VOR : From the Boats

  •  May 20, 2015

    Three days into this Atlantic crossing and the weather is making the battle harder every time. An extremely shifty wind constantly bearing north makes our bow change direction like in a rollercoaster.

    Sail choices influence a lot and there are many possible combinations, from a fractional with a reefed main sail to a J1 + J3 + mainsail. Every team plays differently with water ballasts and the trimming of the mast. Today we got so close to Abu Dhabi that we could hear them easing the runners or the front sail in a wind shift.

    The boats keep sailing closely together and you must really keep calm. Between yesterday and the day before, Iker only slept three hours and a half. But he is fresh onboard – we’ve noticed that he comes on deck every time.

    Today’s been a bow-to-bow race with ups and downs. In 12 to 14 knots we made good gains upon Dongfeng and Abu Dhabi and we felt great about it. But it’s a different situation in light air, it gets surprising and difficult to understand with attacks coming from everywhere and fewer options. We are losing what we gained reaching in 12 knots.

    So here we are, in the thick of it, hands full of sheets, trimming as much as we can and moving the keel to compensate the power of the gusts.

    Three days into this intense Atlantic crossing and we expect good winds to benefit us and take us to our destiny to the top of the podium.



  •  May 20, 2015

    Awful Gulf Stream! Light winds and strong currents.

    We’ve been in the famous Gulf Stream since yesterday morning. The wind is extremely unstable and hard to forecast. We are all right next to each other, and the positions are changing with each puff of wind. Having been in the lead since the start, Abu Dhabi and Brunel overtook us this afternoon, passing us just a few hundred metres away at 13 knots whilst we were stopped in a wind hole.

    But the real issue will be in the coming hours when we touch the new southwesterly wind. 

    After that it’s a long way from being simple – the Azores High is like a massive wall in front of us. How to get past? By the north maybe, but it adds many miles to the route. Or take the risk and cut it via the direct route, but get stuck in its middle.

    This will be the decider on this leg.

  •  May 20, 2015

    “Surely one of us must be wrong.”

    Stating the obvious, Justin Slattery craned his neck to the left and looked out at the 3 other teams floating in the gusty light winds to windward. Within 1 square mile of ocean, all 4 of us had completely different sail configurations.

    Halfway through the day, we realized the Atlantic winds were so dynamic and aloof, we stopped trying to fit them into our existing sail plans and our creativity took over. Seven months ago, we would have written about how we were learning from the rest of the fleet what was “fast” – now we’re trying to be different and gain the advantage.

    There’s no manual for this – we’re making up new rules as we go along.

    One minute we’ll be soaking down in a gust of breeze doing 10 knots, the next we’ll have our nose back up hunting for wind doing 4. We’re no longer looking ahead of the boat for pressure – instead all heads are peeking up over the stack of sails to the left, looking for any new breeze coming down the course.

    Our MHO saved the day. We pulled the trigger first to change to the bigger sail and that move allowed us to gain on Dongfeng and ultimately sail under them and extend a slight lead. This is payback for our light wind duel at the finish of Leg 6.

    Along with Brunel, our lead has now grown as the wind builds in front of the fleet. The terms “lead” and “wind” though are relative – we’re only 1.5 nm ahead in 5 knots of breeze. The water is splashing the sides of the carbon fiber and pounding the bow as we slap into the swells. In a few minutes, surely a new gust will take over and the concert of percussion will end. And then begin. Again.

  •  May 20, 2015

    Who needs scheds, anyways? With all five boats in sight the racing is customarily close, but definitely more so than usual on this occasion. 700 miles into this leg there is less separating the fleet than there was two hours out of Newport. The compression can mostly be attributed to one-design sailing but in this case the additional influence of the Gulf Stream’s defined highways and the ice exclusion zone are helping to bring us back together.

    The Stream’s strong currents can move a road of water up to 30 miles wide and it is typically strongest in the middle. All of the boats have access to the same images to tell us where those roads are, and with the southeast corner of the Greenland ice limit approaching–about 275 miles east of our line–we’re all fighting for the same narrow stretch of ocean. Everyone has to keep the ice zone to the north so we’ll be skirting its southern boundary east, together. With such a restriction in place it is no surprise we’re all here, and it will likely stay that way over the next few days.

