Plenty of sail changes as Clipper fleet struggles through light airs

The last 24 hours have seen some big tactical moves, variable winds
keeping the crews busy with endless sail changes and a great deal of
reflection on the best way to tackle the high pressure system sitting
between the ten yachts of the Clipper 09-10 fleet and their goal of
Geraldton-Greenough on the coast of Western Australia.

Almost all of the teams have been experiencing light winds
uncharacteristic of the Southern Ocean and for the crew of Spirit of
Australia it made for a particularly sour-tasting start to the day.

“Lemons at breakfast. An hour of lemons,” writes skipper, Brendan Hall.
He explains, “Lemons are what we call it when the boat speed reads 0.0.
Two big, fat zeros, staring the helmsman in the face. There was not a
lot more we could do. We had our lightest sails up and were trimming
them constantly; there was just not enough wind to keep them full. The
wind hole we have been driving north to avoid has swallowed us up and
given us lemons. I just hope the rest of the fleet are getting some
lemons of their own. We are just creeping along now, waiting for the
wind to fill in.”

The good news for the Aussie team, and equally frustrating for the
others, is the light winds are affecting most of the leading pack, with
perhaps the exception of Cape Breton Island whose eagle has been soaring
up through the fleet, regaining places lost when they found their own
wind hole in spectacular fashion a few days ago.

The Canadian crew is hot on the heels of Uniquely Singapore, currently
sitting in third place behind leaders Team Finland and Spirit of
Australia. But if Jim Dobie, skipper of the Singaporean entry, has his
way, they won't be there for much longer.

He says, “It's fairly obvious we made a tactical move over the last 24
hours. On the surface it might appear that we have lost a lot of miles
on the back of the fleet but the miles lost versus our new position
will, fingers crossed, pay off and allow us to keep our position and
catch Spirit of Australia and Team Finland – a big ask! We can now look
at regaining miles lost and we believe we're in a better position to
tackle the next few days and the high sitting off the Australian west
coast.”

Although he was born in Singapore Jim's family originally comes from
Kalgoolie in Western Australia, and he knows a little bit about the
weather there.

“The west coast is typically hot and dry as a result of these massive
highs sitting off the coast. They don't move much and it takes something
dramatic to shunt them out of the way. So your options are go over the
top, underneath or through the middle. A southerly route will keep the
wind with you but you have to sail a longer distance; over the top you
face head winds and, depending on its position, lighter winds but a
shorter distance to sail; or through the middle is the shortest distance
but the route takes you into areas with no wind.

“The next week will test our abilities to read the forecasts, sail well
in light winds and cover the rest of the fleet. There could be some
dramatic racing coming up.”

Peter Stirling, skipper of Jamaica Lightning Bolt, knows with fewer than
200 miles separating the leading eight yachts and a massive high
pressure system between them and the finish line, it's still anyone's
race.

He says, “The Southern Ocean is currently playing its latest hand with
the weather trying to lull the crew into a false sense of security with
calm seas, light winds and bright sunshine. Not for long though, because
by tonight we will be beating into 25 knots of wind and big seas. Though
the spray and waves landing on deck will be freezing cold the wind will
at least be from the north and not blowing up from the Antarctic, so
some small consolation.

“Though we lost our fourth place to Cape Breton Island during the night
we managed to take ground out of most of the other yachts. Cape Breton
Island is much further south than the rest of the fleet and experiencing
different weather conditions. We still have a long way to go and are
quietly confident we can regain our lost position and hopefully even get
on the podium.”

The Jamaican team has been taking the opportunity the break in the
weather has afforded them to do some essential maintenance jobs
including replacing the starboard spinnaker halyard they had to cut
during a broach a few days ago.

“Our prediction of the light wind conditions we experienced overnight
was spot on and, although we have had a shocking night in comparison to
those around us, this, too, was an accepted part of the equation,”
Qingdao's skipper, Chris Stanmore-Major, reported to the race office
this morning.

“With the north west – south east axis of this high pressure lying
directly across our path it would always be us to the north of the fleet
that would get caught out first but it is our hope that those to the
south of us will be caught later and for longer – allowing us to
recapture our position or perhaps even gain some advantage.”

Edinburgh Inspiring Capital is slightly to the south of the Chinese
entry and the crew have been busy throughout the last 48 hours adjusting
their sail plan to the variable winds they have been experiencing.

“No sooner have we got the correct sail plan set and trimmed the wind
changes again!” exclaims skipper, Matt Pike. “The last sched shows it is
fleet wide and with so few miles between us all it's time to plan the
final push. Will the large high pressure remain stationary and force us
down and around or will it track back north and give us a shorter run
in? How far into it dare we go before we lose the wind altogether? We
have been caught by that one before! By the latest positions it looks
like no one wants to gamble and we'll all be covering the positions of
our rivals.”

California's crew has had much the same workout, according to skipper,
Pete Rollason. He says, “The crew has been doing a magnificent job with
all the evolutions running like clockwork. During one watch yesterday we
put in and shook out numerous reefs, poled out the headsail a couple of
times and every time we completed the task the wind would either shift,
increase or decrease.”

California has kept a fairly northerly position within the pack and,
says Pete, “We are cracking along, beating into a freshening northerly
wind having had a good run overnight, taking some decent miles out of
the fleet. We are tracking slightly north, as are the rest of the fleet
and probably all trying to figure out how this high pressure system is
going to affect the outcome of Race 4.”

The high could provide an interesting end to this leg which has produced
some edge of the seat racing throughout the first 3,000 of the
4,700-mile course.

“I believe it will be the deciding factor and whoever plays it well
could make some massive gains,” agrees Pete. “Let's not get ahead of
ourselves as that is probably three or four days away and later tonight
we are looking at 35+ knots of wind (on the beam according to the
forecast) which should make for a lively night and probably the last
major blow of the Southern Ocean as we gradually track north to a warmer
climate.”

While the rest of the fleet are preparing to leave the Southern Ocean,
Hull & Humber's crew are just getting used to life below 40 degrees
south and loving it, according to skipper, Piers Dudin.

“Visions of the Southern Ocean have become reality. It's easy to be
poetic about what it's like down here. But really it's big winds, big
waves, loads of birds and we're having big fun! We changed down to the
Yankee 3 and three reefs as the wind increased throughout the day to a
consistent Force 8. Early on, just as the second reef was about to go in
Hull & Humber picked up to 28.4 knots, sliding down an especially long
wave with Charles Mischel on the helm. He was new to the boat in Cape
Town but has become a full time member until San Francisco. 'Keep it
straight,' was all I needed to say and he did exactly that as the waves
in front were carved sideways.

“The wind's settled to a Force 6 now and during the night Mike's watch
shook out the third reef and hoisted the staysail to help keep us on
full pressure and course. We won't be here for long but the Southern
Ocean certainly lives up to its legend.”

The first yachts are due to reach Geraldton between 14 and 18 December,
with Cork and Hull & Humber due to arrive before Christmas.

POSITIONS AT 0900 UTC, MONDAY 7 DECEMBER

1 Team Finland DTF 1765
2 Spirit of Australia DTF 1782 DTL +17
3 Uniquely Singapore DTF 1808 DTL +43
4 Cape Breton Island DTF 1821 DTL +56
5 Jamaica Lightning Bolt DTF 1840 DTL +74
6 Qingdao DTF 1860 DTL +94
7 Edinburgh Inspiring Capital DTF 1871 DTL +105
8 California DTF 1946 DTL +181
9 Cork DTF 2578 DTL +812
10 Hull & Humber DTF 3619 DTL +1854

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