We talk to Emma Richards and Brad Van Liew about life in the Southern Ocean, and they tell us why going deep south is a risk much too far

It is four years since Giovanni Soldini went to the rescue of Isabelle Autissier in the Southern Ocean, and the Around Alone fleet is back in the same malevolent place, but this time it’s a case of so far, so good. Bernard Stamm is furthest south and still leading, and Brad Van Liew is again in full control of Class 2. There have been no ‘majors’ in this race – touch wood – and the leaders are fast closing on Cape Horn, where they will leave the disaster zones behind.

However, the sailing has been far from pleasant. If Emma Richards’s and Brad Van Liew’s experience is typical – which it probably is – this is an experience to be endured. We spoke to Emma yesterday and Brad this morning. Both sounded noticeably tired and a bit downhearted, particularly Emma – Pindar is at the rear of her class and racing in jarring seas. Here’s what they had to say:

“The weather’s been a nightmare: really big, choppy seas and 20-40 knots for the last 36 hours,” said Emma. “The sea has been from lots of different directions, with big peaks and troughs – a bizarre sea state – and as soon as we’re going at 20 knots the boat just launches and drops off waves.

She has another small tear in the mainsail, at a crease just below the third reef where the reef sits on the boom. For now it doesn’t matter, as she is sailing with three-reefed mainsail and staysail, but as soon as conditions permit, another laborious balancing act repair has to be tackled. “It’s demoralising at times,” Emma admits.

“Now, we’re working for every mile. With all this slamming, I’ve had to shut the cabin door. I’m talking to you with hat, scarf and gloves on. I have a heater and I run it for a few hours every day, but as soon as you turn it off it’s cold again.

“I’ve been doing a lot of handsteering, but after a couple of hours you have to go in and warm up your hands. My concentration span isn’t as good as the autopilots after a while! So you go below, check the nav, charge the batteries and get something to eat.

“On a daily basis, I wonder what am I doing out here. It’s hard keeping things dry. You’re nearly dry by the end of a watch and then you get hit by a massive wave just as you’re going below. It’s dripping everywhere; everything’s wet. You sail over a massive wave at an angle and you’ve left your fleece on the bunk, so it falls down into the slopping bilge.

“Everything is so cold and there’s so much condensation building up, especially if you boil a kettle for tea. Everything’s damp. That’s where I live.”

Brad Van Liew, in Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America, has had some fast but unpleasant sailing as well, as his photo, above, illustrates.

“It’s been very spectacular in the last 24 hours. Before it was really crappy: 40 gusting 55 out of the south. The boat was completely overpowered at times. The hard thing is selecting a gear. I had triple-reefed main and no headsails and I was underpowered most of the time but then a gust would hit and the boat was being completely thrashed.

“In the last 24 hours there have been strong winds of 30-35 knots from the west and very productive sailing. I’ve been averaging 13-14 knots and doing 300-mile plus days.

“At the moment it’s 0200 and pitch black. It’s overcast and very drizzly. It’s actually a fairly warm evening. You can basically tell what direction the wind is coming from as soon as you walk on deck, based on the type of moisture in the air and how cold it is. When it’s a winter sky and cold squalls and super-cold, it’s out of the south. When it’s out of the west, like now, it’s much warmer.

“The confused sea state has abated a bit. The seas a few days ago were 8-9m and the tops were rolling white water and you got slammed. It was uncomfortable but not dangerous. Those seas remain until the westerly swells begin to knock the tops off the southerly swells.”

In the next few days he will be trying to stamp out 250-mile days to try to dodge the next forecast low. “There’s a bubble of low pressure coming that doesn’t look too good at all. It’s a 956mb, and the last time I was here [four years ago in the previous Around Alone] it was life-changing. I got really pasted. This one is packing about 60 knots and the gusts will be higher. I’m hoping to outrun it and keep the throttle open.”

Both Emma Richards and Brad Van Liew have deliberately been keeping north. Emma is at 53°N, while Brad is at 52°N (race leader Bernard Stamm has gone roughly 400 miles deeper) and both are only now beginning to shape a course southwards to round Cape Horn. They have a similar strategy: avoid ice at all costs.

“I purposely went north,” says Emma. “I didn’t want to do what we did in the Volvo, when we had three or four days of sailing through ice. On my own, it’s not a good risk. It’s no fun whatsoever when you’re totally on the edge. It’s something I’ve stuck to. Everyone’s been lucky again, but one day one of these races will run out of luck and come a cropper.”

Van Liew is with her. He doesn’t need to take any chances, but says he wouldn’t anyway.

“It’s totally confused me from a strategic point of view, why people are so committed to the south. There are so many opportunities for good sailing to the north. And with the waypoints, the Great Circle Route versus the route at 50°S – a reach to reach run – is only about 120 miles. If I’m able to average half a knot faster, then what’s the point? I don’t understand the philosophy.”

In fact, he goes further than that: he thinks it’s madly irresponsible, especially if you’re leading your class as convincingly as he and Bernard Stamm are. “I’m curious to know if these guys are playing Russian Roulette or if they really think there’s no ice down there or they don’t care.

“Every time someone makes a move that is risky, they put the whole fleet at risk. Even if the risk is 2% rather than 20% it’s not worth making up the mileage, especially if you’re in the lead anyway. All you need is to nick a piece of ice the size of a basketball and it can take your rudder off.

“If Bernard hit ice and we all of a sudden had to go down there to rescue him, my deliberate strategy to stay out of ice has been compromised. I know it’s a boat race and we’re all taking risks knowingly, but we all have a responsibility to protect ourselves so we protect each other.”