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In perfect conditions, with blue skies and a 12 knot breeze, the Volvo Ocean Race fleet left Wellington, New Zealand after a short pit stop and headed back into the Southern Ocean on leg four, at 6,700 nautical miles, the longest leg of the race.

As the start cannon sounded it was Paul Cayard and his Pirates onboard the Black Pearl who led the fleet off the start line. Leg three winner, movistar (Bouwe Bekking), started two hours later after opting to take a two-hour penalty for using outside assistance to fix the ‘bomb doors’ on the hull of the boat in preparation for the southern ocean.

By 1600 GMT on start day, February 19, fierce battles were waging everywhere. “In my book, you’d have to go some way to beat situations in the ocean like this, wrote Ericsson Racing Team’s navigator, Steve Hayles. Movistar had made up her two hour penalty and was holding joint lead with ABN AMRO ONE (Mike Sanderson) and Ericsson (Neal McDonald) was in sight of Pirates. Other than the changing weather conditions, nothing but icebergs and water stood between the boats and the fearsome Cape Horn, also a scoring gate on this leg.

On day two, February 20, at 1000 GMT, it was the familiar sight of the two Dutch boats, ABN AMRO ONE and ABN AMRO TWO (Sebastien Josse), at the head of the leaderboard and a battle royal was centred around Ericsson Racing Team and Pirates of the Caribbean.

For this final Southern Ocean leg, two gates were set into the course in order to keep the crews from sailing too far south and straying into iceberg territory. The teams had to pass above the latitude of 48 degrees south at some point between the longitudes of each gate, the first set at 148’000 west and 143’000 west and the second set between 130’000 west and 125’000 west.

The race office had been working with C-Core, a remote sensing firm in Canada, to analyse radar scans of the southern Pacific Ocean in the hope of identifying areas with possible icebergs and it was this analysis that led to the placement of the ice gates in this leg.

As the fleet dived south in an attempt to avoid the worst of the remnants of a tropical storm, which was positioned between the fleet and the first ice gate, they were still very closely bunched, with a north south divide of only 78 nautical miles, but it was approaching ‘crunch time’. The fleet would have to commit to which side of the high pressure system, the remnants of a tropical storm, to go.

“It is either a long trip up and over the top, or a rather nasty upwind beat around the bottom,” explained Simon Fisher, navigator of ABN AMRO TWO. “Until now, we have been biding our time, but the sand in the hour glass is running low and we will have to hedge our bets and see if the others follow.”

Early on day 3, February 21, ABN AMRO ONE made a big decision and took an expensive 43-mile loss, gybing south to position themselves as the furthest boat to the south, putting ABN AMRO TWO briefly into first position. But the second Dutch boat continued to stay in the north. It was too late for them to take the southerly route and they watched their lead dwindle to almost nothing, realizing they were too far north.

“This brings on a range of emotions, from panic to anger, as you wish you could turn back the clock and make that sail change a little bit earlier and go with the fleet,” navigator Simon Fisher noted. Surprisingly, Brasil 1 (Torben Grael) made the same decision and they also had their moment in the sun in the lead.

In the south, the battle still raged in the rest of the fleet. Ericsson moved up to second place, Pirates of the Caribbean was in third, but only two miles behind Ericsson and level pegging with ABNAMRO ONE. Movistar was in sixth place but still well in touch with the fleet, pinned between Ericsson to the north and Pirates of the Caribbean to the south.

Sightings of wildlife were reported by every team with talk of a giant quid being wrapped around the rudder of ABN AMRO ONE, regular albatross fly pasts and whales basking nonchalantly within 10 metres of Ericsson. No ice had been seen, but the temperature was dropping rapidly.

