Brian Hancock – Race Report
The Roaring Forties
December 8, 2004
It has been a tumultuous week for the Vendée fleet as the first rip snort from the Southern Ocean forced two competitors to withdraw from the race, with two more hanging by a thread. It’s perhaps a sign of things to come as the fleet enters the toughest stretch of the race; a sprint around Antarctica. On December 6, Herve Laurent on UUDS was the first to say goodbye with a smashed rudder, and presumably a heavy heart. A day later, after struggling to find a solution to patch a hole in his deck, Alex Thompson on Hugo Boss also called it quits. Both boats are heading for Cape Town.
They may soon be joined by Norbert Sedlacek on Brother who has reported a badly damaged keel on his ten year old boat. Meanwhile, tenuously tied to a mooring buoy off Simonstown, a picturesque seaside village on the Cape peninsula, Conrad Humphreys is attempting to change out his broken rudder for a spare one. It’s not an easy task and race rules make it clear that if he gets any outside help, he will be disqualified from the race. It seems likely that Humphreys will be able to rejoin the race, but stopping presents its own set of problems, more so than just getting a sniff of land. He will rejoin the fleet without much of a safety net. By the time Conrad gets going he will have only one, possibly two boats behind him. All the skippers know that with South Africa astern, their only hope of rescue, should they come unglued down south, will be by a fellow competitor, and by all intents that means a boat coming along from behind. While it has been done before, turning around and sailing into the roaring forties to rescue a sailor can be hell on earth. One only has to read the wonderful book, “Close to the Wind” by Pete Goss to understand how difficult it can be to turn into the teeth of a gale to find a stricken boat.
Most of the Vendée fleet, Bruce included, are now firmly in the Roaring Forties and will remain there for the next month. It’s a bleak, yet intense part of the planet quite unlike anywhere else on earth. The sea is a metallic gray, at times changing to a deep cobalt blue, but mostly just a sinister shade that looks uninviting and dangerous. It’s hard to determine the horizon as the sky reflects the sea color and the line between water and sky is blurred. When the wind is up, which is most of the time, it’s hard to pick out a chunks of ice among the foamy peaks of whipped up water. The skippers will spend much of their time below monitoring their radar screens trying to pick out danger lurking in the water ahead. It’s harder than finding the proverbial needle, and most solo sailors have a fatalistic approach to their time down south.
Bruce has an edge on many of his fellow competitors. He has been this way before and has a keen understanding of the Southern Ocean. He knows that it can claim a life, or at least knock the wind out of his sails, in a matter of seconds should he put one foot wrong, but he also knows that fear can cripple a spirit. Solo sailors run the fine line between fear and panic as they sail deeper into the higher latitudes. For this edition of the Vendée Globe, the boats are being forced to stay out of the treacherous waters close to Antarctica. Race officials have placed a series of waypoints that the yachts have to leave to starboard. This effectively keeps the fleet from sailing too far south until they approach Cape Horn, at which point they will have to dive down to near 60 degrees south.
Because the world is round, the shortest course between Cape Town and Cape Horn is directly across Antarctica. This is called the great circle course and is the route most sailors follow when going from one point to the next. In past editions of the Vendée, sailors have screwed up their courage and “cut the corner” by sailing as far south as they dared into the aptly named Screaming Sixties. By doing so they have been able to cut hundreds of miles off their race, but at great risk to themselves and their boats. By being too far south the chances of a low pressure systems passing over the top of them and feeding them gale force headwinds is very real. There is also ice to deal with, both the ice that is floating in the water and the ice that forms on the deck and rigging as spray freezes. The real reason race officials have included waypoints for this event is not so much to discourage boats from going too far south, but because the rescue services in Australian and New Zealand insisted. In the past, skippers have needed rescuing from remote places out of range of the rescue airplanes, meaning that a ship has to be dispatched. It can often take three to four days for a ship to get to the damaged yacht. Lessons from the past have made it clear that prudence is the order of the day.
For Bruce on board Ocean Planet, it is one day at a time. Each day brings new hazards as well as new joys. Survive for 24-hours and you live to fight the next 24, and the next, and the next. It’s a long way around Antarctica.
— Brian Hancock