No sleep for Clipper skippers as they ponder their route through the Doldrums

Just as you start to take all that lovely downwind sailing for granted, Mother Nature pulls the plug and the normally reliable trade winds are switched off. And that can only mean one thing – changes in the leader board could well be on the way.

“I can feel a re-shuffle of the deck coming on…” prophesies Brendan Hall, skipper of Spirit of Australia. “I just hope we're still near the top of the pile after it's happened.”

Race Director, Joff Bailey, explains what is going on with the weather. “As forecast, the winds have dropped across the entire fleet and they're about to lose the normally reliable trade winds. It's being caused by the remnants of a Tropical Depression that's affecting the region and which the teams are about to sail through. If the tacticians aren't careful and stray too far west they may even get head winds which will stop them in their tracks.

“If you take a look at the race viewer you'll see several of the teams (Team Finland, Cork, Jamaica Lightning Bolt and Edinburgh Inspiring Capital) are trying to go directly south. The weather files that have been sent to the teams suggest that there is still a good northerly airflow closer to the African coast and through the Canary Islands. However, predicting the path and effects of a tropical depression is notoriously difficult and what actually happens may be totally different to what's being predicted now.”

So, with no guarantee of what the winds are likely to bring, the skippers and their weather routers are making their tactical decisions based on the information they have. Across the fleet that information is identical so watching the teams' varying interpretations is an interesting game.

Uniquely Singapore's skipper Jim Dobie says, “With our new course being more westerly we have been sailing closer to the wind and have managed consistent speeds of nine to tens however we are going west on a bit of a flyer but an educated one to pick up the wind from the low. Looking at the weather, it seemed that if we continued south we would eventually fall into a hole off the African coast.”

A different plan is in place on board Team Finland. “We had a few various scenarios for passing the Canaries and slowly but surely we are heading for the one that we saw as the most extreme and the least likely to go for,” explains skipper, Eero Lehtinen. “After that everything looks wide open right now. Are we going to include the scoring gate in our passage plan or are we opting for the fastest sail towards the Doldrums and Rio? The next 48 hours will tell!”

Cape Breton Island's skipper, Jan Ridd, says “Grib files show the possibility of 25+ knots coming from exactly the direction we wish to go, so we have decided to gybe and hopefully use the last of the north north easterly wind until it eventually dies and hopefully we will be far enough west to avoid the worst of the strong wind. We'll also create an angle to beat into the manageable Force 4 forecast along the edge of the depression.”

“The tactical decisions being made are important ones with the ability to gain and lose us many miles in the coming weeks,” says Qingdao's skipper, Chris Stanmore-Major. Our 48-hour plan is to be in the Canaries by the early hours of Tuesday morning, placing us ahead of a high pressure system which is threatening to toast us if we do not pick up our heels and fly our way south.”

On board the big orange boat, leaders Hull & Humber have had a nice, straight downwind kite run overnight, according to the skipper's report this morning. Piers Dudin says, “We've been waiting for a favourable wind shift on which to gybe and head more directly south to avoid the approach high pressure ridge, (no wind!). It just came about this morning so Olly's watch are just setting up for a gybe. Our spinnaker changes are getting pretty slick now.”

With just over 1,000 of the 4,800 miles of this transatlantic race gone, Hull & Humber's crew know it's not in the bag yet and a number of challenges stand between them and the top spot on the podium in Rio, not least the North Atlantic Scoring Gate and the points available to the first three teams to pass through.

The shortest route from La Rochelle to Rio means leaving the Canary Islands to port (ie to the left). It is highly likely several of the teams will sail through the Islands and there is a chance one or two of the teams will leave the complete island chain to the starboard (right hand) side. The scoring gate is approximately 200 nm south west of the Canaries and, at the moment, looks like it may actually be in a wind hole! Whether this will affect the teams' decisions to go for the scoring gate remains to be seen.

Piers says, “Despite our apparent lead, Spirit of Australia has a better wind angle on the gate at the moment, so I'd say we're actually pretty much level pegging. Having pipped them at the post during last race I'm sure they're keen not to let the same thing happen again!”

The Aussies are ready for the challenge, says Brendan. “After a few less-than-great scheds, we have re-focussed and are getting this missile back on track. It's going to be an interesting few days coming up, with the wind dying off completely before some strong southerly winds kick in.”

Positions at 0900UTC, Monday 28 September 2009

1. Hull & Humber 3627nm Distance to Finish (DTF)
2. Spirit of Australia 3652nm (+24nm Distance to leader [DTL])
3. Qingdao 3664nm (+37nm DTL)
4. Team Finland 3724nm (+96nm DTL)
5. Uniquely Singapore 3747nm (+120nm DTL)
6. Cork 3761nm (+134nm DTL)
7. Cape Breton Island 3767nm (+139nm DTL)
8. California 3816nm (+189nm DTL)
9. Jamaica Lightning Bolt 3822nm (+194nm DTL)
10. Edinburgh Inspiring Capital 3834nm (+206nm DTL)

Full details of positions, updated every three hours can be found at ww.clipperroundtheworld.com.

Pantaenius Sailing
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Multihull Group
Pantaenius Sailing
M.O.S.S Australia
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West System 3