Velux racers are lining up for tricky Equator crossing

The weather is starting to hot up as the Velux 5 Ocean fleet press south towards the Equator. After ten days of sailing which have seen the fleet encounter a host of conditions from frustrating, light breeze to strong winds and high seas, the five ocean racers have their biggest challenge of the leg so far ahead of them – the Doldrums.

The Doldrums is one of the most challenging regions to sail through in the world: a dynamic, moving area of high pressure found a few hundred miles either side of the equator where the northern and southern hemispheres meet, characterised by incredibly light winds and notorious for its sudden and unforeseen squalls and storms. Coupled with hot, humid temperatures, and days of potentially slow progress, the Doldrums is a huge test for skippers.

At the head of the fleet, American Brad Van Liew continues to stretch his lead. The latest position report at 12:00 UTC put the 42-year-old from Charleston, South Carolina, 86 nautical miles ahead Zbigniew ‘Gutek’ Gutkowski (POL) as the pair blast south past the Cape Verde Islands.

Canadian Derek Hatfield changed course overnight to avoid the islands, and now trails Brad by 314 miles. A passage too close to them could cause problems due to the light, unpredictable winds that can be found around the islands. The 57-year-old sailed west for eight hours to clear the islands and also put his Eco 60 yacht Active House on course to cross the Doldrums.

“I’ve been looking at the Doldrums and I’m going to push a little harder now,” Derek said today. “I had to put in a jog to the west last night which was pretty painful, but right from Cape Finisterre I haven’t been far enough west. I have been paying the price for that ever since. I spent eight hours last night going west to put me in a better position to go round the Cape Verde Islands and gives me a proper angle on the Doldrums. I’m trucking along at 15 knots and I’m much happier with life.”

“I need to be through the Doldrums by Sunday or the door is going to close and the Doldrums will move further south,’ he added. ‘I think Brad and Gutek will have a nice run through and hopefully I can get through too.”

While Brad suffered two knockdowns on Le Pingouin and Gutek was caught out with too much sail up as they both headed through a low pressure system, Derek, who chose a similar course, has so far escaped unscathed.

“I haven’t had any hairy moments yet,” Derek explained. “Last night I gybed twice and both went well, nothing broke. There was 22 knots of wind and it was dark so I’m pretty pleased. Everything’s pretty calm onboard. I check the boat often to make sure I don’t get into trouble although you can get into trouble pretty quickly out here.”

Gutek has been recovering from a nasty injury to his head caused by the wind generator on Operon Racing (read previous story here). The blades on the wind generator sliced his forehead in several places yesterday forcing the 36-year-old to get out the needle and thread and stitch his wounds back together. To add more misery, Gutek got an electric shock from his hydrogenerator while trying to fix it yesterday. “Is it not enough that I’m already wounded?” he wrote this morning. “An electric shock now? Wonderful.”

British skipper Chris Stanmore-Major, who chose a course closer to the coast of northern Africa, was last positioned off the coast of Mauritiana. Despite his fourth place, CSM clocked the highest average speed between the morning and midday reports on Spartan averaging 12 knots.

Christophe Bullens, more than 1,800 nautical miles behind Brad after returning to La Rochelle after the race start last Sunday, has also chosen a more inshore route hugging the Portuguese coastline. His yacht Five Oceans of Smiles too continues to be plagued by electrical problems and his average speed over the last 24 hours was polled at just 3.1 knots. The 49-year-old Belgian was joined on his voyage yesterday by a pod of dolphins – but even they will have provided little comfort in these difficult times.

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