Intertropical convergence zone plays havoc with race leaders
THEY say it’s tough at the top, and that’s something American ocean racer Brad Van Liew knows only too well as he struggles through the Doldrums at the head of the VELUX 5 OCEANS fleet. The 42-year-old skipper of Le Pingouin has a seemingly comfortable lead of around 80 nautical miles on his nearest rival, Polish solo sailor Zbigniew ‘Gutek’ Gutkowski. But for Brad and his fellow competitors it is not just a battle against their opponents on the water – it is a battle against nature itself.
Sweltering temperatures, unpleasant humidity, ever-changing weather conditions and severe lack of sleep have dogged the leaders for several days after entering the Doldrums, the notorious moving band of low pressure that runs a few hundred miles from the Equator. One moment the ocean racers could be totally becalmed, bobbing about on a tranquil sea. The next, without any warning, they could be in the centre of storm battling 30 knot winds and lashing rain. This, combined with the sheer frustration of sailing alone through this area of the world, has taken its toll on the fleet, now 12 days into their 7,400 nautical mile sprint from La Rochelle to Cape Town.
“I’m really, really tired,” Brad said today. “I’m just fighting through the Doldrums. There is never a dull moment – there is either too much wind from the wrong direction or not enough wind from the right direction, massive thunder storms. It’s chaos. I am lacking sleep big time. I can’t really even tell you what sort of sleep I have had in the last 48 hours – maybe three hours? I’m running on empty right now. I’m anxiously looking for the other side of the Doldrums. It looks like I might have another 50 miles to go. It’s just really difficult to keep the boat going in the right direction. I want to keep heading south and get the hell out of here as soon as possible.”
It was a similarly exasperating scenario for Operon Racing skipper Gutek, who after two weeks of chasing refuses to let Brad out of his grasp. “As soon as I hit the tropical winds zone the boat’s speed dropped to five knots,” Gutek said. “As I reached the huge cumulonimbus cloud, the world changed dramatically. The first blow had 22 knots and was taking me towards the Caribbean Islands. So I had to change sails quickly for those suited for going upwind and got back to my previous course. After a couple of minutes there was another change, and it went from 22 knots of wind to five knots. There wasn’t even any rain, so I couldn’t take a shower to wash off the sea salt from my skin.”
A wash is something Brad at least managed after spending the morning under tropical rain clouds. “In the past whenever I have tried to take a tropical rain shower it has never worked, the rain usually stops as soon as I have got all soapy and lathered up,” he said. “I normally don’t even bother but this morning I thought I’d give it go and it worked out nice! It was a pleasant little bonus.”
Despite their complaints, Brad and Gutek’s passage through the Doldrums has actually been relatively quick. Since 12pm UTC yesterday, Brad has sailed 182.1 nautical miles at an average of 7.6 knots, while Gutek managed 177.5 nautical miles at 7.4 knots. The only skipper to sail further was third placed Canadian Derek Hatfield, who took a bite out of the leading pair’s advantage. In the 24 hours leading up to the midday report Derek sailed 213 nautical miles, and is now 292 miles behind Brad. Despite making advances on the leaders, Derek has been struggling with the tropical conditions too.
“The temperature is right up there now as we near the Equator,” he said. “I don’t have a thermometer onboard but it’s got to be about 95F to 100F (35C to 38C) outside the boat and inside too. There really is no escaping it. Staying clean is a challenge too. There’s no fresh water to wash in, no shower on board, just baby wipes. Within minutes of going on deck you are sweating profusely, all in your eyes and everywhere. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining for all those people going through winter in the north, but we all have our challenges right?”
Statistics from 12pm UTC position report:
Skipper; distance to finish (nm); distance to leader (nm); distance covered in last 24 hours (nm); average speed in last 24 hours (kts)
Brad Van Liew: 3,727.6; 0; 182.1; 7.6
Gutek: 3,810.4; 82.7; 177.5; 7.4
Derek Hatfield: 4,019.4; 291.8; 213.6; 8.9
Chris Stanmore-Major: 4,386.4; 658.7; 186.2; 7.8
Christophe Bullens: 5,776.2; 2,048.6; 125.3; 5.2
The VELUX 5 OCEANS, run by Clipper Ventures PLC, is the longest running solo round the world race, and has 28 years of rich heritage as the BOC Challenge and then the Around Alone. This edition features five ocean sprints over nine months. After leaving from La Rochelle on October 17th the fleet now head to Cape Town, the race will then take in Wellington in New Zealand, Salvador in Brazil and Charleston in the US before returning back across the Atlantic to France.