Day three had us battling in light winds, while further south and west, the big boats were flying on a direct line for the turn mark, the Brazilian Isla da Trindade. We decided to sail west and a little south to get us into those same winds, which worked. Soon we were "cooking with gas" under the wonderful new asymetrical, rapidly outpacing the boats which we had left further north in lighter breezes.
Day four was one of great high and low moments. In rising winds we had opted for a poled out headsail instead of a spinnaker. In very confused seas we were experiencing exhilirating speeds and our top reading for the race. We were surfing almost continuously, riding from one wave almost straight into the next. We hit the top of one big mountain, with a seemingly endless downhill in front of us. We started down this slope at around 15 knots and it just kept building. Half way down we met a smaller wave (about 1.5m), peaking at 21.7 knots (GPS reading) as we did so. We went through that wave as though it wasn't there but that water had to go somewhere. It came clear over the boat, from bow to stern. I was helming in foul weather pants and a sweater (the only one that I had on board). The bow wave dumped itself down my trousers, soaking me top to bottom. That surf was a real high, with crew screaming in ecstacy.
After a high, be ready for a fall, or should I say "be prepared to be cut down to size". The breeze seemed to moderate a bit later in the day and we thought that we could handle it so we set our beautiful new asymetrical, our secret weapon. The wind gods saw it, siezed it and shredded it, top to bottom on both edges, plus some horizontal blowouts for good measure. Boy, did that demolish our high spirits. Four days into the race and we had trashed our greatest sail. This big and expensive sail had not yet done its job, yet there it lay, stone dead by our own hands.
I set out to try to resuscitate it. A few hours of work with needle and thread had about 1/4 of the leech stitched together and a large amount of our available twine consumed. With little faith in my stitching and insufficient sail repair tape to do the job, we declared it deceased and worthy of burial at sea. The non-biodegradable nature of nylon and the need to keep the evidence for insurance purposes kept the body on board. Maybe it will be rebuilt to fight another day.
Damage in the Fleet
At position reports next day we found that we were doing well compared with the boats to the north. Their light winds had changed to a force 9 to 10 gale, with some damage reported in the fleet. A few boats retired to ports on the South African and Namibian coasts, with rig, steering and other damage. One boat was leaking seriously from an undiscovered source and sank next day. Another competitor stood by to assist and rescued the crew. Of serious concern is the fact that the recently serviced liferaft failed to inflate initially and could have been the cause of loss of life.
As the winds moderated all over the route, our southerley position became slightly disadvantaged. We had lighter winds but a shorter distance to sail so it did not seem worth the loss of time to fight our way north to join the rest of the fleet. We maintained our course for Trindade, confident that it would bring us in close to convergence with the competition. Problem was, we were fetching to beam reaching most of the time, under our 180% reaching genoa. It was doing splendid work but we needed the wind further aft to set a spinnaker.
In position reports each day we watched the competition creep past us. This concerned us a bit but the South Atlantic High seemed to be parked in a location which would allow us to sail higher and fetch into Trindade at much better speed than the boats to the north, which would be running in light breezes. We were riding the northern edge of the high and the only danger was the high sliding down south-eastward too early, leaving all of us in light to windless conditions. Even then, our position would have allowed us to sail higher and more efficiently than the others, to close at Trindade. That was the theory, anyway.
The High Emigrates to Warmer Climes
Missing from our formula was the very unlikely possibility of the high relocating to the north, considering that it has spent most of its time further south than normal over the past few years and was already relatively far north. However, it did emigrate to warmer climes. It did this with great gusto, into a position about 17S latitude, higher than I have ever seen it. Suddenly the entire fleet was south of the high, whereas all had planned to ride the favourable downwind isobars on the northern side.
Gone for all was the fast and comfortable spinnaker sleighride, replaced by beating or fetching. We were, of course, quite used to this difficult point of sail by now, but it was something new to most of the others. This situation could not be expected to last for long, of course. That high was strong but there was another forming further south, well west against the South American coast. That would sap the energy of the one in the north, surely. It would, wouldn't it? Pleeease say yes!!!
