Portimao Global Ocean Race skippers fight frustration and fatigue

Wednesday, 04 March 2009


With the Portimão Global Ocean Race fleet stalled by light breeze, the event’s Race Director, Josh Hall, draws on his immense ocean racing experience to describe the frustration and fatigue that the teams may be feeling:

The Portimão Race fleet are enjoying some exceptionally close-quarters racing, albeit in very light winds as they struggle through a ridge of very weak pressure. The challenge of cajoling just an ounce of boat speed from any yacht in such conditions is a tough one, made all the more compelling by the proximity of the competition. The guys will be hand-steering and gently trimming their sails as the vagaries of the wind zephyrs are too great to rely on their electronic autopilots. Every movement of the sails or indeed the crews will be done slowly as anything else could kill the speed that has been coaxed for some hours.

Racing a yacht around the world is an intense experience and one of the overriding qualities the skippers will either have, or must learn to have, is patience. The days when the wind and sea conditions are of perfect strength and direction can be counted on two hands in the course of a circumnavigation – generally there is too much wind or not enough, too large a waves or too small and the common plea will be for the wind to just come around another 10 degrees. Dealing with these issues requires mental fortitude as much, if not more, than physical strength.

Contrary to public opinion very light conditions are tougher on the sailors than a gale. Their concentration levels must be at a peak as they focus on perfect sail trim and are glued to their speedos. Falling into a complete wind-hole in the middle of a dark night will require a deep dig into the tolerance reserves, especially when a close-by competitor can be seen passing by on the radar screen. Some elements will be pleasant however – cooking on a level stove has its culinary upsides and not having to sleep on a bunk that is trying to evict you at a thirty degree angle can garner some pleasure.

The Portimão sailors will no doubt be looking at the breeze  showing to their south and be frustrated that they have to respect a 45 degree South limit for this Leg, but this limit is there for good reason – their safety. Ice is a major hazard in the Southern Ocean and due to the ice pack’s steady melt rate, icebergs are being spotted increasingly  further north.  A mere eight years ago, round the world yacht races had no limits or ice gates and the yachts were free to sail as far south as they dared, taking huge risks in order to greatly reduce the distance they needed to sail. I can assure anyone who asks that surfing along at 20+ knots through a moonless night with bergs dotting the radar screen is not for the faint-hearted and can have you hiding under the chart table with your distress beacon strapped to your back. Nights like that are long, long nights.

Whilst no race organiser wishes to wrap their entries in cotton wool, the change in the ice patterns now demands that responsible limits are put in place for the Southern Ocean sections. In addition to vastly increasing the safety aspect of these races it also forces the boats to stay grouped together more which provides them with fantastically close racing and gives  us virtual voyeurs  a real spectacle to follow.

The 45 degree South limit in the Portimão Race is in keeping with the gates in place for The Vendée Globe and The Volvo Ocean Race. Equally, however far north or south a fleet is in the Great Southern Ocean, there are always areas of light wind pressure ridges that are the ironic foil for the tempestuous storms for which the region is more famous. When I raced in the Vendée Globe in 2000, my own traverse of the Southern Pacific Ocean was marked with many days of light airs and whilst I experienced the full force of a 70 knot Westerly as I approached Cape Horn, my actual rounding of this monumentally iconic cape was carried out in a very un-inspiring six knots of wind!

So, to our Magnificent Seven, I would say make the most of the calm – the conditions will be strong enough, soon enough and always, always be careful what you wish for

Josh Hall
Race Director

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 04 March 2009 )