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Ocean Planet Vendée Globe Update:
Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Brian Hancock – Race Report

On a Southbound Train

The lyrics of the song Southbound Train, popularized by Nanci Griffith a decade ago, must be rolling through Bruce Schwab’s head as he makes his way down the South Atlantic. In fact, if I know Bruce, he may already have picked up his guitar and, in a quieter moment on board, strummed the song to himself. He is indeed on a southbound train skirting under the St. Helena High and keeping an eye on both the barometer and the sky for a change that will signal his entrance into the deep south.

It’s been a good week for Ocean Planet and Bruce has sailed tactically better than the other skippers that make up the chasing pack. While they battled with frustrating weather in an attempt to get through the ridge of high pressure that had formed in their path, Bruce made a bold decision to sail around the western edge of the High. His strategy worked. Ocean Planet may have had to sail extra miles, but the speed was good and the conditions perfect for the narrow Open 60. The result was that Bruce claimed back the miles he lost when the conditions favored the beamier, more powerful 60s, and he has not lost touch with the chasing pack.

At the front of the fleet, the leaders have already picked up the strong westerly winds and are romping along at breakneck speeds. British sailor Mike Golding aboard Ecover recorded his top speed of 31 knots shortly after finding the new wind, while Jean le Cam, currently in first place on Bonduelle, is finding the seas large and unpredictable. In the next day or so Bruce will finally enter the roughest and most exhilarating part of the race; the infamous Southern Ocean.

In truth, the Southern Ocean is that body of water that surrounds Antarctica between the land mass of the Antarctic continent and 60 degrees south. Technically, Ocean Planet may never reach the Southern Ocean, but, for decades, sailors have referred to the area below 40 degrees south, where the big seas and strong westerly winds constantly blow, as the Southern Ocean. In any event, it’s the deep south where the sailing is along a razors edge between pure pleasure and pure terror.

Once below 40 degrees south, the weather is dominated by a series of continual low pressure systems. These troughs of low pressure roam around Antarctica in a west-to-east direction, at times disintegrating before reforming again and gaining strength as they march ever onwards. The wind rotates clockwise around what’s usually a tight center, meaning that it’s important for the skippers to remain above the center of each system. If they remain vigilant and the low passes below them, they will experience a strong westerly air flow; if they miscalculate the system’s path, or if it makes an unexpected turn to the north, the sailors will discover their own personal hell. The wind will be from the east blowing against a following sea state, and the boats will be pounding upwind into indescribable seas.

Because the low pressure systems rotate around Antarctica, and because the only land mass that interrupts their path is Cape Horn, they build up a huge seaway. These massive waves, often measuring over 100 feet from crest to trough, are what give the skippers their incredible speeds as they surf down the wave fronts. Fortunately the peaks are quite far apart and the swells are usually fairly even and predictable. However, other factors often play into it and the seas can become nasty ship killers. As the Southern Ocean waves approach the African coast, the continental shelf causes the leading swells to slow down. This results in the peaks being much closer together and the waves become steep and dangerous. Many ships have been swallowed up and either disappeared completely, or broken in two after being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

These dangers are squarely on Bruce’s mind as he and the tight group of nine boats he is sailing in company with close in on the Cape of Good Hope. A low pressure system that formed off South America has brought favorable winds to the group, but the system is forecast to stall as it approaches the African coast and could disintegrate into an unpredictable area of calm winds. For now, the chasing pack that includes Ocean Planet is still more than 10 degrees above the latitude of the leaders. They need to get south to intercept with the next low pressure system heading their way, but it’s going to be tricky. If they slow down due to the low stalling out, the next system could conceivably slam into them just as they approach the shallow waters of the continental shelf. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens. Whatever takes place will only be the first of many tactical and challenging situations the skippers will find themselves in as they circumnavigate Antarctica.

— Brian Hancock


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