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Old 12-31-2000
Bill Biewenga Bill Biewenga is offline
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The Race, The Weather, The Route

As the entrants in The Race blast off into the blue unknown, the salt-spray fire hoses will be unleashed aboard six radically massive multihulls. Shooting back from the bows, the sea spray won't be turned off for two months—even on the nicest days. Finding those nice days might be the trick that determines the overall winner in this odyssey. And the bad days could mean the road to ruin.

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Club Med, one of the top contenders in The Race, established an impressive 24-hour speed record of 625 miles during its initial sea trial.
 
Make no mistake, these boats are fast—wicked fast! That can be both good and bad when it comes to managing the global, climatological weather patterns. Day-to-day forecasts will vary, as will their accuracy, but the overall patterns have been thrashed around for some time now. The afterguards aboard most of the entries in this contest are composed of mariners who have raced around the planet before. These sailors know the racetrack pretty well, but their monster multihulls are new, largely untested animals, and the way these beasts will handle the weather patterns remains an unknown at this point.

Even just crossing the starting line and heading through the Straits of Gibraltar will provide its own set of challenges. Grant Dalton, the co-skipper aboard Club Med, already learned the difficulties of traversing the English Channel this fall when he ran up a $25,000 fine for going the wrong way in the high-traffic shipping lanes here. High-traffic, confined areas and high-speed multihulls under sail make for an interesting, if somewhat stressful combination. Certainly ship-traffic controllers would prefer less stress in their shipping lanes, and if the fleet gets away from the start in headwinds, multiple tacks in such a high-traffic area will make for some difficult maneuvering. On the other hand, if the fleet starts in reaching conditions, the rapid, staccato pounding delivered by the steep Mediterranean seas could lead to early problems with the relatively untried equipment on board.

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The 125-foot PlayStation, the biggest boat in the fleet, will have a tough adversary in Club Med  whose time on the water may prove to be a winning factor.
 
Once clear of the starting gate, the competitors will encounter a vast number of climatological hurdles as they speed around the world. Slipping along the northeast trades they will see how effectively their machines go downwind. Few, if any, of these six programs have reliable, real-world polars (information regarding how the boats will perform). If anyone has a handle on this, it's the brain trust aboard Club Med. But on this portion of the course, between the Canary Islands and Madeira, the competitors’ actual routes will be determined by the real-time weather patterns here, dictating where the boats enter the doldrums and how they best make these speed titans move down the track.

The doldrums—a wedge-shaped area of light winds stretching across the North Atlantic at a mean latitude of roughly four degrees north—usually have their widest section of light wind located on the eastern side of the Atlantic. Crossing the doldrums closer to the South American side often has merit; however, once on the south side of the doldrums, the southeast trade winds will favor those boats positioned farther east. Selecting the fastest route through while positioning for the next hurdle will put the decision makers in a double bind, requiring them to choose between being too far to the east or too far to the west. This is an area where the crews will have to be able to change gears quickly, hoisting or dropping huge sails in the fluky, light conditions. It goes without saying that this portion of the course will be exhausting and likely exasperating.

Once through the doldrums, the fleet will most likely opt to pass the South Atlantic High on its western side, reaching to the south past Brazil and Uruguay. If they were to stay on the eastern side, the multihulls would be faced with unfavorable headwinds. As they reach south, they will be faced with the decision of continuing toward the Roaring Forties or cutting to the southeast to pass just south of the Cape of Good Hope. Real-time weather forecasts will indicate the location of the South Atlantic High and whether low-pressure systems are forming along the Argentine coast. Trying not to fall into high-pressure holes by going too far east too early or catching the leading edge of a front coming off Argentina will help each team to determine its immediate course of action here.

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Factoring in the weather and the route, Legato has undergone a series of modifications, including an extra 10 feet to her bows and a larger rig, designed to diminish the possibility of pitch-poling when surfing through the monstrous waves of the Southern Ocean.
 
For every action, however, there is a reaction. All the onboard strategists will be looking farther down the track to see if high-pressure ridgelines are waiting in the vicinity of South Africa. Some might decide that they would be better served by heading farther south because often the forecasts indicate that being well south of the Cape of Good Hope can provide the formula for a quick passage. However, the strong, Southern Ocean low-pressure systems in this region can provide a whole series of problems—huge rolling waves, high winds, and extreme cold—for a crew that is constantly wet and living under the pressure of the never-ending fire hose coming back from the bows.

Once beyond the Southern African headland, the decisions won’t get much easier for the competitors, but the consequences of a wrong decision increase significantly. Passing to the south of Kerguelen Island reduces the mileage for the course, but this move could very well put the boats at risk in extreme heavy weather. If the boats are too close to the islands, the shallow shelf here changes the sea state and the waves tend to be steeper and closer together—a potentially disastrous combination for multihulls. On the other hand, going too far to the north, also has its risks.

