Will Oxley, navigator on Doha 2006, on dodging oil rigs in the Gulf of Oman and hitting a shark

05Z 7th Feb 2005 23 North 60 East (exiting Gulf of Oman and entering Arabian Sea) Course 140° – heading for waypoint south of New Zealand (via a few obstacles)

Wow, what a baptism of fire to racing maxi cats! The first 36 hours have been full on.

We had a great start and were first across the line with a conservative start some 10 seconds late as we did not want to be early. Straight away we were flying a hull as we flew along at 20 knots. About 45 minutes after the start we went left to get a wind shift and set up to duck Geronimo’s stern. Just as we got close Geronimo tacked to take our wind.

Fortunately his timing was off and we were able to sail fast and low and through his lee. It was a great sight: two of the world’s largest multihulls racing upwind less than three boatlengths apart. Eventually we started to give Geronimo bad air off our sails and we gained the controlling position and he was forced to tack away.

The breeze went left and we tacked for the next mark with a handy lead of 4.5 minutes at the Qatar rounding mark. The course took us downwind leaving a disputed Island Siri to port. The Iraninans aparently claim it as their own and an armed patrol boat had stopped Geronimo about a week earlier as they passed by on their way to Qatar. This made us a little nervous and we gave the island about 3 miles of clearance as we raced by at around 25 knots.

These maxi cats have very defined sweet spots and it is not easy to sail a course without slowing considerably or being too powered up under a certain sail plan. Consequently navigation is challenging as I try to avoid shoals and small fishing boats while sailing the optimal course. Thank goodness I have the full set of the UK Admiralty charts on board. It is a great comfort to be looking at the best charts while screaming along through unfamilar waters. I have the electronic Admiralty charts as well and unlike some of the other electronic charts the traffic zones and the oil rig areas are shown clearly.

At 2100 while travelling at around 23 knots there was a large bang on the starboard rudder followed by the hideous sound of rushing water from the turbulence of whatever we had hit remaining wrapped around the rudder. My mind went straight back to the Sydney-Hobart where for the last two years onboard the maxi Skandia we had hit sunfish whilst travelling through Bass Strait.

Torch light revealed a large shark wrapped firmly around the rudder. The crew tried to free the fish without success and we had to make the decision to drop the front sails, reef the main and then back the boat down. This is a big job on these boats.

At 2133 Geronimo sailed close by on our port side as we wrestled the reacher to the deck. No doubt he thought we had sail damage as we had the deck lights on. Finally 45 minutes after the bang we freed the shark by backing down and then off we went again with a boat to catch.

Unfortunately the backdown and sail changes left us high of course and we had to sail slow to avoid sailing into the shipping lanes. We passed close astern of a freighter and then wound her up. The port gybe was favoured but ahead lay a number of islands and rocks, all Iranian territory.

With some trepidation we sped onwards as we struggled to get low enough on our course to miss the next island. The water depth came up to less than 20 meters and we cleared the island by about 0.9 nm blasting along at 25 knots.

There is an Iranian military airfield on the island and we could see the lights of the airport and the oil terminals flaring as we raced past in the dark hoping that the security was feeling lazy. Making this island set us up beautifully for the gybe to pass through the Straits of Hormuz and we passed through just on dawn at 28 knots with one reef and the medium reacher in 33 knots of wind.

The weather models suggested a good run south through the northern part of the Gulf of Oman. High mountains though in the northern part of Oman made us cautious and so we gave the corner a wide berth. To no avail, though, as we got trapped by a zone of no wind.

After 7 hours of hard work we got some more breeze and were able to make good speed again. The passage out of the Gulf of Oman and into the Arabian Sea looked a nightmare on the models, with all the routeing solutions suggesting a wide berth (70nm ) on Ras al Hadd on the eastern tip of Oman. We are currently 38nm NE of the Cape and chose a closer route overnight and so far it looks OK (touch wood!).

The next navigational challenge is a high pressure across our path that we have to negotiate, then the reefs of the Maldives. Great to be in the tropics again, though a little sweaty in the nav station. There is one drawback to being a relatively large guy in a crew lacking a bit of brawn: I am good at grinding so I am called upon for many changes. This means I come down below to the nav station literally dripping onto the charts.

In summary so far I’d have to say I’m a convert. These boats are just awesome to sail, simple and a real blast, though I may not be so enthusiastic at 45°S with a nasty sea state!

Oh yes, at the last position report we were 38nm in front of 2nd placed Geronimo. I’m about to download the next position report. Lets hope I am still smiling in 30 minutes.

Cheers, Will www.oryxquest.com