We think we are now past the worst patches in the Southern Ocean, areas where accidents which have happened to the likes of Isabelle Autissier, and the loss of good men such as Harry Mitchell and Gerry Roufs, suggest that the sea can be at its cruellest.
Having got past the area south-west of Cape Leeuwin, LG FLATRON was the first of the BT Global Challenge yachts to weather the isolated French Kerguelen Islands over the weekend. After three weeks of marching through the lines of longitude with our bows pointing at the mark for an uncommonly high proportion of the time, the Kerguelens were not going to make our passage straightforward.
We got the full works from Southern Ocean central casting: a belter of a breeze topping out at 55 knots; the mainsail down for the second time this leg; and seas which were big, bruising and malevolent. One thinks back to the previous Vendee Globe solo race four years ago and ‘That Picture’, the photograph captured by the Australian Air Force of Thierry Dubois standing on his upturned hull, the Southern Ocean lapping his ankles and the nearest solid land 4km away – downwards.
For the most part, the Southern Ocean is a seriously deep mass of water. The choke point at Cape Horn is well-known; less appreciated is the effect of the ocean floor at the Kerguelens, thrown-up Alp-like from soundings of 4,000m to as little as 11m. The wayline mark of the course kept the fleet coralled north of the worst of this shoal water, some 150 miles north of the islands, but there was still no mistaking the shallow water effect as the waves got on to a slow, rolling boil, their fetch unimpeded for mile after mile. As FLATRON’s skipper Conrad Humphreys observed: “This is quite probably the longest fetch in the world.”
Some were plain large, others downright awkward; the total effect was not one of neatly formed-up ranks of waves but rather those impossibly tempestuous seas which artists have painted over the centuries, usually of Naval or trading vessels returning galllantly to ports such as Lisbon or Venice. How they knew such waves existed on the other side of the world is one of life’s irrelevant mysteries, but you do wonder.
On FLATRON such seas made us more circumspect. One of the trademarks of Humphreys’ team is knowing the sail combinations well and shifting gears ceaselessly. But in such heavy going, the rig was more conservative than at any any time in the three weeks since leaving Sydney. And for only the second this leg, did we make big bearaways during sail changes to take the sting out of the raging torrent coming across the fordeck and the extravagant head-throwing of the bow, though not before several sickening batterings were meted out to the foredeck team. The rest of the fleet must have been even more deferential since our remorseless gain on our 11 rivals not only remained unchecked but even accelerated.
With two-thirds of the leg completed, our lead amounts to a really useful 200 miles. “That’s equivalent to two or three big stops in these boats,” said Humphreys’ number two, Cian McCarthy. Prophetic. After finally making some westing on the islands, high pressure moved in and the wind moved out. Where these Challenge yachts impress in the 50/15 zone – that’s storm force winds and high seas- they labour asthmatically in the light stuff.
For FLATRON’S skipper this will be a patience-testing time. Deprived of decent Met info drawn down from the internet because of our crashed Sat B, he’s got to cover the fleet on the basis of a few paltry weather faxes.
“After the Kerguelans yachts such as Compaq (2nd overall) might be more bold in their tactics and it will be harder to see what they are doing,” he said. To hold our lead into Cape Town and keep Compaq buried in mid-fleet is objective number one. To do so would relieve FLATRON of nearly all pressure on the final two legs and heap it onto Will Oxley’s team as their focus will shift to defending their place from the