ireland training solo for the 2009 OSTAR.

I've also hit or seen plenty of things at sea. I once sailed over a 20 meter full size tree complete with branches and roots, probably ripped by a spring flood in France and taken by a river to the sea. The boat came to a complete stop but we didn't suffer any damage. I saw barrels, buoys, fridges, containers of any kind but I never had to deal with the consequence of an impact that caused an emergency.

Watching Philippe sail forward given the forecast makes me a little tense again, for fear of an accident caused by a breaking wave or stress to his rig. Whether Philippe decides to sail into A Coruña on his current route given the forecast is entirely his decision. The boats are prepared to be capable of withstanding the conditions and therefore mine is an apprehension mostly derived from last week's events which just reminded all of us how quickly things can change for everyone at sea. Ultimately, however, no one was hurt and this is also thanks to the preparation of skippers and boats.

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