Clipper boats climb out of the Southern Ocean

Farewell to the Southern Ocean, says skipper of Team Finland, Eero Lehtinen. “It has been a truly grey and wet night and day so far. We have crossed latitude 40S and are heading north, slowly but surely. I think that's it; Southern Ocean done for me. It was 20 years ago in these waters when I experienced it the first time on Union Bank of Finland Whitbread maxi. It was scary and it was a long way. I remember the frustration of getting stuck in the massive high pressure system west of Australia.

“That's something we still have ahead of us, the unknown factor that can still make this all look very different. But we are going for it feeling confident. There are no golden avenues for anyone and at the end of the day we only need to keep one boat behind us. I am sure you know who I mean…”

We're pretty sure Eero is referring to Spirit of Australia and skipper, Brendan Hall, also has his eye on the huge high pressure system that sits between his team and a place on the podium in Geraldton in a ten or so days' time.

He says, “Speeds are up on Spirit of Australia and yesterday's lemons (two fat zeros on the speed instruments) seem like a lifetime ago. It's fairly straightforward sailing at the moment. Wind on the beam, small sails flying. It's just down to the helm to keep the course, the trimmers to keep checking the sail trim and the watch leaders making sure we have the right sails up for the wind strength and angle. Meanwhile, I'm down at the nav desk, looking at this great windless hole opening up along the coast of Western Australia and thinking about how to tackle it.”

Uniquely Singapore's tactical move to the north 48 hours ago would suggest they've already had a long, hard think about how they're going to approach the last major hurdle of this Southern Ocean leg.

“So far so good,” says skipper, Jim Dobie. “Our plan has so far worked out well and we're now in a good position, covering to windward the majority of the fleet. Cape Breton Island is doing some good miles down south and has been a good sparring partner. Fingers crossed but we do appear to be slowly catching Spirit of Australia and Team Finland. It's still very close up at the front and, in fact, all eight boats are bunching up again.

“The high does appear to be moving very slowly and the next few days are going to be great viewing as the fleet makes a break for the north. With light winds and wind holes coming up there is even more pressure, now more than ever, to pick the right route. So, while the winds are good and strong we must trim well, hold a steady course and get as much speed as possible out of Singas. Roll on Geraldton!”

Cape Breton Island's crew have been working flat out to reclaim their position among the leaders of this race after running into the wind hole that cost them points at the scoring gate.

Skipper Jan Ridd reports this morning, “It's been a hard couple of days on board Cape Breton Island, with all the crew sharply focused on clawing back the miles we gave away to the rest of the fleet just before the scoring gate.

“A day or so ago the boats at the front, including Cape Breton Island, all ran into an area of lighter winds and we were determined to use this to our advantage. So, by careful navigation and lots of work on deck we managed to sustain a reasonable boat speed in the light winds. It involved constant changing of sails and enormous concentration by the helm to maintain boat speed and 'apparent' wind, but we are all pleased that our efforts have paid off.”

All the while the crew have been racing hard, they have also been conserving their kit and yesterday morning dropped their lightweight kite to repair a tiny hole near the foot.

“We have decided to really look after our sails and to not take any chances as we only get one set to last the whole trip,” explains Jan. “That Cape Breton Island has not needed any professional sail repairs so far in the race is a testimony to the crew competence.

“We are now looking at a couple of days beating as we sail with the wind blowing into our faces, which makes life that much harder on board as the boat is heeled over and bouncing violently as it crashes into the oncoming waves. This will test the crew even more as they are already tired from the effort of sailing hard the past few days.”

A mile behind Jamaica Lightning Bolt at the 0600 sched, by 0900 Qingdao, slightly further to the north, had nosed a mile ahead of them.

Peter Stirling, skipper of the Jamaican entry reports eerie conditions this morning as they race towards Geraldton.

He says, “The wind has moderated a little since last night but now we are sailing along in thick fog. The fog is caused by the relatively warm northerly wind blowing over the cold Southern Ocean water which means, given our current position and the forecast, we could be in fog for some time to come. This can have a very disorientating effect on the crew as it is impossible to see anything more than a 50 metre radius from the boat. Though there is very little shipping in this part of the world Radar watches every 20 minutes are now order of the day. In fact, apart from Edinburgh Inspiring Capital on the second day, we haven't seen another single vessel since leaving Cape Town 17 days ago.”

Edinburgh Inspiring Capital's skipper is, in common with all of the other skippers and their on board tacticians, debating what the next few days will hold as they close in on the high pressure system and sees his team as having a slight advantage over the leaders.

Matt Pike says, “The dilemma remains: follow the shortest distance and risk the light winds in the high pressure or head south east looking to go around the bottom of the system. The third option is straight through, as it looks like guess work anyway! There's no easy place to be, at the back we need a weather advantage to make up the 100nm on the leaders. They have to make a call knowing we're all watching their speeds and course (it's the best indicator of what the wind's actually doing). It seems at present there are lighter winds ahead and the fleet will continue to bunch up as we close in on the finish.”

The Scottish team's rivals on California also know they could turn their position to their advantage if they play the winds correctly.

Skipper Pete Rollason says, “It's been a testing night aboard California, beating into strong winds and choppy seas, but we have managed to maintain good boat speed and course so we are hoping we have continued to close down on the group in front. The track slightly north meant we were greeted with a British winter's morning; windy, cold, foggy and GREY! Everyone is doing well and morale is high, buoyed by our recent speed and gains. The high pressure system ahead is on everyone's minds and we have a couple of strategies planned. We await each new weather file with anticipation as decision time is fast approaching. It is still anyone's race.”

For Cork, whose departure from Cape Town was delayed along with that of Hull & Humber following a collision on the start line, the Southern Ocean is delivering on its reputation. Skipper, Richie Fearon, reports, “It has been a good start as the wind has picked up nicely and we are back flying the spinnaker. Yesterday we had a gale on the beam and were running with the Yankee 3 and three reefs. A front came through which brought with it a lot of rain and a 180 degree shift in the wind. The wind eased and that was the theme of the night.”

Richie celebrated his 28th birthday yesterday and had a spectacular marine life encounter to remember it by. “We think we found the whale that Team Finland was cavorting with!” he says. “On three separate occasions we had to steer around the whale to avoid hitting it and on its last dive it came on a converging angle about five metres from the beam of the boat. It was an amazing spectacle and thankfully it didn't take a fancy to us or our keel!”

The Clipper 09-10 crews are recording sightings of whales and dolphins along the route for the race's environmental partner, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

Hull & Humber and Cork are expected in Geraldton before Christmas, while the first yachts are due to arrive in port between 14 and 18 December.

POSITIONS AT 1200 UTC, TUESDAY 8 DECEMBER

1 Team Finland DTF 1518
2 Spirit of Australia DTF 1543 DTL +24
3 Uniquely Singapore DTF 1559 DTL +40
4 Cape Breton Island DTF 1573 DTL +54
5 Qingdao DTF 1600 DTL +82
6 Jamaica Lightning Bolt DTF 1605 DTL +86
7 Edinburgh Inspiring Capital DTF 1618 DTL +100
8 California DTF 1694 DTL +176
9 Cork DTF 2356 DTL +838
10 Hull & Humber DTF 3361 DTL +1843

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