Ocean poker was the name of the game on day four, February 22, as the fleet began its approach to the fist ice gate and it was looking more likely that the gamble taken by ABN AMRO TWO and Brasil 1 would pay off. They were now the nearest to the gate, but ahead, in the area of the gate, the winds were light and fluky. “So who is right and who is wrong?” asked Knut Frostad, watch leader on Brasil 1. “It’s just like playing poker. What cards do you guys hold? Or no cards at all and just showing up a brave face, trying to make everyone believe something?”

Although the rest of the fleet, now 100 miles to the south, had better breeze, they risked having to sail into headwinds to reach the gate and this would slow them considerably.

Onboard, Ericsson Racing Team spent 36 hours repairing a crucial sail and the Brazilians were beginning to feel the cold. “Carabelli was seen on deck last night wearing both a balaclava and a fleece hat on top. I can’t wait to see him when we get closer to zero. Five hats?” asked Norwegian toughie, Knut Frostad. Movistar had their generator in pieces twice, but it was not a serious problem.

By 2200 GMT that night, the position report made dismal reading for ABN AMRO TWO and Brasil 1 in the north. They both posted big losses to the boats in the south when the wind dropped as they sailed nearer to the centre of the high pressure, while the rest of the fleet was still steaming along at 15 knots. The situation had become a navigator’s nightmare as they scratched their heads and spent hours pouring over weather models on their onboard computers, trying to find out the best way to approach the ice gate ahead.

On day five, February 23, the southern ocean simply was not delivering the high speed sleigh rides which everyone associates with this desolate part of the world. Instead, the Volvo Ocean Race fleet was floundering in no wind, but there was a hint of bad weather to come. “One of the reasons for hurrying to the ice gate, apart from the result, is the fact there is a chance that it will blow 50 knots there within 12 hours of us getting there, so the race is on, against the competitors and Mother Nature,” wrote Mike Sanderson from ABN AMRO ONE.

Onboard Ericsson Racing Team, navigator Steve Hayles almost forgot his 33rd birthday. “I’m not really a ‘Christmas and birthdays’ type of bloke and there is no time to celebrate out here, but it got me thinking about this race and my involvement in it,” he wrote.

“I can remember back to a very similar situation 12 years ago, sat in the nav station of a Volvo 60 heading for Cape Horn. There are lots of good things to be doing on your 21st birthday, rather than being bounced around in the ocean, thousands of miles away from the nearest land, but the truth is that it would not have mattered how cold it got, or how broken our boat was, you could not have stopped me from being here on that birthday or any other. It’s hard to describe the addiction you have for something that, for a large percentage of the time, you don’t really get much enjoyment from,” he reflected.

“I used to marvel at guys like Sir Peter Blake, who did this race six times in his amazing career and here I am, on my fourth race, with enough years remaining to complete eight of these races before my 50th birthday. So, will I be sat here on my 49th birthday, heading for Cape Horn at about 50 knots in some amazing new boat? The truth is, I probably won’t be able to keep up with the pace of development, but despite what I am going to write in about a week’s time (I will declare, as I normally do, that I am never coming back again), given half a chance, I know I will be here.

“This is an amazing event, at the pinnacle of a fantastic sport and if I could be granted one wish today, it would be to secure the future of this race for many years to come, so that thousands of youngsters can aspire to be out here and a very lucky few will experience it first hand. “

By 2200 on day 5, Brasil 1 finally picked up the fresh north westerly winds and romped towards the ice gate at a positive 12 knots.

Brasil 1 passed the ice gate today, day 6, and, at 1600 GMT, was scorching towards the second gate before preparing to head south again towards the scoring gate at Cape Horn.

The rest of the fleet was crashing upwind towards the ice gate as fast as the headwinds would allow, in the hope of reaching the gate and being able to crack off downwind before the gales that were forecast in the vicinity materialized.

Steve Hayles signed off his birthday report by saying, poignantly, “Right now it would be a false claim, but I know that we are just two or three days from justifiably being able to claim to be living ‘life at the extreme’.”

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This entry was posted on Friday, February 24th, 2006 at 1:33 pm and is filed under Main Stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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