GSC – Ronnie Simpson’s farewell storm before Cape Horn

By Marco Nannini  / Global Solo Challenge

Ronnie Simpson is approaching Cape Horn with less than 200 miles to go to the summit of his “Everest of the Seas”, a metaphor we’ve been using to try to convey what an incredible achievement it is to reach this milestone in a solo circumnavigation. Ronnie patiently paced his arrival to the tip of the south American continent to avoid two nasty storms that were in his path, until he finally saw a window to attempt the rounding. As it often happens the forecasts changed as he sailed east and the South Pacific has decided it will not let him go without a farewell storm.

Ronnie is sailing in sustained winds which are probably around 40 knots and as early as this afternoon he may be hit by winds gusting over 60 knots. On the bright side, if we really want to look for one, the wave height should not exceed 6-7 meters which in those waters is actually good news. There is a problem however, the current strong winds are brought by the arrival of a low pressure system with the usual sequence of northwesterly winds followed by southwesterlies as the cold front sweeps by after the warm front.

It now seems unlikely that Ronnie will be able to sail past Cape Horn before the arrival of the cold front which means he will have to deal with two major problems, the change in winds which will bring cross seas seas and the fact that, whilst he is now sailing in the warm sector of the depression, a stable air mass, the cold front brings an unstable air mass. In practical terms the cold front will bring squally conditions with winds that will be gusty and fierce and temporarily may be well stronger than the forecast.

Each skipper is responsible for taking their own decisions, and the organisers do not provide instructions on weather tactics as the choices heavily depend on the boat, the skipper and the actual conditions. Obviously we’re always available to support any participant at any time and we’re alway just one message away. In many circumstances and especially in the most critical situations such as Dafydd Hughes’ loss of his primary autopilot, Ari Kansakoski’s dismasting or Edouard De Keyser’s loss of his rudder we have always been in communication with the skippers who are free to discuss with us anything they want. Often the discussion may involve their shore team, if they have one, and we may be just one of the parties in the discussion which does not affect the fundamental principle that the final decision is with the person in charge, and that is always and only the skipper.

During the course of this morning, 1st February, Ronny seems to have chosen a more southerly course and we will have to see what he will chose to do, he can either sail more directly to Cape Horn when the wind backs from the north-north-east to the north west and go for the rounding without any further evasive strategy, or opt to stay west of the strong band of winds after the cold front which would however require either heaving-to (stopping the boat with two sails on opposite tacks and drifting) or briefly sailing on the other tack.

It’s interesting to watch the tactics as both Philippe Delamare’s and Ronnie Simpson’s rounding of the Horn remind me of the situation I found when rounding on 24 Feb 2012. The similarities lie in the timing of the cold front which is due to sweep over Cape Horn exactly at the time of the rounding. In Philippe’s case I would say the conditions were heavy but not critical and Philippe gained room to the south before heading est but did not need to change course.

When I rounded, the low pressure system was coming from the southwest and was bringing seas in excess of 10 meters at its center, we opted to stay behind the low and did in fact heave-to for a few hours when the cold front swept by before resuming course. In hindsight we certainly opted for the safest option and conditions were very windy (gusting approximately 65 knots) but the sea state, although dantesque, never posed a real threat. Having said this, who knows what we could have found if we had reached the continental shelf with those sort of waves stirred up by the storm. By the time we reached the Horn the wind had dropped to 20-25 knots and then died completely, so much so that we took the shortcut through the strait of Le Maire which no one has done so far.

I’d say Ronnie’s storm is probably somewhere between the one faced by Philippe and the one we saw in 2012 and this would make all strategies valid, either go for the rounding despite the approaching cold front, perhaps giving the continental shelf a wide berth, or take evasive action and round behind the system, which however may prove to be unnecessary. We will follow Ronnie’s approach closely as we know he’s been studying the situation carefully for several days and evaluating all options.

Rounding the Horn often turns into a game of chess dodging storms and dangerous seas and even the approach is never a simple matter. Approximately 1000 miles behind Ronnie things took an unexpected turn at least for one of the skippers. Riccardo Tosetto on Obportus opted for a significantly longer route than his nearest rivals Andrea Mura on Vento di Sardegna and Francois Gouin on Kawan3 Unicancer. A large area of fickle winds was forecast to block the direct route to the cape and Riccardo made a bold choice by heading decidedly north to stay in more pressure and avoid getting stuck.

When the direct route is blocked by light winds the skippers are always confronted with the dilemma of whether to wait for the wind to fill in or opt to sail a longer route to avoid slow progress. This type of considerations for example comes into play when boats sail south in the Atlantic. The direct route from Europe to Cape of Good Hope is effectively impossible, the doldrums around the equator, the St. Helena high pressure and the tropical calms all have to be considered and the result is a route that from Europe goes to Brazil, then south to reach the influence of the south atlantic low pressures. The route often involves staying west to avoid the light winds of the St. Helena high.

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