(Updated on January 19, 2011)
In what turned out to be hard sailing both physically and at times tactically for the four remaining participants in the second leg of the Velux 5oceans Race, skipper Brad Van Liew on Le Pinguoin was first in Wellington (NZ), yesterday January 15, some 30 days and 10 hours out of Cape Town. Finishing second on January 16, was Zbigniew Gutkowski aboard Operon Racing. Derek Hatfield on Active House was third to cross the finish line on January 18. A tight threesome for such a long leg. Behind in fourth place is Chris Stanmore-Major aboard Spartan, about 400 nm from Wellington, sailing cautiously with damaged equipment from a previous storm.
The first one started way before the famous Route du Rhum ran its full cycle with Franck Cammas aboard Groupama3 crossing the finish line first. Groupama3 broke a number of records in recent sailing history, the round the world non-stop Jules Verne Trophy being the most acclaimed.
Needless to say, even though the number of participants in high-profile offshore sailing races is on the increase, there always is and always will be an elite of highly popular and skilled skippers involved in any of the three races above and other races. On the other hand, new sailing stars are born out of each major offshore race as they break new sailing records or apply innovative strategies and technical innovations to offshore sailing. The competitive spirit is unrelenting among able offshore skippers of racing boats with names as popular as their own names. Mind you, speed is not always the prime goal; endurance is, over long and arduous journeys, especially in the single-handed or non-stop type of sailing, or both.
Keeping up with all offshore races now in progress or soon to start would be a full-time job. This post is limited to sharing news snippets from the first two races mentioned above and currently in progress.
Canadian Derek Hatfield on his Eco 60 Active House (image below) is one of five contestants in the current Velux 5oceans Race. At last count, he was 3rd – close to 2nd – and at times actually 2nd, since the start of the second leg from Cape Town to Wellington, roughly less than two days of sailing behind the leader Brad Van Liew. The 4-boat pack is south of Tasmania making way towards New Zealand in weaker than usual winds, although they weathered a tough low pressure system just a few days ago. Trailing way behind the pack is Belgian sailor Chritsophe Bullens who unfortunately had to find himself another Eco 60 a few days before the start of the race after his well-prepared boat suffered substantial damage during a trial run off the west coast of France. The fact that Christophe made it safely to Cape Town says a lot about his determination to stay in the race. There was hope that by the time he reached Cape Town he would have solved or identified most of the bugs on the replacement Eco 60. It could be also that other difficulties forced him to return to Cape Town on this second leg of the race, while the other competitors are nearing New Zealand. He is still on the Velux 5oceans scoreboard, so we’ll have to wait for official word on his return to Cape Town. (UPDATE: Despite his tenacity, Christophe Bullens had no choice but to retire from the race because of recurring technical problems with his replacement Eco 60 ‘Five Oceans Smiles’, on his third attempt to sail away from Cape Town toward Wellington.)
As in most offshore races, the head-pack moves along steadily with the leader taking off ahead in favourable wind conditions, in addition to various strategic choices, only to be slowed down by a high-pressure area with typically low winds crossing his route. The followers catch up to the leader or at least narrow the gap until they too reach the high-pressure system. The leader in the meantime gains speed as wind picks up again on the opposite fringe of the high-pressure system. In reality, sailing conditions encountered by competitors vary in more ways than just wind speed over the relatively small distances between them. Nevertheless, the rubber band effect is something to be expected among a pack of offshore racers sailing within two or three days of each other.
