Routing The Race

From Ocean Navigator #114
May/June 2001
The planet has been ringed with multiple global racetracks – the Vendee Globe, The Around Alone, the Volvo, and the BT Challenge, to name a few of the current courses. But what about The Race? Is it something new, or is it much the same with a new name? And does any of this apply to the global voyagers among us?

At left, Team Adventure at the start of The Race on Dec. 31, 2000, off Barcelona.

The route to victory is a combination of factors -weather patterns encountered, performance characteristics of the vessel, skill of the crew, and how the vessels and crews bear up under the strain of extended racing. To win, the competitors must push the limits. Exceeding those limits will provide the road to ruin rather than the route to victory.

Voyagers have their own definition of victory. It changes somewhat from individual to individual, but it generally includes pleasant, trouble-free sailing conditions and following seas. It may also include far away destinations and remote ocean passages.

The climatological hurdles around the world are now pretty well understood by global racers. Teams have studied the typical weather patterns first-hand. Many of the competitors have already blasted around the planet on other ’round-the-world races. Day-to-day weather forecasts will certainly vary, but the significant new variable will be the vessels themselves. How have the crews coped with the world’s weather patterns and what were those changes from earlier races?

One of the advantages these huge new multihulls have is speed. Weather patterns can be approached or kept pace with more easily as the speed potential increases. But speed is a two-edged sword. If it’s used unwisely, even big boats in huge waves can pitchpole, and as the speed increases, so also does the shock loading to all of the equipment. Increased shock loads can lead to increased catastrophic equipment failure. The constant, long-term staccato slamming can lead to pushing people to their limits, as well. More stress, less rest, and the need for faster and more accurate decisions in the high-speed environment can be a set of mutually exclusive conditions.

Voyaging sailors don’t always have the same speed potential that the huge new breed of multihulls has, but voyagers also aren’t pushing the limits, loading deck hardware and rigging to the limit. They may not have the flexibility of getting out of the way of approaching storms. Whether or not their vessels are better suited to storms is an individual matter. Voyaging crews may be reasonably well rested on voyaging boats, but they are also often less experienced than today’s long-distance racing crews. And while crews on the monster multihulls are pushing the limits on knowledge of handling big boats at top speeds, seasoned offshore veterans of smaller craft populate their ranks.

The point is that, while the constraints facing the teams in The Race differ from those that face the average cruiser, the weather hurdles both groups face remain the same. Whether racing or voyaging the Antarctic’s Palmer Peninsula, folks will find the sea state south of Cape Horn to be rough and unforgiving much of the time.

What, then, are some of the weather hurdles that The Racers have faced and how do they differ now that the big bucks are on the table and the speed gauge is pushed up several notches? Grant Dalton found out before The Race that sailing up the English Channel can be a challenge. As the boats left the start line at Barcelona and headed for the Strait of Gibraltar, winds were sometimes on the nose, forcing repeated tacks in busy shipping lanes. As the huge multihulls’ speed increases, so also does the apparent wind get pushed forward, making those tacking angles just that much worse. Clawing quickly to weather, oncoming ships close that much faster, requiring crews to rapidly maneuver the 100-foot-plus boats. Even if start day had favored the fleet with reaching conditions, the boats would have been flying – perhaps into a steep set of waves. The straits can throw up an ugly sea, and higher speeds wouldn’t have made that any easier for the relatively untried boats. Breakages did occur early as PlayStation put into port with blown out attachment points for their high-tech sails.

Down the Atlantic

The giant multihulls raced down the Northeast Trades, the route often made by passing between The Canary Islands and Madeira. Their actual route, of course, was determined by real-time weather forecasts. Early in The Race, it remained to be seen which boats could “dig deeper,” running farther off the wind. Few had developed accurate, real life polars based on thorough on-the-water testing, but they would be quickly determined by a very talented group of navigators, including Mike Quilter on Club Med, Stan Honey on PlayStation and Jean Yves Bernot on Team Adventure.

Each boat’s performance characteristics ultimately determined where it would cross the doldrums, a roughly wedge-shaped band of little or no wind stretching across the North Atlantic just above the equator with a mean latitude of about 4° N. With the widest part of the wedge located along the eastern side of the Atlantic, the multihulls wanted to be far enough to the west to stay in the breeze most of the time. But considering the direction of the Southeast Trades on the southern side of the doldrums being on the eastern side of the fleet after they traversed the doldrums gave some competitors a possible tactical advantage as they went into the Southern Hemisphere. Being too far to the west allowed those boats to the east to crack off, gain speed, and consolidate an advantage as the fleet raced to the south.

