The first week of racing on the first leg of the double-handed, Class40, Global Ocean Race has taken the vessels 1,300 miles from the start in Palma, Mallorca, out into the Atlantic, along the coast of Morocco to the Canary Islands; completing approximately 20% of the 6,800 mile route to South Africa.
Following a light winds start on Sunday 25th September, north-easterly breeze arrived with the fleet surfing towards the 100-mile wide funnel between Africa and Spain leading to the Strait of Gibraltar. After two and-a-half days of racing, the fleet shot through the Strait into the Atlantic in an easterly, Force 7-8 gale led by the father-and-son duo of Ross and Campbell Field with BSL and followed by four Class40s in the space of four hours. While the bulk of the fleet turned hard left along the coast of Africa, the Dutch duo of Nico Budel and Ruud van Rijsewijk were battling to preserve their downwind sail inventory on Sec. Hayai with damage to the A2 asymmetric and the total destruction of the boat’s A6.
During the fleet’s first morning in the Atlantic, the Franco-British duo of Halvard Mabire and Miranda Merron took an offshore option with Campagne de France, overhauling the Fields and taking the lead. By Tuesday morning, Campagne de France and BSL were averaging eight knots in northerly breeze and separated by less than one mile with Conrad Colman and Hugo Ramon on Cessna Citation 40 miles to the north-east, just seven miles ahead of Marco Nannini and Paul Peggs with Financial Crisis. While Budel and van Rijsewijk trailed the leaders by 162 miles in sixth place, they took Sec. Hayai west into stronger breeze as Nick Leggatt and Phillippa Hutton-Squire opted to remain near the coast, running into a personal wind hole that trapped their Class40, Phesheya-Racing, for almost 24 hours and the South African duo watched the fleet stretch out ahead of them to the south and Budel and Van Rijsewijk close in from the north.
Towards the weekend, the fleet’s approach to the Canary Islands was dictated by a predicted windless zone engulfing the archipelago and expanding north-east of the islands directly in the path of the GOR boats. Campagne de France and BSL squeezed east of Lanzarote on Saturday morning and headed for the African coast and towards what little breeze was available, while the remainder of the fleet were smothered by light airs. As the breeze shut-off, Marco Nannini and Paul Peggs in fourth place were north-west of Lanzarote with Financial Crisis: “It’s been a slow day trying to get the boat moving in patchy airs topping 3-4 knots,” reported Nannnini late on Saturday. “A cloudy morning meant that none of the typical sea-breezes formed during the day over Lanzarote, so we were left floating about like the many turtles we have seen in the area.” As the Italian-British duo bobbed around helplessly with the nearest hint of breeze 60 miles to their south-east on the other side of the island, the team’s mascot attempted to assist. “Typically, frustration and desperation are common feelings in these conditions, but Clubby cheered us up with his total lack of knowledge of the basic laws of physics, running up and down the deck armed only with his enthusiasm and a 12 volt electric fan trying to get some wind into the sails.” Defeated by Newton’s First, Second and Third Laws of Motion, the mascot abandoned further activity. “Eventually, exhausted, Clubby sat down and solemnly declared ‘there is more wind in my pants then in the whole of the Canaries’,” says the Italian skipper. “This we can confirm,” he adds.
On Saturday morning, Phesheya-Racing was 180 miles from the Canary Islands: “Nick and I did many sail changes trying to keep on the move,” explains Phillippa Hutton-Squire. “We were rather unsuccessful as it was very difficult in the dark, dark night. We could only feel a little wind or light air on our faces and believe what our instruments were telling us.” Putting two reefs in the main to stop the endless slapping of the sails, the South Africans could only sit and wait for some breeze: “We struggled most of the night with boat speed and trying to keep each other motivated,” she admits and eventually they started sailing south again at just four knots. “The sun soon came up and made it much easier to see the wind on the water, but it was only towards the middle of the morning that we really started to move,” Hutton-Squire confirms as Phesheya-Racing finally started to make four knots.
In third place, Conrad Colman and Hugo Ramon ran out of wind early on Saturday, 16 miles east of Lanzarote: “As we crawled over the ocean today, making southing by the tips of our fingernails, I was tempted to try to lasso a passing cargo ship and hitch a ride to somewhere with stable winds… surely anywhere but here!” wrote Colman. “Hitch-hiking is surely the only way to explain the miraculous disappearance of Campagne de France and BSL as they managed to slip through a zone that was forecasted to have less wind than us! Chapeau! [Hats off!]” Between sunrise and sunset on Saturday, Colman and Ramon dropped 65 miles to the leading pair of Class40s. “While it has been frustrating to watch their battle from afar, one can only wonder at how close they have remained through it all and whether their intense relationship can last to the end, or if one of them will just ‘need some space’,” Colman wonders. “It’s almost as if Ross has hitched a ride on the back of his former navigator and put his feet up, but close inspection shows that each boat is feeling the other out as they jostle down the Atlantic.” As a few knots of breeze arrived on Saturday evening, Financial Crisis crept around the small island of La Graciosa off Lanzarote’s northern tip, avoiding the option of sailing through the centre of the Canary Islands while Cessna Citation, Phesheya-Racing and Sec. Hayai had to wait until just before dawn on Sunday for the north-easterly breeze to appear along the African coast.