In the Velux 5oceans race, there is a difference with highly competitive offshore races such as the Vendée-Globe: the emphasis is on increased safety, maximum self-sufficiency and more conservative sailing, often to the detriment of speed. This approach should in theory lessen the exposure of race participants to accidents or injuries requiring the costly deployment of Search and Rescue efforts on the high-seas. Each major offshore race has its objectives and rules. The Velux 5oceans race organisers follow the spirit established decades ago by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in the first ever non-stop single-handed sailing race – or journey? – around the world. Making it in one piece to the finish line without outside assistance was and is the objective here, except that the Velux 5oceans race is divided into four legs. Lessons profitable to a much larger number of individuals wishing to sail around the globe may be learned in this way. Simply put, it is perhaps a more realistic mode of single-handed or short-handed sailing in the higher latitudes, yet still a competitive one. The average speeds we have observed since the start of the Velux 5oceans race are no attention-grabbers. If anything, the speed figures show quite clearly that skippers don’t put the pedal to the metal. In the Velux 5oceans race, there is a noticeable tendency for participants to stay within quick assistance distance from each other. The same spirit of solidarity was also clearly demonstrated on several occasions during the last Vendée-Globe race despite heightened competition among skippers. Yet, participants were sailing a fine line between competitiveness and solidarity, always within or even beyond the rules of mutual assistance set by the race organisers. (UPDATE: Derek Hatfield made it safely into port in Wellington after 32 days at sea, thereby underscoring the regular and close sequence of arrivals at the finish of the second leg: Brad arrived after 30 days at sea, Zbigniew after 31 days and Derek after 32 days. Derek commented upon arrival that the closeness of the three head skippers during the second leg was the unintended consequence of skippers making similar tactical choices during the crossing from Cape Town to Wellington. Chris is now nearing Wellington, with less than 400 nm to go, having followed a more northerly route because of equipment failure and the possibility he would have to sail into port near Tasmania, should his Eco 60 prove unmanageable with the damaged equipment.)
Back to Derek Hatfield on Active House: this Velux 5oceans race means a lot to him. It’s his third attempt to circumnavigate the globe on his own. The two previous ones ended in near disaster owing to bad weather and equipment failure. At age 58, Derek is more determined than ever to succeed on this attempt and he has all it takes, and perhaps more now, to do it. He is driven. His Eco 60 sustained some damage in a major storm early last week and some systems have failed on board. In addition, he has to ration the use of fresh water because of an accidental loss of it soon after the start of the second leg in pounding seas. His last report, issued a couple of days ago, shows him in good spirits, taking events in stride. Derek was chatting yesterday, as this post was being written. He states that he and Zbigniew Gutkowski are in a close race to finish 2nd. They are about 35 miles apart with Zbigniew enjoying slightly stronger winds and sailing faster as a consequence because he is a little further south. Other than that, Derek did not comment on technical problems he may be dealing with since the last big storm with following seas generating waves 10 to 15 metres high, fortunately non breaking ones.
BTW, Derek is now in the area where he was forced to abandon the 2008-2009 Vendée-Globe Challenge, and by the looks of it he has now passed that spot. Then, there will be the route around the Horn to deal with after resting, refitting and resupplying in Wellington. Once past Cape Horn, racing up the South Atlantic, through the Equatorial zone and up the North Atlantic to their destination, participants are more focused on strategy, sometimes in a war of nerves with fickle winds and squalls. Of those skippers who have sailed past the Cape coming from the Southern Pacific, some express relief to be back in the South Atlantic, others express regret over leaving the Pacific. Only those who have actually been there and experienced the transition can actually comment further on either state of mind.
Turning now to the Barcelona World Race in its tenth day from start, it’s a pleasure to see among participants and sailboats a number of names that were familiar in the 2008-2009 Vendée-Globe. This world sailing race by the three capes, with a crew of two per racing boat, is already showing a lead-pack of four IMOCA Open 60s in what promises to be a more competitive event. In the lead, one is sure to find top skippers such as Loïck Perron/Jean-Pierre Dick and François Gabart/Michel Desjoyeaux on IMOCA Open 60 racing boats. The Vendée-Globe which is considered as the ultimate ’round the world offshore race occurs once every four years. This gives time for skippers to hone their skills on other challenging offshore races organised and managed under a different set of different rules and objectives.
Nice also to see among the Barcelona World Race contestants, popular offshore racing figures such as Dee Caffari who, in the last Vendée-Globe for instance, proved she has nerves of steel and good judgment in fierce weather conditions.