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Pot au Noir and other problems.

November 17, 2004

It has been a relatively uneventful week for Bruce Schwab on board Ocean Planet, uneventful being a relative term of course. Sailing a fully powered up Open 60 is dangerous business even if the wind is warm and from behind and the sky is full of puffy trade wind clouds. This part of the race is a pleasant time for the Vendee skippers. The Azores High is fairly well established in the North Atlantic and has been feeding moderate trade winds to the boats as they barrel south. This means that Bruce can set his big sails and romp downwind. But it’s all going to end soon as Ocean Planet enters the doldrums. A few days of hell lie just over the horizon.

The doldrums, or Pot au Noir as the French call the region, is one of the toughest parts of the race. Pot au Noir translates literally into Black Pot, and that’s what it can be like. The doldrums occur where great masses of air from the Northern and Southern Hemispheres meet. It is also an area of tremendous heat being so close to the equator and the ocean is subject to day after day of relentless, pounding sunshine. The result is hot, moist, electrically charged air that can give rise to enormous storms. One moment the ocean is glassy calm; the next it is whipped up by 40 knots of moisture laden wind. It makes for difficult sailing as the sail changes are endless; say nothing of the stifling conditions below decks.

No one really knows why the French call the area the Black Pot. Some say that the sailors of old gave it the name because of its huge storms with clouds as black as night. Other, less poetic, sources claim that it was the slave traders running between Africa and the West Indies that called it Pot au Noir because the bodies of slaves who died of thirst aboard becalmed ships were thrown overboard. There is probably a grain of truth in both stories with the Pot au Noir being famous for its calms as well as its dark and violent storms.

If the doldrums are not enough of a problem for a solo sailor, the region off the bulge of Africa is known for piracy and some of the skippers have already encountered strange boats in the night. Nick Moloney sailing Skandia described an unsettling incident in a radio interview. “Had a shocker last night,” he said. “A large motor vessel got right close to me. I couldn’t work out what he was doing. I was hoping to get some breeze to move away. Even when I altered course they came at me and kept converging. Then suddenly I got 35 knots of wind, and was doing 23 knots, stuck on the helm in driving, cold rain. I managed to shake the boat. I think it was a Coastguard boat or something like that, but I couldn’t reach them on VHF. When I saw him preparing to put a smaller boat in the water I got quite concerned.”

Two years ago Emma Richards sailing in the Around Alone had a similar experience. During the night she heard drunken singing coming through her VHF radio. She tried to raise the voice, but it would not respond. Just kept on alternately singing and cursing. She saw a light off to starboard approaching, but being becalmed she could not get away. She turned off all the lights on board and waited. The singing voice got more belligerent and then finally stopped. The light got closer and just when she thought she could make out a person on a small boat, the wind picked up and she sailed away. Bruce would do well to have something more than his guitar at the ready in case of an approaching vessel.

The doldrums are usually situated around 5 degrees north. Ocean Planet is likely to feel the first fringes of the area late in the day Wednesday and the relative peace on board will suddenly change. It’s unlikely Bruce will get any sleep until he is through the region by which time he will have picked up the South East trades and will find himself pounding into steep seas. His first real tactical decision will have to be made at that point. The South Atlantic poses many difficult weather choices. An area of high pressure dominates the entire ocean and it shifts slightly from west to east and back again. Bruce will have to study its movements and plan his trip south accordingly. If he gets it right he will be able to cut the corner on the High and save miles. If he gets it wrong he will get stuck by the light winds that are associated with High pressure. It’s a razor thin edge between the two. Fortunately, one of the benefits of not being the lead boat is that he can watch what happens to those skippers ahead of him. You can be sure that the weather maps, daily position reports and Bruce’s own gut instinct will be put to good use in the week ahead.

— 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.


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