Race leader Marc Thiercelin and the rest of the fleet experience the calms and sudden squalls of the Doldrums

The French have given the doldrums–that windless wedge of misery that stretches across the Atlantic just north of the equator–a rather lyrical nickname: Le Pot-au-Noir. For sailors bound south from the northern hemisphere, this “black pot” is a kettle full of problems. What wind exists there comes in the form of instant squall lines–zero breeze one moment, 30 knots the next. Thunderstorms crackle on the horizon. Le Pot-au-Noir earned its title because it is one depressing place to be. Today, no one knows that better than French skipper Marc Thiercelin.

At the 0940 GMT position update this morning, Class I and overall leader Thiercelin was struggling to work free of the dreaded doldrums. His zig-zagging course track for the last 24 hours tells the tale. Thiercelin, who entered the doldrums well to the west of the leading pack, has steered east, then northeast, and finally south in his hunt for consistent wind. In the last Around Alone race, Isabelle Autissier blazed through the doldrums well to the east–her path followed a southbound route down latitude 27W, while Thiercelin this morning was located at 36W. The trick is to cross them at their narrowest point, and fleet meterologists Commanders’ Weather confirms that the doldrums are “quite narrow between 30-40W.” The problem with this scenario is that, once through the doldrums, the leaders will have to beat into the southeast trades to make it around the bulge of Brazil. And crashing to windward on a Finot Open 60-design is never a joyous occasion.

Josh Hall and Mike Golding had swapped spots early today, and held the fleet’s second and third positions respectively. Autissier remained in fourth. But the big surprise is a name we haven’t heard lately in these parts: Giovanni Soldini. Early today he was just nine miles behind Autissier in the Distance to Finish column, and 203 miles behind Thiercelin. Staying well to the east of the leaders, Soldini has made up more than 150 miles in the last several days, and may be the best positioned of all the skippers to reach off and take full advantage of the upcoming tradewinds.

Back in the fleet, of course, all eyes are on Thiercelin to see if his path through the doldrums was, in fact, the correct one. Mike Garside, holding second in Class II behind J.P. Mouligne, filed this optimistic report: “I’m closing on the doldrums and looking for the narrowest part for the crossing. [Thiercelin] is almost through this area of fickle winds and has taken a course much further to the west than his close competitors. This gives me hope that the waypoint selected [for] the crossing by routing expert [and Whitbread veteran] Vincent Geake, before the race started, is going to be the right one. It is close to where Thiercelin entered the doldrums.”

And from Autissier: “For now, it’s a total catastrophe. I’m traveling at 4 knots over the last 200 miles… There’s a good chance that [these light airs] will last a little while, and it’s not going to help me at all. I think [Thiercelin] decided to take advantage of the wind as much as possible to get as far south as he could, hoping to quickly clear the doldrums, then to succeed in passing close to…Brazil. As for me, I wanted to hold steady a little longer because the doldrums are low (approximately 2N/3N). But now the wind is very light throughout the area of 3N/7N.”And from Hall: “Doldrums look very narrow so hopefully we can nip through during the next 48 hours. I have taken…a more easterly course the last few days. This has lost me some miles for the moment but under the doldrums the winds are southeast and if we are to make it around Brazil without some real losing tacks, I need to be east.” Hall and the others have tradewind sailing on their minds. They know that the doldrums are an awful malady, and steady breeze is the only cure.