Does it make sense starting races in Northern Europe in late autumn?


I was reminded of Pete Seeger’s 1960s song when I listened to the BBC Today programme this morning and heard the news of two thirds the Velux 5-Oceans fleet putting into port for repairs to storm damage. When will they ever learn?

In the last four years almost every trans-ocean and round the world race that has started from northern Europe in October or November has been hammered by a Biscay storm causing widespread damage to the fleets. In the 2002 Around Alone all the 50-footers sought shelter from a major storm for a few days and the Route de Rhum in the same year was decimated – the trimarans in particular with capsizes and structural failures. The Transat Jacques Vabre suffered the same fate, as did last year’s Volvo Ocean Race even though they started half way down the Spanish coast in an attempt to avoid extreme autumn weather. And in the past, when the Mini Transat used to start in November several boats and their crews were lost in this dangerous stretch of water.

It really is a no brainer. In October and November the frequency of gales increases substantially. And Biscay, with its rapidly shoaling waters, is no place to be caught out in bad weather at any time of the year. It’s no wonder that crews of square riggers, with their limited ability to sail to windward, feared Biscay so much. The chances of getting embayed were as real then as they are today.

The organisers of these races are really caught between a rock and a hard place. Because if they start the races any earlier they run the risk of encountering Atlantic hurricanes or arriving in the Southern Ocean before the Austral summer. The Mini Transat organisers have responded by having an earlier start to the first leg to Lanzarote and those behind the Vendee Globe bravely postponed the start of the 2000 race because of bad weather. Should the Velux 5-Oceans start have been delayed because a gale was forecast? In retrospect probably not because at that time maximum winds of 30 knots were forecast, not the 60 knots experienced by the fleet.