Gold Coast Australia raced down the Mexican coastline leading the fleet of Dubious 68's in Race 10 of the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race under a blazing hot sun, plagued with light airs and surrounded by some of the most interesting and abundant wildlife we have seen since leaving Southampton, UK in July 2011.
Hundreds of turtles of a variety of species are seen daily as we race down the coast, including the rare leather back turtle and other turtles with birds riding on their shells. Large pods of dolphins and small whales consistently play in our bow wave and escort the boat down the coast. One pod consisted of approximately 200 Pygmy Killer Whales. The first pod swam to the boat and surrounded us, jumping, breaching and playing. They were quite inquisitive of Gold Coast Australia and swam with us for over an hour. As we cheered for an encore, another pod approached that was even bigger than the first and really put on a show for us.
The wind along this coastline follows a familiar daily pattern. Early in the morning the wind blows lightly from north, north-west, often dying off completely after sunrise to leave us coasting along in mirror seas without enough wind to fill the spinnaker. Around midday the breeze begins to slowly fill in and backs to the west, then continues to freshen and back to the west south- west throughout the afternoon and into the evening. After sunset the wind begins to veer towards the north again, and the next day the process is repeated. Depending on your position in relation to the shore the wind angle may change slightly but overall the daily pattern is the same. Without position so close to the ITCZ (intertropical convergence zone) most of the winds are locally generated and the importance of monitoring clouds and the differential between sea and land temperatures can make a huge difference in performance. Understanding how sea breezes and land breezes form are an imperative part of this race.
The ocean currents also play a large part of this race. Yachts that got it right found themselves with up to three knots of current with them, and the yachts that got it wrong found up to two knots against them. I did extensive research about the currents along this coastline prior to the race and found an interesting intricate system of eddies made up by the combined effects of the Californian current running north to south and the equatorial current running south to north. Eddies are also effected by wind and move around a bit making them hard to pinpoint without external data which we did not have, therefore by utilising data collected before the start and deterring how it would be effected by the winds we were able to ride the currents down the coastline.
As the day progresses as the wind picked up from the north west, our light weight spinnaker fills and we pick up in speed, making some good ground to the south. Another breed of whales breaches in the distance but we were unable to identify it apart from it being white in colour, and quite small and stout. This time of year most of the whales are migrating north and they provide constant entertainment as we try to identify the different species. The air surrounding Gold Coast Australia was also filled with our friends of the feathered variety, including a couple of different species of boobies and one small land bird who landed on our deck and then made himself quite at home helping with sail hoists and then heading below for a full tour before resting in the ‘Ghetto’ on a bunk.
The wind carried us east south-east at reasonable speed until the early evening until the wind died out completely. Gold Coast Australia was left to drift in a mill pond until the land breeze starts up. The Light land breeze is from the cooling land in the east, bringing with it some sea mist. With so little wind on the race course we determine that it doesn’t really matter where the wind comes from or how it is generated, all is appreciated as Gold Coast Australia defends its current position leading the fleet.
On 24 April Gold Coast Australia passed the 17 degree south latitude and entered the Ocean Sprint. The fastest yacht to cover the 90 miles north to south will receive a bonus point added to their overall result. At 18:07:10 we commenced the Ocean "Sprint" as we drifted across the 17 degree latitude in somewhat glassy conditions. The "sprint" that could probably be better described as a slither as we barely made way through the water. Our tactics would be taking us further east towards the coastline to make the most of the terrestrial winds and the southerly flowing currents, so it was agreed that we would not place efforts into winning the Ocean Sprint but rather would concentrate on our overall result. At the time there were a few yachts further inshore than us and making far better speeds, including our nearest rival De Lage Landen who had already overtaken us.
Team Gold Coast Australia worked very hard to make up ground on the leading yachts throughout the night. As the wind increased we were able to hoist the medium weight spinnaker, which is the largest sail in our inventory. At first light Gold Coast Australia had the leading yacht De Lage Landen in our sights.
Light winds tending north the next morning allowed Gold Coast Australia to sail tighter angles and make ground to the north east and overtake De Lage Landen. At 14:06 UTC we crossed the Acapulco Gate in position 16 00.59 north 100 38.95 west approximately 2.5 miles ahead of De Lage Landen, giving us first place through the first gate which is a fantastic achievement for all on board and a tribute to everybody's fantastic efforts.
To make the racing more interesting for the supporters at home and to enable the Clipper Race Committee to easily shorten the course if winds died off completely before Panama this race was divided into segments separated by gates. The gates were generally about 300 miles long, 300 miles apart, and provided a large some interesting obstacles when considering the race from a tactical perspective. I was constantly reviewing the forecast, the speed of the fleet and our distance to Panama and trying to estimate where the race would finish as with a 300 mile line, one end could be heavily bias.
Shortly after crossing the Acapulco Gate Gold Coast Australia crossed the southerly line of latitude of 15.5 north for the Ocean Sprint at 14:57:10 UTC. Whilst the distance between the start and end of the sprint was officially only 90 miles, Gold Coast Australia travelled just short of 300 miles as most of the time we were trying to make ground to the northern side of the course by sailing east. Our time for the sprint was unlikely to turn any heads, and would later be easily beaten by team New York.