    The racing is exhilarating and frustrating at the same time. You can gleefully gain in two hours what you painfully lose in 30 minutes, but then reverse the trend during the next watch. As soon as you make some progress towards the front of the line and you feel like it’s your turn to lead, randomness ensues and there’s nothing to do but fall back in line. The wind is up, down, left, and right, and it’s impossible to make much sense of it. We’ve had auto-tacks, wipeouts, drift-offs, and knockdowns, all within the hour, and I’ve heard the word “crazy” more than a dozen times since I’ve made a conscious effort to count. Runner on, keel up, runner off, keel down, over and over again—it’s deafening.

    Nothing seems particularly fast except four hours on watch, passing by quickly when there’s always something to adjust. But at least it makes for some interesting sailing!

  •  May 20, 2015

    Team SCA is a quite and calm boat at the moment. The crew moves around with careful steps and speaks with low voices. I think that’s just something that happens in light air. No one wants to do anything to disturb the few knots we are moving forward at. The only noises onboard come from the sea (which is surprisingly loud under deck), the engine adjusting the keel angle and the winches. The by far loudest is caused by the trimmer easing the main sheet. From my little office down below it sounds like gun shoots.

    We had a good day yesterday. The sky changed from a dark grey color to clear blue and the wind was fluky. With hard work and qu
    ite a few sail changes we managed to gain back our lost miles and in the late afternoon we could clearly see the whole fleet again to windward of us. During the night it’s been going back and forward depending on which boat has the better pressure for the moment.

    Even though we are close together there are differences. Also the current plays its role. We expect the light conditions to continue throughout the whole day and hopefully we will be out of this transition zone by tomorrow afternoon. There is a front coming trough and we plan to be the first boat to pick it up, gybe and reach fast towards Portugal.

  •  May 19

     May 19, 2015

    Great action out here with Mapfre, Brunel, Dongfeng and ourselves all within 1 mile of each other.

    Tight reaching in the Gulf Stream.

    Mapfre are on a jib while the rest of us are on fractional and a reef. We are making a move to leeward of Dongfeng right now who are 0.4 miles to windward.

    It is really neck and neck for the lead but we are slightly faster and gaining bearing. Expecting the wind to start dropping soon.


  •  May 19, 2015

    The night is dark outside. No moonlight, no deck lights, the ocean is black as tar and the chill of the air is numbing. The only lights that can be seen are the blue explosions of phosphorescence spinning off our rudders echoing the 5 small mast lights of the competition on the horizon. As we silently head east, we’re not thinking of Lisbon – race wise we’re just trying to stay alive.

    Parko and Adil are sick.

    Luke had a raspy cough that has only gotten worse since leaving Newport. You can see the strain on his face each watch as he pushes through it but lately his voice has turned from the familiar Aussie accent to nothing more than a whisper. He’s popping drugs to keep him going but we’ve quarantined his coffee mug marking it with yellow tape.

    Adil can barely keep down food and is losing energy. The staple diet of gummy worms and noodles is wearing thin. The steep waves of the Gulf Stream crossing made it worse – you can see his strength leaving his arms as he was trimming on the main sail with each turn.

    With a quarter of our manpower down, the constant reefs and headsail changes are beginning to slow. The hunt to cover Dongfeng for 8 days seems an impossible task. If only they knew how fragile we were.

    The fleet is spread wide from north to south anticipating a re-start as a confused high pressure forms off Canada over the next few days. There will likely be a “drift off” until a new trough of wind fills in and then we’ll ride that wave all the way towards the Azores High.

    We’re managing our losses instead of counting our gains. Our 6-point lead over Dongfeng is shadowed by the possibility of a 6-point loss this leg. The coincidence is unnerving and feels like it’s stalking the boat in the dark of the night.

  •  May 19, 2015

    A dog’s life

    The stopovers are like bringing a stray dog home, pampering it, spoiling it, fattening it up for a week and then taking it out again and leaving it tied to a tree. No, that’s not nice! But after ten days of being spoilt in Newport, this floating self-punishment is no party either, at least in the beginning.

