Damage reports and log books have documented the extraordinary relentlessness of the Southern Ocean

Andrew Roberts, Challenge Business project director, reports:

At the half way stage of the Cape Town stopover of the Global Challenge, the planned maintenance and repairs being carried out by the Challenge Business support team are being finalised before Sunday’s restart for the leg to Boston.

Analysis of the yachts’ log books shows that while this last Southern Ocean leg did not produce some of the extreme highs and lows of wind speeds seen during earlier Global Challenges, this time high winds seemed relentless and strangely enough produced some of the roughest and most awkward seas yet encountered by a Challenge fleet.

Imagine it done, Save the Children and BG Spirit all reported the consequences of exceptionally large and unstable waves south of Tasmania. BG Spirit and Save the Children both had their EPIRBs activated by wave action, which was very surprising as they are stowed under the companionway cuddy in a protected situation. During nearly a million fleet miles, including encounters with hurricanes, this had never happened before! Imagine it. Done’s experience of dipping her masthead wind instruments in the water after being thrown off a particularly large wave was an almost unknown phenomena on a Challenge 72′.

The relentlessness of the conditions is illustrated by the fact that yachts recorded a mean wind speed of moderate gale or more on 22 of the 24 days before the last yacht rounded the midway waypoint, Bravo. According to the log of Imagine it. Done moderate gales or stronger were recorded on 31 days of the 40 that they were at sea. The maximum wind speed recorded by any yacht was a over 60 knots (storm force).

The seemingly endless gale force conditions were particularly hard on the skipper and crew because there was little if any of the recovery time that generally occurs when a gale has gone through, when preparations can be made for the onslaught of next one. An illustration of this is that Isle of Sark carried a fully reefed mainsail (3 reefs) the smallest yankee or jib and a storm staysail for over 36 hours.

This sail combination would generally be carried whilst sailing to windward in mean wind strengths of 28 to about 40 knots depending on the sea state. On other occasions there could be as many as 7 or 8 headsail changes in a day and the main reefed or unreefed 5 or 6 times on that same day, all of which is extremely hard physical and exhausting work.

In these conditions the crew are totally dependant on the foul weather gear for their comfort and to a large extent their safety. The extreme conditions combined with hard physical exercise are very testing for foul weather gear and the Musto gear has performed exceptionally well. Continuous development by both Musto and Gore (breathable fabrics) that started before the 1996 Global Challenges have resulted in the outstandingly durable and comfortable clothing which make the extreme conditions quite tolerable.

Inevitably a 7,000-mile leg in those conditions is very hard on sails, but this leg was notable in that there were very few of the 57 fore and aft sails, handed over for major repair to Tim Woodhouse and the Hood Sailmakers team.

The amount of damage to the yachts was relatively small but the wear and tear was high. In particular the rigs have come under very close scrutiny and a cracked spreader bracket has been replaced on Me to You and short sections of mast track replaced on several yachts.

The yachts have extremely strong deck structures designed to withstand the onslaught of wave action but one area of the yachts that suffered was the forward stanchions. Most yachts bent or broke a number of stanchions because of the resistance of the webbing safety nets fitted to the forward guardrails for this race. It was always considered that there was a risk of damage because of the additional “windage” but the safety advantage provided by the nets would override any disadvantage, which proved to be the case. Curiously enough no stanchions were damaged by wave action during Leg 2, which helps illustrate the size and nature of the waves encountered.

One element of good seamanship is about knowing how hard to push and when, and there were some very high daily runs during which there was no reported damage. Surprisingly the GPS 24-hour distance sailed recorded in the yachts logs were as high as 270 miles or an average of 11.3 knots

The average distance actually sailed during Leg 4 (as shown on the yacht’s GPS) was nearly 7500 miles and the average actual speed sailed was over 8 knots. For the first six yachts to finish within 20 hours is remarkable and closer than any other southern ocean leg in Global Challenge history.