The next morning the sunrise bought a beautiful sight as the large equatorial sun beamed through the volcanic ash produced by a nearby erupting volcano was suspended in the air displaying indescribable brilliance of colours. As many as six turtles swam around the boat as we coasted along in light unpredictable winds.
As the winds died off completely after sunrise I feared that we had sailed too far into the Gulf of Tehuantepec, and in doing so had sailed into the lee of the mountains while searching for wind that was predicted for that location. By mid-morning the wind began to pick up again, and to our relief by the morning schedule it was revealed that we were not the only yacht to have parked up through the morning. Whilst Visit Finland and some other yachts behind had made some good mileage on us, De Lage Landen was still in the same relative position as they were 12 hours before.
Light unpredictable wind now plagued the fleet, and after a review by the Clipper Race Committee of the forecasted weather for the next week, they announced that the Sailing Instructions had been amended to move the finish line forward to Remedious Gate 300 miles to our south east. By now we were already sitting comfortably 30-60 miles from the coast to ensure that we were in the southerly flowing current, close enough to gain the benefits from the terrestrial winds, but far enough away to not get stuck in the lee of the large mountains that dominate the Mexican coastline. The added advantage of our position is that we were now closer to the northern end of the finish line than any other yacht in the fleet placing us in a fantastic position to take line honours if we could maintain our boat speed and cover the fleet.
Gold Coast Australia continued sailing well in light and fickle winds over the past 24 hours as we try to place a loose cover over our nearest rivals De Lage Landen who are 50 miles to the south. Whilst the GRIB files and weather data show that there is more wind in shore, the high mountains that need to be considered in the tactics and so we were trying to stay as close into the shore as we dare without running the risk of being becalmed in the lee of the mountains. DLL is well to the south and clear of the lee and so we had to ensure that we try to stay in the same, if not better conditions as them until the finish. Though we may make greater gains by sailing in shore and picking up the terrestrial winds it is not worth the risk.
As we raced towards the finish, day and night we were surrounded by more and more wildlife. At night the dolphins swam with us, their bodies lit up by the phosphorescence in the water providing us with a fantastic light display. Throughout the day more whales, dolphins, turtles, manta rays and even sharks coasting along behind the boat for a short period.
As we got closer to the finish the wind became lighter and lighter. It was imperative that we utilised every gust, and maximised our Velocity Made Good by gybing as the variable winds shifted continuously up to 60 degrees. We were now less than 24 hours from the finish, I found it impossible to sleep and stayed on deck helming, calling tactics and providing encouragement to the trimmers and other helmsmen. Gold Coast Australia began to once again pick up speed and make a more direct course for the finish line. The afternoon schedule revealed that the light winds of the morning had allowed De Lage Landen to take some miles from our lead but after plotting the positions it was calculated that we had 15 miles less to run for the shortest distance to the finish than them, a distance that could easily be lost if we did not sail to our full potential or if the wind did not fill in. Meanwhile Team Welcome to Yorkshire was sneaking towards the most southern end of the line utilising the stronger gradient winds to the south.
Sharks close to the boat stalked what looked like a school of Marlin entertained the team for part of the afternoon watch, putting on a fantastic display as the school of Marlin attempted their escape. One Marlin was not so lucky, and the sharks played with it, tossing it into the air before going for the kill.
In the evening before the finish Gold Coast Australia managed to avoid disaster after one of the crew noticed a long fishing line ahead. The line was too close and too long to alter course and sail around, but we were able to drop the spinnaker and stop the boat in time before it got too tangled around the keel and rudder. I was then able hook it with the boat hook, cut the buoyed and floating line before it became too taught. With no time to spare we re-hoisted the spinnaker and continued our pursuit of the finish line. Not more than an hour later a second long line became hooked on the keel and a similar procedure was carried out in good fashion ensuring that we did not lose too much time.
The long lines in this area are hundreds of metres long, poorly marked at regular intervals with 4 litre plastic containers and float on the surface making them hard to avoid and a danger to shipping. Unlike the lines and nets in Asia which are marked by strobes and set 3 metres below the surface clear of shipping. This non-selective catch method is also extremely destructive to our environment as it kills and maims thousands of innocent victims. We have sailed thousands of miles around the world, and through some of the most densely populated fishing areas of Asia and always managed to avoid fishing lines and nets, yet here, of the Mexican coast, only miles from the finish and with other leading yachts also vying for first place, we were plagued with these dreadful lines regularly.
Near midnight as the crew sailed the boat with vengeance the wind began to swing north of west and Gold Coast Australia gybed to the east to make the best VMG (Velocity Made Good) towards the line. At about the same time De Lage Landen came up on AIS (Automatic Identification System) and it was good to note that we had made some miles on them as we made our final dash towards the line.
In the early morning at 08:44 UTC 1 May, escorted by dolphins and with a trail of phosphorescence in our wake Gold Coast Australia crossed the Remedious Gate in position 12 41.9 north 090 37.6 west. In accordance with the alteration to the sailing instructions we had now finished Race 10 in first place. Another yellow pennant (or as we call it ‘Australian Gold’) for Gold Coast Australia.
- Richard Hewson
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