Eero Lehtinen, skipper of SAIC La Jolla talks about swapping crew watch leaders and tactics for Leg 6 of the Global Challenge

The sixth leg of the Global Challenge is on, first 24 hours are behind us and we are making slow progress towards Waypoint Charlie and La Rochelle. The 3000nm leg should be over within 15 days or so but last night our ETA was still on year 2006. Perhaps this leg is the opposite to the previous one — slow start and fast finish, we hope so anyway.

As always I have done some changes to the team. The fact that we get some new crew in each port always shakes the pack a little bit, but moreover the team develops and reshapes on every leg and new people are needed to fill some key positions. When I chose the first watch leaders for the race last summer I pointed out that that choice was valid only for one leg at a time. I guessed that we would need different types of leadership and knowledge towards the end of the race, and also I knew we would create a lot of skills and knowledge within the team and it was impossible to say who was going to be the potential leaders after a few legs.

We have reshuffled the four watches in every port and that has made everyone flexible and willing to sail with different people, as well as absorb ideas and skills from the entire team. There has never been any issues between the watches, they have always passed on the experiences and learnt lessons to each other and as we never change an entire watch on deck the word gets through and everyone learns the same tricks. In Wellington I considered changing the two watch leaders but in the end swapped one. It went smoothly and both of the guys enjoyed the change in the long term and the team definitely benefited from it.

The other swap took place in Boston, but should have really occurred previously in Cape Town. It is a classic example of how someone who was the most obvious choice to lead the “troupes” through the early challenges didn’t carry on the drive and the competitiveness to be a leader with a killer instinct – to challenge the other teams as the race got even more competitive as the general level of skill rose to a completely new level.

A crewman with the least sailing experience at the start had now become the man to take over. Julian Colls and Steve Wotton are now in charge of the watches on La Jolla and as the skipper I could not hope for better support from my trusted men. John Wilkinson has remained in his navigator’s and co-skipper’s role for the entire race and without him my challenge would have been a lot more lonely and demanding.

We had a rather modest start for this one. We were too careful on the line and didn’t accelerate fast enough, despite being in a good position. We were fourth over the line, including Stelmar who was over the line too soon and had to turn around. We fell further back as we carried a big genoa and were too slow in the tacks on our way through the channels. Every other boat had hoisted their number one yankee and staysail. As we moved into more open waters the wind dropped and our genoa was working well. We caught up to the leaders and even managed to sail through the fleet and taste the lead for some time. Soon things changed again and we saw Samsung and Vaio sail around us. Later on we overtook Samsung but since the morning we have gone for a more southern route and taking calculated losses on most of the boats. We believe it’s going to pay back later.

The Route

Tactics – very interesting! The high-pressure system sitting on Boston has made our start slow. The forecast winds seem to be arriving mainly from the south in form of a low pushing north-west. The wide high-pressure system seems to be sitting on our rhumb line for quite some time and north of it we have either solid land or icebergs. The Gulf Stream is available for some free rides but to get there adds 120-180nm of distance sailed. Some of the northerly eddies of the Stream will be in our reach for less of a sacrifice in distance.

General weather conditions in the north might become very uncomfortable and even dangerous in thick fogs and arctic temperatures. I haven’t forgotten the last leg of
1989/90 Whitbread Race sailing from Fort Lauderdale to Southampton. We started in sunshine and had a sweet ride in Gulf Stream wearing shorts night and day. But as we moved off the Gulf Stream and felt the freezing cold temperatures of the Labrador Current in less than two hours we noticed a change from summer to mid winter. The sea temperature fell from high twenties to below two degrees (Celsius), a thick fog covered us for several days and nights and we sailed in heavy downwind conditions among several big icebergs storming away with boat speeds of over 20 knots carrying five big sails on the Maxi boat’s two masts. The day when the fog finally cleared was the best day in the whole race.

That was the scariest part of the whole round the world trip. Luckily we have waypoint Charlie stopping us going too radically north. But even with Charlie we can see huge differences in the conditions and temperatures.

Having a faulty radar at the moment does not contribute to votes for going north (not that we would really vote here, that’s my job…). Our professional weather expert on land (with whom we unfortunately may consult only before and after every leg…) was also strongly recommending the southern option – if winds are light or conditions get difficult… well winds are light! The max speeds of the current in Gulf Stream recently have been up to six knots, but that kind of turbo gear we can only find rather far south. But even two to four knots here and there would not harm anything and if we could get more breeze from the low to start with, then who knows?

Our goal for this leg is not to secure a fourth in this race. Being fourth or fifth is all the same to me. Now it’s time to do something bold, we should have gone for it on the fifth leg and we would have won the whole thing. I won’t let another opportunity go by. It’s now or never.

Eero Lehtinen – Skipper SAIC La Jolla