Race 4 from Cape Town to Geraldton, Western Australia, is proving just how evenly matched the crews competing in Clipper 09-10 are. The last four days of racing have seen the margins between the yachts remain fairly static and even the smallest gains over competitors have been difficult to come by as the teams maintain the kind of focus demanded of elite sports men and women to wring every last knot of boat speed from the available wind.
Even more remarkable is that these crews who are proving themselves as skilled and competent ocean racers were, until just three months ago, people like you: bankers, taxi drivers, nurses, engineers, marketing executives, managing directors, lawyers, farmers, students, CEOs and the gamut of professions in between. More astonishing still is the fact that before embarking on their compulsory pre-race Clipper Training programme more than 40 per cent of them had never set foot on a boat.
Cape Breton Island has found it nigh on impossible to decrease their deficit on Uniquely Singapore to more than 15 miles and Jan Ridd, the skipper of the Canadian entry explains, “All the boats are now firmly in the stable northerly air flow and the opportunity for great gains does not exist in an identical matched fleet as we are all sailing the same course to Geraldton. Gains or losses should only be a couple of miles. So here on Cape Breton Island we are concentrating on helming and sail trim to maximise our boat speed.
“We now have a full tactical team who are spending hours in the nav station staring at the navigation computer, looking at the other boats' performance and agonising over the next big decision. It is interesting to see the thought process, the hunger for figures, the questions about other boats. As a sailor the figures that interest me are those for our own boat and its performance.
“As we head towards Geraldton we will eventually sail out of this steady breeze we are all experiencing at the moment and it is the tactical decisions that the boats make then that will decide the race. It looks as if all the leading boats will have to negotiate an area of light and variable wind and those who can navigate and sail their way through this area to the more stable breeze will have the chance to pull out a substantial lead. It should make for some exciting racing and great viewing on the website!”
There's a distinct sense of déjà vu on board Uniquely Singapore, according to skipper, Jim Dobie, who says, “It's Groundhog Day again. For the last three days the course hasn't changed, the wind hasn't changed and everything is pretty constant. We have had some bad mileage on the sched reports recently and after a meeting at happy hour we put into place systems to keep the helm concentrating and the on watch making sure we are keeping our boat speed maximised.
“It's imperative we use the wind we have now to get as much mileage as possible so we maintain our buffer which we will need as we approach the high. We have picked our route through but are keeping a very open mind as the key is to focus on the conditions you have rather than what the predictions say. As we approach the 1,000 mile mark the whole crew are focused and committed to keeping our place and advancing on Team Finland and Spirit of Australia.”
The Aussies can't afford to rest on their laurels and are doing everything they can to make the most of the speed they have now. “We know this light wind zone ahead of us will be testing so we are using this opportunity to make as many miles as possible directly towards the finish line,” says skipper, Brendan Hall. “The rest of the fleet seem to have the same idea so a seven boat drag race is in full effect. We are also expecting to see a few boats using their Stealth mode in the next few days too, to really mix things up.”
Spirit of Australia and Qingdao have already played their Stealth card but Team Finland still has theirs up their Henri Lloyd sleeve. Will they play it as they navigate the high pressure system? The teams may not use their Stealth option within 250 miles of the finish.
Team Finland's skipper, Eero Lehtinen says, “We have been talking about this high pressure system so much and somehow visualising ourselves sailing in dropping breeze, lots of sunshine and slower boat speed. So far the barometer has been climbing but the wind hasn't really dropped and there is no sign of the sun. We have sailed through several thick, dark and wet cloud formations with lots of drizzle and unsteady winds in them.
“Let's see what the last days bring with them. We are in good shape and ready to fight hard to maintain our lead.”
Jamaica Lightning Bolt's crew are also getting mentally prepared for the lighter winds to come. Peter Stirling, the skipper, sees it as an opportunity to move up through the fleet. “We still have good wind at the moment but by tomorrow morning the effects of the high pressure system ahead of us will slow us all down with light and fickle winds being the order of the day,” he says. “On Jamaica Lightning Bolt we are very happy about this as light wind sailing is something we are good at. Also, with the boats so evenly matched, if it was a drag race to the finish chances are the race order wouldn't change from how it currently stands – not good for us!”
California's skipper is thinking along the same lines. “It is amazing that after 3,500 miles of racing that the fleet is still so closely bunched. It just shows how evenly matched the boats and crews are. We remain hopeful that the high pressure between the fleet and Geraldton will mix things up a little and allow us a faster route through. We will drive hard as ever and push all the way; it's never over until you cross the line!”
Cork has officially left the Southern Ocean. Although, says skipper, Richie Fearon, “We may pop down for one last visit before we start making our northerly track to Geraldton.”
When the team gets there they have one major job on their in-port maintenance list – repairing their heavyweight kite.
Richie explains, “Before we left, the Southern Ocean reminded us of why it has its reputation. Early yesterday morning we were sailing along under the heavyweight when we got hit by a squall. We rounded up to the wind, the spinnaker halyard came free and the spinnaker ended up in the water. The crew worked well and got the sail back onto the boat and the Yankee poled out. The spinnaker was re-packed and checked for any damage. We stayed with the poled out Yankee for the rest of the morning and most of the day. Later on it was time to get the spinnaker back up again so we set the heavyweight to go. The hoist went well and we had it up and set and started to tidy the ropes around the boat when the head of the spinnaker ripped and the remainder ended up in the water – again! Once more we gathered it back onto the boat. After assessing the tear, it seems that there was a rip from when the halyard went the first time and it wasn't spotted which meant when we hoisted it again, the rip grew until it was the length of the spinnaker. The decision has been made to carry out repairs in Geraldton; we need the space to do a proper job on it as it is our work horse sail.”
The last of the ten boats in the Southern Ocean is Hull & Humber, who have also ventured the furthest south of all the yachts. Skipper Piers Dudin reports, “Visibility was tricky again last night but both watches carried the kite through, thanks solid concentration. It's still cold. Neck gaters are definitely 'In' this season aboard Hull & Humber, as are two pairs of socks, fleecy middle layers and big gloves. We're looking a slightly warmer few days coming up with the possibility of some upwind conditions for a short time.
“We're starting a new mission: Operation Get Katy Home for Christmas. Katy, in addition to John N and others, have some pretty significant Christmases this time round and especially need to make it home if they can. I've done the maths, and it's going to take a 10 knot average from NOW – ALL THE WAY to get there on the evening of the 22nd so they can catch their flight early on the morning of the 23rd. We like a challenge. It's do-able, we'll just have to see…”
The first of the yachts are due to arrive in Geraldton between 14 and 18 December, with Cork and Hull & Humber expected by Christmas.
Several recruitment events are being held across Australia during and after the stopover. For more information on these and how to sign up to compete in Clipper 11-12, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
POSITIONS AT 1200 UTC, THURSDAY 10 DECEMBER
1 Team Finland DTF 1010
2 Spirit of Australia DTF 1043 DTL +33
3 Uniquely Singapore DTF 1060 DTL +50
4 Cape Breton Island DTF 1075 DTL +65
5 Qingdao DTF 1094 DTL +84
6 Jamaica Lightning Bolt DTF 1115 DTL +105
7 Edinburgh Inspiring Capital DTF 1129 DTL +119
8 California DTF 1203 DTL +193
9 Cork DTF 1886 DTL +876
10 Hull & Humber DTF 2903 DTL +1893