There were many that said it wouldn't happen, some that said it shouldn't happen, and a few that said if it did happen, it wouldn't be much of a race anyway. Well, race organizer Bruno Peyron is nothing but single-minded, and while perhaps The Race is not exactly what he envisioned, two weeks into the event and it has already become one heck of a contest. From the spectacular start off Barcelona to the dingdong dice down the African coast with the boats clocking amazing speeds under equally amazing sailing conditions, it has already been a race to remember. One thing is now clear. If they finish, one of the Gilles Ollier cats will win. Playstation
is out with a shattered daggerboard and tired sails forcing Steve Fossett to retire, and the two smaller cats, Polpharma Warta
are simply off the pace.
From the moment the start gun fired, Team Adventure looked to be the one to beat with blazing speed and a team of cowboys willing to push the boat every inch of the way. Skip Novak put it best in an article for Outside Online. "The raw speed Team Adventure showed off the line was incredible. She literally marched away from the fleet, pointing higher and going faster." Within a half-hour of the start, Team Adventure was setting record speeds at just over 35 knots, and had the rest of the fleet trailing in both her wakes. She kept that furious pace all the way out of the Mediterranean, slowing briefly to drop off a film crew at the Straits of Gibraltar, and then accelerating into the Atlantic with Club Med and Innovation Explorer in hot pursuit. Playstation lagged behind suffering from sail problems and a "lack of legs." It was clear to those watching that Playstation did not have what it took to stick with the Ollier cats, but that was in smooth water. Playstation was built (and modified) to surf the southern seas and would likely have found her stride once south of 40 degrees. However it was not to be. Fossett took a compulsory 48-hour penalty by stopping in Gibraltar to replace her brand new sails with the old ones once relegated to the container; in doing so, the crew found themselves sailing in a completely different weather pattern from the front runners. They hung tough until well past the equator until disaster struck, and Playstation was sent limping home with a shattered daggerboard and a number of shattered dreams among the crew.
The weather has not been "as the brochure promised" and the first few days of sailing in the Atlantic were fickle and frustrating. Where the front runners had been expecting trade wind sailing, they found themselves short tacking along the edge of a persistent high pressure. Team Adventure
hung tough at the top of the pack covering the competition, and then in a surprising move headed west in search of tailwinds from an approaching cold front. It proved to be a misguided move and a day later Innovation Explorer
had taken up the top spot and Team Adventure
lagged two hundred miles behind, out on a limb to the west. By the time the northerly breezes kicked in, the only boat that looked poised for a promising ride south was Club Med
. The team had taken the middle road and were winging it south with a hull flying and a well-oiled crew pushing the boat to its limit.
There is still a long way to go, well over 17,740 miles to be exact, and much can happen, but the first two weeks have given us a good insight into what might happen as this race unfolds. It's clear that the pace is a lot faster than even seasoned veteran Grant Dalton could have predicted. Talk among the competitors of pacing themselves and holding back to favor the boat were quickly snuffed out with a demitasse of adrenalin tossed directly into the blood stream of each crew member that crossed the start line. Speeds have been outrageous and average daily runs have come close to setting new world records. Team Adventure logged consecutive runs of 586 and 560 miles in moderate conditions, and the buzz on board is that once they get down south records will quickly tumble. They also have a quiet confidence in their speed, encouraged by their showing at the start and the way in which they were able to come back from the tactical blunder of going west in the early stages. Cam Lewis attributes this to his sails, and in the interest of fair reporting I must confess that I was instrumental in their development, pushing for Cuben Fiber fabric and some creative designs from the early stages. We saw it as one of the few "passing lanes" for a team that would be late launching. So far so good, despite Playstation's problems with their Cuben Fiber sails.
|"Talk among the competitors of pacing themselves and holding back to favor the boat were quickly snuffed out with a demitasse of adrenalin tossed directly into the blood stream of each crew member that crossed the start line."|
The most consistent entry has been Club Med. So far they have adopted a middle-of-the-road approach to the race, not venturing out on a limb nor attempting to set records. When Team Adventure veered off west they let them go, and when Innovation Explorer hugged the African coast and pulled into the lead, they did not take up the chase. Dalton seems happy to sail a conservative middle ground, pushing just hard enough to regain the lead each time he loses it, but no harder. They are clearly the best prepared and know their boat better than the other Ollier sisters (as they have come to be known.) Club Med's strength and preparation will certainly come to the fore once down south in the cold, harsh latitudes of the Southern Ocean. So too will the depth of experience between Dalton and navigator Mike Quilter. Both have seen lone hares crash and burn while the sure and steady prevail in the end.
Innovation Explorer has been a bit of a mystery, at times showing moments of brilliance and at other times lagging way behind. The discovery of a ton of water in one of the hulls soon after the start explained their initial slow going. The team was able to catch up and take the lead only to head off on a gybe of their own and give up the hard-earned miles to Team Adventure
and Club Med
. Their mantra has always been slow and sure, even going so far as to carry a reef in the mainsail at the start when the others had full sails set. Novak and navigator Roger Nilsson have circumnavigated together twice before and have a strong understanding of each other's weaknesses. Having been aboard with them for both trips, I have seen them operate and I would not be surprised to see this tortoise prevail once the going gets tough.
Since hooking onto the northeast trades and dodging the Cape Islands in the Verde group, all three front runners have had an interesting ride south. Innovation Explorer was the first to gybe out west to position herself for a better angle to attack the southeast trades, giving up some ground in order to do so, but the others did not follow. Club Med stole the inside lane and Team Adventure, still playing a game of catch-up a few degrees to her west, took the middle ground. All three boats barely noticed the doldrums skipping through them in less than 24 hours, and then Team Adventure put her pedal to the floor, and averaging two knots faster, first overtook Innovation Explorer and then Club Med. The sailing was the best they had ever experienced romping along in ideal conditions until the South Atlantic High threw up a road block and the speeds dropped to a crawl.
Transiting this windless zone tested the skills of the onshore weather routers as well as the sailors on board the boats. Very occasionally the High splits in two leaving a gap in the middle where the boats can cut through, effectively cutting the corner, allowing them to head directly for a waypoint south of South Africa. It's a tricky path, but an inevitable one. The fastest way to the westerlies is through the High and Club Med
seemed to be the favorite of the wind gods getting zapped a few extra zephyrs and stretching out a decent lead. It came at the most critical time in the race. The first boat to break free of the fluky conditions and find the strong westerlies down south will get slingshot into a formidable lead. From that vantage they will watch over their shoulder as the other Ollier sisters plan the attack.
When Peyron conceived The Race he imagined a fleet of wildly different yachts taking part. The rule had no restrictions, leaving it to the creativity of designers and engineers. He must be a little surprised to see the event coming down to three identical sister-ships match-racing. Notwithstanding the two smaller boats, it's essentially a one-design fleet, and there is not much difference in their relative speeds. It all comes down to crew work and weather skills, and while it might not have been what Peyron predicted, you only need two evenly matched boats to have a good race. After a few weeks more of sailing, we'll be able to tell if this will go down in history as a great race.
For complete coverage and interviews, check out SailNet' Race site.
The Race, the Weather, the Route by Bill Biwenga
Previewing the Race by Brian Hancock
Hangin' with Club Med by Dan Dickison
SailNet's Buying Guide - Wind Generators