December 15, 2004
The Southern Ocean has been dishing up its usual dose of balmy summer sailing conditions; snow, ice, gale force winds and treacherous seas, as Ocean Planet and the remaining competitors in the Vendee Globe pick their way across a meteorological minefield. It has not been easy and Bruce has had his fair share of problems, both on board and tactically. Now the northernmost boat in the fleet, Ocean Planet is sailing in different conditions from the other boats and it’s going to be a difficult few days ahead as Bruce attempts to reconnect with the chasing pack. His biggest fear right now is losing touch with the pack and falling off the weather systems that are keeping the chasing pack in a relatively tight bunch. Once you find yourself looking behind for new wind while the boats ahead are still riding an old system, you know that your chances of catching up are slim to none.
While the deep south has a fearsome reputation (much of it well deserved) it’s a little broadcast fact that some of the sailing down south can actually be very pleasant. Just as human nature tends to focus on the sensational, so does the coverage of sailing in the Southern Ocean. It’s the big seas and spectacular wipeouts that make news headlines; the days between fronts where the wind moderates and a milky sun appears rarely get a mention. Bruce’s latest updates from on board give us a sneak look into the local conditions, and images showing a relatively calm sea and sunny skies seem to contradict our view of the way things ought to be in the Roaring Forties.
Sailing at those latitudes is an exercise in extremes. Indeed, the low pressure systems approach with the sound and intensity of a freight train, and so long as the boats are sailing within the system, the conditions are frightful. Wind howls and the seas build up to ship-eating sizes. Once the system moves on and the boats lose touch with the associated weather, the sailing returns to “normal” until the next system comes along. Those days between fronts can actually be quite pleasant. The sun sometimes makes an appearance, however that too is a double edged sword. Clear skies make for mild, sunny days. However, the nights are bitterly cold as radiation cooling sucks the warmth out of the air. The wind blows steady at between 15 and 20 knots, and if the angle is correct, the skippers can enjoy good speeds and relatively easy sailing eating up the miles until the next front approaches. It’s a time for maintenance and for recharging the battery, the human battery that is. The boats take a hellish beating during the storms and the respite between fronts is used to patch it all back together again. If the conditions are steady, the autopilot can take over allowing the sailors some time in the bunk. Other than chunks ice floating in the water, there is not much to run into down south. Most shipping stays away from such treacherous waters.
It can also be a time to marvel. On clear nights, the southern lights, or Aurora Australis, paint the skies with broad, colorful sweeps that tumble and churn along the horizon. Most European cities are decked out with Christmas décor; down south there is no need for artificial illumination. The heavens provide enough cosmic splendor to outdo a dozen metropolitan areas. Without the light show the night sky is an intense black and the stars seem almost within reach. The Milky Way stretches for as far as the eye can see. For eternity some say. Despite being so far from land and loved ones, it’s hard to feel completely alone when your surroundings are so magnificent. As Bruce and his solo sailing friends think about the holidays, they must also be appreciating the best gift of all; nature’s beauty and the earth in all its glory.
— Brian Hancock
Brian Hancock is a veteran round the world racer who has parlayed that experience into a career as a writer and is author of five books. His latest are: “The Risk in Being Alive” and “Maximum Sail Power.” “Risk” is an autobiographical account of his sailing and travel adventures. “Maximum Sail” is a definitive guide to sails and sailmaking and sail technology.