During the 1993-94 Whitbread Race, Grant Dalton was surprised to discover that some boats south of 47 degrees latitude were becalmed in the Indian Ocean. Had he studied earlier BOC races, he would have known that this phenomenon is not all that uncommon. It happens. Go too far to the north and you can park. Huge multihulls that are relatively light in displacement for their size can create a significant apparent wind, but if the winds are light enough, the subsequent jibing angles can be pretty ugly. Navigators in The Race will be challenged by the choice between heading north into a hole or south into a position behind their opponents.

"In The Race whether inching or slamming its way through the South Indian Ocean, the fleet will have to proceed through Cook Straits."

Whether inching or slamming its way through the South Indian Ocean, the fleet will have to proceed through Cook Straits between North and South Islands of New Zealand. Home to "Windy Wellington," this place has a well-deserved reputation for breeze. This passage means another confined space with the potential for high winds and the need for repeated maneuvers, making demands on crew work. Steve Fossett’s 125-foot PlayStation has already demonstrated the ease with which mainsail battens can be broken during an inadvertent jibe, and because this is such a long race, that kind of calamity could pose a problem for more than one of the entrants.

Once through Cook Straits, the crews will return to the cold of the Southern Ocean. As these behemoths make for Cape Horn, it's relatively unlikely that the boats will dive as far south as some of the earlier Whitbread or Around Alone fleets have. These craft perform better in the flatter water found farther to the north, and The Race entrants would be well served not to get too far south lest they end up on the wrong side of a Southern Ocean low facing headwinds. Taking the shorter great circle route farther to the south isn't always the wisest choice.

Just getting these boats to Cape Horn will mark a major accomplishment, but it won’t be a time for anyone to rest on their laurels, because keeping all the options open for the final rounding could well be critical. If the Cape is socked in with heavy weather, the shallower water of the continental shelf, the irregular coastline, and the fast-moving currents could easily combine to provide an absolutely horrific sea state. When Rich Wilson’s 60-foot trimaran Great American I made its approach to Cape Horn in 1995, the boat was pitchpoled in 70 knots of wind. An hour later, an even larger 80-foot wave flicked the boat back upright, despite the fact that the rig had been in one piece below the water and the craft was partially filled with water! Mother Nature lives large down this zone, and even 125-foot multihulls don't amount to much in that arena. If the conditions become nightmarish here, the navigators may opt for going south of Diego Ramirez Island and staying completely off the continental shelf south of Cape Horn. But if King Neptune is smiling, and the conditions are reasonable, rounding Cape Horn means the boats will soon be in the lee of South America, the days will be getting warmer, and they'll be on the home stretch up the Atlantic.

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This nonstop, around-the-world race will take the seven-boat fleet from Barcelona to Marseilles, France, via the Southern Ocean, Cape Horn, and the world’s most dangerous backwaters.
 
Survival may not top the racers' list of concerns at this point, but by now a lot of the equipment on board will be getting tired. Small mistakes or excessive loads can easily put a campaign out of The Race. And even when the conditions are getting a little easier, the decision-making won’t. Which way will the boats leave the South Atlantic High this time? If they go to the east, the Southeast Trades will give them reaching conditions most of the way up the South Atlantic. But as they near the doldrums and re-enter the northern hemisphere, the usual width of the doldrums tends to be wider on the African side of the Atlantic. If they do an "S" curve, and come back to the western side to cross at what usually is the narrowest point, they will be setting themselves up for a longer trek trouth the Northeast Trades and back to the Straits of Gibraltar. Once again, the competitors will be walking that fine line of trying to be far enough to the east to minimize that distance, but still far enough west that they're not stopped for long in the doldrums.

Alternatively, some of the big multihulls could opt to go north, up the coast of Brazil as both ENZA and Great American II did. It's a similar route to that taken by earlier Whitbread Races, which went directly from South America to the finish of the race in the south of England. But the Western Approaches are quite a bit further to the north, significantly changing angles and options in the North Atlantic. The decisions won't be easy for tired crews commanding stressed vessels. Headwinds will be inevitable here, and the less-than-inspiring tacking angles will be a bitter pill to swallow as the finish looms over the horizon.

Throughout the course of The Race, the weather will deal the fleet a wide variety of conditions. That's the nature of global sailboat racing. But because of the uncommon performance potential of all these vessels, The Race will take the entrants on a wilder ride along a different route in order to raise the bar another notch or two. After a couple of months of truly extreme conditions—even on the nicest days—you know these crews will really be ready to shut the fire hoses down.


Suggested Reading

Previewing The Race by Brian Hancock
Sizing up the Competition for The Race by Pete Melvin
Hangin’ with Club Med by Dan Dickison

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