The answer was an emphatic "NO!!". That high stayed planted there and made us beat/fetch for 1000 miles across the centre of the tradewind sailing belt of the South Atlantic. Worse still, it changed our anticipated sailing angle advantage when approaching Trindade into a disadvantage, with the other boats reaching off while we beat onward. Still, we were hanging on, fetching at 8 to 9 knots most of the time, heavily heeled and very uncomfortable. We looked like coming in at Trindade about 75 miles adrift, ready to take up the chase on the last leg. That was if the wind stayed as it was, which it would do, wouldn't it?
Another resounding "NO!!", just one day short of what we needed to reach Trindade. It stayed as it was for the guys to the north. For the next two days we received special attention from the weatherman, who sent out a cell of low pressure and planted it 300 miles off our port bow. Gave us good winds at first but then cut them off, stone dead. We made no headway for a morning before coming back up to decent speed and course after lunch.
Next day he continued the torture, in a new form. Sunrise brought a line of rain squalls across our path, from horizon to horizon. Big, black, powerful and unbroken, they sent a broad band of dead air our way, around 4 miles wide. We fought our way out of it by sailing over 90 degrees off course and against the direction of travel of the squalls. Once into usable breeze, we beat north-eastward, parallel to the squalls, until late morning before being able to turn west.
Following that low point, our spirits were lifted a bit at the expense of another yacht. We spotted it on the horizon ahead of us and identified it from the position reports as having started 6 days before us in a special start for slower boats. This double start is done to get all boats to Rio in reasonable time for a timely prizegiving. We steered to pass close by her to say hello. When we were about 2 miles from her she came to a stop in dead air under a cloud. I could clearly see the glassy water stretching a mile all round her and turned north to sail around it. There she lay, without steerage and facing back home, while we sailed past little more than a mile away at over 8 knots. We were well on our way to the western horizon before she regained steerage and turned to follow us west. It is hard to imagine the feelings of depression on a boat in that situation, battling to make miles after 3 weeks at sea.
Rounding the Island
Rounding Trindade in the wee hours next morning, we were now about 150 miles adrift of where we should have been in the IMS fleet, most of a day's sailing. Meanwhile, our normal competition in the CRRS fleet were mostly spread out far behind us. An exception was the Schumacher 41 "MTN The Better Connection", which rounded the island 8 hours ahead of us, having trailed us until the prevous day.
"MTN" was skippered by Anthony Steward, the only sailor to have accomplished the incredible feat of an open boat circum-navigation. This he did on the custom TLC 19 "Zulu Dawn". In this race he was sailing with a crew of young development sailors who sailed very well in difficult conditions.
"MTN" sailed in the 1996 race as "Kelly Girl" under Marion Cole. Our two boats were almost as evenly matched as two boats could be, them giving us about 90 minutes across the South Atlantic under IMS ratings. In that race we rounded Trindade an hour apart, rounded Cabo Frio alongside each other and finished with us 80 minutes ahead.
Now in the 2000 race, Marion Cole was sailing the Farr 40 "African Connection" and lay more than a day's sailing aft of us at Trindade. Note that this is not the Carrol Marine type Farr 40, but a local stretched version of the Farr 38 or Farr 11.6. There were 4 in the race, all in the CRRS division and all behind us.
All the while that we are sailing far from home, we wonder about the well-being of our loved ones. Through regular feedback through friends via HF radio, we are able to stay current on important matters. News from home was that business is good and my wife had all in hand. We also received the very bad news that there was a gale Cape Doctor blowing and the mountains around my beautiful home town of Hout Bay were on fire. Five houses and two holiday cottages had been destoyed in the first blaze. The gales and fires continued for many days and more houses were destroyed in Hout Bay and other areas of the mountainous Cape Peninsula of which we are a part. Happily, in my own home there was no damage although everything was covered in soot and ash.
Returning to the race, by now we had rounded Isla da Trindade. We had fallen from a full day ahead of our 1996 position at that stage two days earlier to only three hours ahead at the rounding. The big boats ahead had made very short work of this 700 mile closing leg into Rio de Janeiro so we were hopeful of finishing well up on our 1996 finishing time.