Whitbread races of the early and mid-80s tended to route the boats along the eastern side of the South Atlantic high pressure system. But with the speed potential these monster multihulls have while racing off the wind, the fleet opted for the longer western side of the South Atlantic High. Whether they continued to drive south to get to the Roaring 40s after they passed the High or whether they cut to the southeast to duck under South Africa was partially determined by real-time weather forecasts and partially by their own performance characteristics.

Low-pressure systems tend to form regularly along the Argentine coast. As the lows form, they begin to move toward the southeast, usually passing south of the Cape of Good Hope. Around Alone boats often opt to get south into the bigger waves and windier conditions. But those boats are dragging tons of lead around with them in their keels, and the rougher conditions are needed to peak boat speed. Not so with multihulls in general, and these large cats in particular. Relatively flat water with 15 to 20 knots of breeze is enough to fly a hull, reducing wetted surface area and maximizing speeds while keeping the risk of equipment failures down.

Decision-making became an art form of doing the right thing for now while keeping options as wide open as possible for later. Those that cut closer to the bottom of the South Atlantic High and headed off early toward the southeast not only saved miles but also set themselves up to cut closer to the bottom of South Africa.

The weather around South Africa can be wildly varying. High-pressure systems have frequently blocked boats from leaving, arriving, or passing to the south of the continent. It’s happened in many Whitbreads, BOCs, and Around Alone Races. High-pressure systems set up, elongate, and block large portions of the fleets while others race ahead or come from behind. Alternatively, Southern Ocean lows with their fronts extending to the north have slammed into fleets with those farthest to the south hardest hit. During the ’85 Whitbread, Peter Blake aboard Lion New Zealand reported waves as big as houses, and wind speeds recorded in Cape Town were well in excess of 60 knots where windows were blown out of office buildings. Multihulls don’t thrive in those conditions. Good, long-range forecasts as well as a good understanding of how a boat can be expected to perform in a variety of conditions was likely critical to holding onto a lead in The Race.

Once past South Africa, the decisions don’t necessarily get easier. In the ’93/’94 Whitbread, Dalton was surprised and frustrated to find that boats even below 47° S were becalmed. Had he studied earlier BOCs, he would have discovered that it wasn’t all that unusual. It happens. But then, too, do the raging storms of the Roaring 40s and Screaming 50s. Those latitudes have those names for a reason. With some of the boats having handled the heavy conditions well, and with conditions less than extreme to the south, those options were open. But if the weather had taken an ugly turn for the worse, they would certainly have hoped that they weren’t caught on the relatively shallow banks surrounding those islands. The waves become steep and breaking – more problems for multihulls. While it may be better to stay somewhat to the north, parking lots can exist there for days, allowing hundreds or even a thousand-mile lead to open up.

Speed is king

One distinct advantage the big multihulls have had in the Southern Ocean is an ability to get places fast. This has been especially true for Dalton’s Club Med. They were able to make decisions to lead a front or dive out of the way of an encroaching high, and make those decisions work out. Speed is king in these kinds of races. Even the venerable Steinlager in the ’89/’90 Whitbread made a few bad calls, but boat speed consistently pulled it off to lead every leg at the finish. But even speed can be a two-edged sword. If, while south, boats are held on a starboard tack for too long, they can be forced toward the Antarctic ice, or they might have to make the hard call to take a radically unfavored gybe to the north. A last-ditch wind shift saved Dalton from making that call aboard Fisher and Pykel during a previous Whitbread. This time around the planet has served Dalton much better. He was able to ride a front much of the way to the Cook Straits. Had he been able to pass south of New Zealand’s South Island, he might have taken the front all of the way to Cape Horn!

With the boat speeds higher, the decisions would come faster, but, to the fleet’s credit, the decision makers have been around this block before – just not at this same pace. Almost all of the boats have an afterguard with round-the-world race experience. And most have augmented that afterguard with knowledgeable shoreside weather routers. The fact remains, however, that these vessels are still unknown animals, and the resultant gear failures and delaminations had exacted their toll. New, higher boat speeds mean new tactics. This was brought home during the 1988 Singlehanded TransAtlantic Race while I was doing the routing for Phil Steggall’s Sebago. Cracking off a few more degrees made a world of difference, as multihull sailors opted to go fast and worry about heading later. Gybing or tacking would take care of that incidental, and by then the fastest multihull owned the racetrack. Now the bigger multihulls literally can choose where they want to go, but they had better choose wisely. If they overshoot or undershoot the waypoint, the weather differences from early or late arrival can be major. And gybing may not be quite as easy as one would hope. Boats only have so many battens for a trip of this length.

