The dangers are where land and sea meet, but the deep ocean is lonesome, gruelling - and beautiful. Global Challenge skipper Eero Lehtinen explains
Position: Roughly 24-30 hours away from Kerguelens and waypoint bravo.
Winds steady /-30kn, awaiting 40 knot SSW close reach tonight.
The Southern Ocean certainly is a very special, lonesome and gruelling place. At the same time it can be the most stunningly beautiful and fascinating playing field for the few crazy yachties who come here every now and then to prove that they can do it.
Afterwards everyone raves about it – “the experience of my life”; “the best thing that ever happened to me”; “the highlight of the race”. But if I asked my crew and myself what we would like to change right now, if we had only one wish, I bet we all would say to the little fairy: “Move Table Mountain 3,000 miles closer to us.” That’s how they work, those famous golden memories. Ask us in Portsmouth and we will say – or should I say lie – to you: “The Southern Ocean was the best part!”
The secret of this place is probably its sudden and total changes and the almost no-limit extremes of the conditions. We have been lucky so far. We haven’t seen the wind speed climb above 50 knots, we haven’t met the famous freak waves yet, but it’s been constantly rough, wet, cold and tough, that’s for sure. At the same time some of the days there have been blue skies, lots of albatrosses around the boat, fantastic sailing and the clean and fresh air just as if we were on the Alps, having the best day of the skiing season. But without any escape to the ski bistro or the hotel room, though.
One feels very humble. There are no quick exits, once you are in it you have to fight your way out of it, no one’s watching if you can make it or not. You have to make it. That’s where the team effort, camaraderie, careful preparations and the most reliable racing boats in the world make the difference. And we’ve got it all, we are in good shape – come hell or high water.
The critical and toughest points in the Southern Ocean are all related to land somehow. Out in the furthest ocean things are actually pretty steady: either it’s steadily reasonable or steadily unreasonable but you get used to it, since you don’t have a choice. Where things usually get nasty are around the Capes or any other piece of land. Right now we are heading for waypoint bravo. Unfortunately there will be no cheering fans, no burger joints and not even a branded marker buoy to point out the exact position of the waypoint. It’s up to SAT-C polling and gentleman’s sport again.
We get north of that point because that’s what the rules say. And luckily, the very clever race committee have placed the waypoint far enough north of the Kerguelen Islands to keep us away from the shallow bank surrounding the islands. That is one of the roughest places in the world when seas are high (as they always are). The depth jumps from thousands of metres to only just above 10 at the shallowest. There are strong currents. You don’t jump in, you sail around it.
Other notorious spots include the Agulhas Bank on the southernmost tip of Africa, our next destination. There the story is pretty much the same: suddenly shallowing waters at the edge of the continental shelf and the warm Agulhas Current flowing from the Equator along the African coast to warm up the eastern coastline of South Africa. When this occasionally fast-flowing current (up to 4 knots or so) meets the prevailing W-SW winds in these waters, it can be boatbreaking madness.
Several famous racing yachts and ocean legends have got in trouble in these waters. Sir Peter Blake’s first attempt in the Whitbread race was shattered there as Burton Cutter’s hull wasn’t strong enough to carry on. They had to turn back. Also Illbruck, the winner of the previous Volvo race, had serious problems in these waters fresh out of Cape Town, but they were able to stop the leak on the deck, get back to the race and ultimately won the leg to Sydney in style.
The other notorious places we have already ticked off are Cape Horn, the southern tip of Tasmania, the Cook and Bass Straits. Cape Horn and the infamous Drake Passage is the one everyone likes to talk about. The reason why it’s done so much damage to mariners through the centuries is obvious. The massive, ever-flowing westgoing ‘river’ called the Southern Ocean is all of a sudden squeezed through a relatively narrow and shallow passage, and the huge waves squeeze as tight together as Englishmen in their famous queues at Tescos and banks.
To be there with a sailing yacht and possibly trying to sail around it the wrong way can be a real challenge. And it was. Not quite as bad, though, as it was for Captain Bligh and his crew, who tried to take a shortcut to Tahiti but had to give up after three months of struggling and sail the then standard route around Cape of Good Hope and Australia into Pacific and to their final destination!
South of Tasmania, again on the continental shelf and on the edges of it, the seas get really rough and we had a taste of it a couple of weeks ago. Sadly one of the leggers who joined the race in Sydney had to be evacuated in these waters as he got hurt exactly in these conditions.
The famous Straits, Cook and Bass, are not geographically part of Southern Ocean but they are a big element for races going through the Southern Ocean. We had some rougher stuff in Cook Strait, which again is famous for its funneling wind effect and also the rather strong tides along the coastlines of the North and South Islands of New Zealand. The Bass Strait between Australia and Tasmania has caused a lot of troubles to the annual Sydney to Hobart racers. The waves can be absolutely mad and steep like houses – the last Global Challenge saw its most serious accident take place there as Veritas had to bring two seriously injured crew members back to shore before continuing (with shaking knees I bet) to the Southern Ocean.
One thing that really is unique here is the undamaged nature. We don’t see any oil spillages, rubbish, plastic bags, car tyres or other crap floating around here. I wish we had understood the uniqueness of our oceans a bit earlier. It’s almost scary to return to ‘civilisation’ again and meet this reality. The coasts of South Africa are just full of rubbish, the Atlantic is full of floating containers just to name the bigger articles that don’t belong there. We should all look at the countryside and coastline of New Zealand. How come there can be such a well organised bunch of 4 million people who understand the need to keep their country and waters so clean, while the rest of us just waste ours like there was no tomorrow? The world needs to take on the Kiwi regulations and common sense in this matter with no delay. Otherwise there will be no clean waters for our grandchildren to sail and swim in.
Another thing to have great respect for are of course the icebergs. This time there have been no icebergs to report. From the Whitbread 15 years ago I have some memories (again golden) of huge ice blocks and the even more scary smaller growlers that are the major risk for yachts. I have consciously chosen a slightly more northern route for the entire Southern Ocean crossing, partly to avoid two golden memories of icebergs… We most likely won’t see them this time as we are already heading north, but the North Atlantic is still a possibility on our way from Boston to La Rochelle in June.
Last but not least, the Southern Ocean is worth a visit if you don’t see anything else but the Southern Lights, Australis Borealis. What a colourful show in the sky! And if you are lucky it goes on for the whole night with no two similar designs. It’s truly fascinating and I’m afraid beats our Scandinavian Northern Lights by a thousand miles. In a different league completely. Come and have a look.
Fifteen or so more days and we’re out of here. For good, we say now. Ask us again in two years’ time.
Eero Lehtinen, skipper SAIC La Jolla