    “It’s always hard to get back into the rhythm, every time,” says Louis Balcaen. And he’s hit the nail on the head. We’re one day out of Newport – where the food tasted deliciously un-American, the beer flowed freely and the pubs were warm and inviting. And where the bed linen smelled fresh! And where the warm hands of our singing physio Mark Haak smoothed the creases out of our battered bodies. The bodies that were pampered for ten days now have to work hard again.

    Everything that could float sailed out of Newport with the racing boats to boost our spirits for this next leg. In time, the following boats broke off and returned home one by one. A few fanatical sailors kept on doggedly and sailed with us for a few hours more, still sounding their horns. “When the last boat turns back, you know that you’re on your own from that point onwards,” continues Balcaen.

    And that’s also the point when the “heartbeat of the boat” slows down – from chaos to serene peace and quiet. Jens Dolmer tries to sort out the spaghettis of ropes in the cockpit. Below deck, Louis and Timo start their first freeze-dried lasagne. Skipper Bouwe Bekking takes a sip of his first cup of coffee. He’s certainly going to need it on this first night. He and navigator Andrew Cape often give the first meal a miss. All the watches are synchronised. The time is put forward three hours, which means that in terms of time zones we are somewhere between Newport and Lisbon and will have fewer problems with “boat lag”. Four men climb into their berths; four remain on deck. The watch system has started.

    For the first 24 hours, the dog that’s tied to the tree doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. He has to get used to walking at an angle again and making do with a few hours’ sleep. And going to bed wet. And the musty smell on board. And the banging and pounding. And the growling generator. Sometimes a body literally revolts against it all and ejects food as soon as it’s been eaten. There’s little conversation and even less laughter. Neither does the watch start in time to work in favour of your rhythm. In the days to come, there is still light at midnight.

    But suddenly the dog realises where he is again. This outdoor life is in his roots. It’s what he was meant to do. It’s not for him to be pampered like a poodle. And it doesn’t take long for him to free himself from the rope. He runs for hours over the moors with a lolling tongue, chases rabbits, jumps into fast-flowing streams, rolls on his back in the high grass and thinks to himself, ‘a dog’s life can be really great!’

  •  May 19, 2015

    We will soon be 46 hours into the race. Despite the intense sailing and close racing it didn’t take us long to get back to our offshore mode. The watch system is rolling, I made my two first freeze dried meals (Pasta Bolognese and Chicken Corma) and the afternoon delivered brilliant sailing conditions under a clear blue sky. The presence of the Gulf Stream is noticeable in several way. It keeps us warm, sometimes it makes us go faster, sometimes slower. From time to time it releases swirls (mini streams with various flow direction) called Eddies, which are very hard to predict. It also makes the sea state difficult, and we all know by now that bad sea state and editing / typing in the back of the boat are a bad combination. The appetite is not on top for the moment!

    But who cares about food when we are in the middle of an exciting ocean race?

    Here is Dee Caffari summarizing the first two days.

    “The first night was really difficult with light winds and a thick fog caused very low visibility and made everything very wet. We could see the other boats on the computer, they where within a few miles of us, yet we couldn’t see them when we were on deck. You shine a torch to check the trim of the sails and you just get disorientated. It was quite easy to get off the numbers and it took a lot of concentration. The nice thing was that in the morning we cleared the fog and the sky turned into sunshine and we could see the whole fleet around us. Not quite all behind us, but at least we could see them all.”

    Dee continuous. “The wind started to increase now and we get a bit of a spray on deck. The water temperature dropped down to 8 degrees during the fog which is pretty cold. In less than 40 minutes it went all the way up to 14 degrees and it’s now stable at 13. We are just starting to see the effect of Gulf Stream eddies, pushing us north for the moment. It’s too far to get the true benefit of the favorable current but we are getting a push here going to the center of the eddie and soon we will get pushed out on the other side. It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on it and the sea temperature is a really good indication for us to understand if the current is helping us, or hindering us.

    “We lost out to the guys in front of us (Dongfeng and Abu Dhabi) during the day and our closest competitor Brunel closed the gap on us. At one point we played a little game, trying to find the fastest mode. The Dutch boat sailed low at one point, and high at another and we covered them. It was of course a bit frustrating to see the grey silhouette growing and becoming sharper (and more yellow) with time. Alvimedica was still behind and we could clearly see Mapfre in front of us. We are hanging in there.”

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