The Cook Straits provided another set of constraints. Big Southern Ocean rollers and high winds greeted some of the boats as they worked their way into the second half of the race. They don’t call it “Windy Wellington” for nothing. The funneled and shifting winds provided yet another test for the crews’ maneuvering abilities.

On to the Horn

Soon enough after those tests, the remaining fleet launched off across the high latitudes of the South Pacific. It was unlikely to be a duplicate of the musical of the same name. Back into the cold – almost as if they never really left it – the sailors were again to look for the fastest if not the shortest way to their next waypoint. It was pretty unlikely that they would venture as far south as some of the earlier round-the-world events. If they went too far south, they ran the risk of hitting headwinds. It’s happened before. Atlantic Privateer in the ’85 Whitbread and later BOC competitors took the dive to the south only to find that others, such as Lion New Zealand made out better by staying farther to the north. Multihulls in particular may be better suited to a somewhat more northerly approach to Cape Horn.

Getting the boats to Cape Horn marked a series of major accomplishments, but there was no time to rest on laurels. Keeping options open for the final rounding could well be critical. When the Cape is socked in with heavy weather, the shallower water of the continental shelf, the irregular coastline, and the fast-moving currents provide a sea state that can be absolutely horrific. When Great American I made its approach to Cape Horn, the 60-foot trimaran was pitchpoled in 70 knots of wind. An hour later, an even larger 80-foot breaking wave flicked the boat back upright, despite the fact that the rig had been in one piece below the water and the craft was partially filled with water! Mother Nature lives large down there, and 110-foot multihulls don’t stack up to much. If the conditions were nightmarish, it could be better to opt for going south of Diego Ramirez, and stay completely off the continental shelf south of the Horn.

Survival may not top the racers’ list of concerns at this point (at press time only two vessels had completed The Race). Small mistakes or excessive loads can easily put a campaign out of the race. Even if the conditions get a little easier, the decisions don’t. Which way did each boat leave the South Atlantic High this time? If they went to the east, the winds of the Southeast Trades gave them reaching conditions most of the way up the South Atlantic. True enough, the eastern side of the South Atlantic High can be a bit longer, but these monster multihulls thrive on reaching conditions. Further arguing against the eastern side of the High, as they set up for the doldrums and re-enter the Northern Hemisphere, the normal width of the doldrums tends to be wider on the eastern/African side of the Atlantic. If they did an “S” curve, and came back to the western side to cross at the narrowest point, they set themselves up for a longer trek up the Northeast Trades and back to the Straits of Gibraltar. They would be walking a fine line of trying to be far enough to the east to minimize that distance but still far enough west that they’re not hung up for long in the doldrums.

Alternatively, the big multihulls had the option to go north, up the coasts of Argentina and Brazil as both ENZA and Great American II have done. It’s a similar route to that taken by earlier Whitbread races, which went directly from South America to the finish of the race in the south of England. But the western approaches are quite a bit farther to the north, significantly changing angles and options in the North Atlantic. While the decisions weren’t easy for tired crews and stressed vessels, all of the competitors opted to take the more direct and northerly route along the western side of the South Atlantic High. Headwinds were inevitable, and the tacking angles were bitter pills to swallow as the finish loomed over the horizon. But there were still flashes of incredible performance. While Team Adventure crossed the doldrums they managed to pull off a 600-mile day!

Heading for the finish line

Shooting through the Strait of Gibraltar is always a grab bag of adverse conditions and heavy shipping traffic. In February 1989, prior to the start of the ’89 Whitbread, The Card was on a delivery through the Strait on her way to Majorca and winter training. Even going slowly, the boat slammed into head seas so heavily that the helmsman was thrown over the top of the wheel, and core sheer failure was incurred in the forward lower section of the hull. This occurred while the boat was going slowly on a delivery! The Race’s huge multihulls have been blasting along as fast as practical, trying to set a speed record in the same neighborhood at a similar time of year.

The Race has tested boats and crews far beyond what has gone on before. The weather hurdles have been much the same, but how they were treated was radically altered. While these weather-routing tactics are applied to racing in these circumstances, boats being delivered from the Caribbean to New England in the spring face similar kinds of choices. When should they make their westing? While farther to the south and in a southwesterly breeze? Or wait until farther to the north, possibly after a front has gone through and the wind is now northwesterly? Understanding the global weather patterns and the real-time meteorology provides the answers. The Race is a race of another kind, and victory was very hard won every mile of the passage – just ask Grant Dalton. Whether racing or voyaging, however, the road to your own personal victories can be paved with an understanding of weather and how to use it to your advantage.

By Ocean Navigator