While the majority of the fleet stalled, Halvard Mabire and Miranda Merron found some breeze 20 miles off the coast of the sparsely populated territory of Western Sahara: “Initially, our weather analysis showed that the exit door from the Canaries was along a corridor by the African coast,” explains Mabire. “Added to which, tactically, it was prudent to cover our favourite pair of Kiwis.” Since leaving the Mediterranean, Campagne de France and BSL were rarely separated by more than ten miles. “In fact, the Global Ocean Race is all about placing yourself right in front of your adversaries – even if it’s just a couple of boat lengths,” adds the former, Mini Transat, Solitaire Du Figaro and Whitbread Round-The-World Race sailor. “At the moment, with the light variable breeze, it’s impossible to do many miles in a straight line and with that pair of Kiwi, Doberman Pinschers just behind us, ready to bite us in the backside if we make an error, we’re looking at the strategy for the next few days with our eyes glued to the wind instruments.” Throughout Saturday afternoon, Mabire and Merron managed to put some extra distance between Campagne de France and BSL, leading the fleet by 18 miles at midnight.
However, sailing close to the shore near two of Western Sahara’s coastal settlements, including the country’s capital, Laâyoune, and the town of Boujdor further south, brought complications. “At sea, many of the dangers and irritations occur when you are close to land; unmarked fishing pots, unlit fishing boats, vessels coming too close with nobody on watch – it’s all pretty annoying,” states Mabire. His co-skipper takes up the story: “We caught a line joining two fishing buoys around the keel,” reported Merron on Sunday morning. “We started to back down the boat when a small, wooden open-boat with three fishermen aboard came alongside. They kindly decided to cut the line themselves, so we thanked them and gave them a spare rope we had on board. They had a large shark and a magnificent swordfish amongst their catch.” A few hours later, the process was nearly repeated. “We sailed over another line, but didn’t get caught,” Merron continues. “Another small fishing boat came over and pointed in the general direction we were headed, so we thought there were more nets, but just a few hundred metres later we came across a huge whale.” The attitude of the friendly, subsistence fisherman was unusual and welcome on Campagne de France: “So far, nothing but kindness from local fishermen,” she comments, but the atmosphere took a sinister turn later in the afternoon: “A larger, rusty hulk of a fishing boat came from some distance away and aligned itself behind us and started to follow us.” The duo contacted GOR Race Director, Josh Hall, and plans were put in place to contact MRCC Dakar and MRCC Cape Verde if the threat escalated. “Luckily the wind filled in and we sailed faster than they could motor, so, after a while, they gave up,” says Merron. “So it was a stressful, early part to the night close to land and it was a relief to reach the relative ‘safety’ of the shipping route and its AIS-visible traffic.”
Throughout Sunday morning, Campagne de France took an offshore route as the wind turned easterly, heading 80 miles offshore while the Fields took BSL on the inshore route, 33 miles off Mabire and Merron’s port beam with the DTF separation remaining at 18 miles by midday. With light winds of between six and eight knots, Ross Field indulged in some nostalgia and scrolled through his extensive catalogue of offshore anecdotes, focusing on the 1997 Whitbread as skipper of America’s Challenge with Halvard Mabire as navigator: “After 35 days at sea we were hungry and the boat finally ran out of cigarettes,” he recalls of Leg 1 from Portsmouth to Cape Town. “One day, I smelt this strange smell coming out of the nav station and went to investigate and there was Halvard trying to make a smoke out of fax paper, rubbed with Deep Heat – the stuff you rub into sore muscles – and the tobacco was tea bags. He thought the Deep Heat would give a menthol flavour to the smoke and hide the fax paper taste!” Fortunately, the fire was kept under control: “As you can imagine there were flames and smoke everywhere,” adds Ross. “I should add that Halvard is an extremely talented, French yachtsman and I was lucky enough to have him navigate for me in the 1997 Round Europe Race and we have been friends ever since,” he concludes.
By Sunday afternoon, the GOR fleet were all picking up speed stretched over 400 miles along a 150-mile wide band of breeze along the African coast. In fifth place, Nico Budel and Ruud van Rijsewijk on Sec. Hayai kept west, heading for Gran Canaria and a rendezvous with Budel’s daughter, Marga, and a replacement A6 asymmetric. Further inshore, Phesheya-Racing were making six knots having finally found the breeze: “At around 02:00 the wind finally arrived from the north and we got moving properly under full mainsail and A2,” says Phillippa Hutton-Squire. “The wind shifted a little and we’re now making good speed towards the Canary Islands.” However, the remaining 118 miles to the group of islands are far from easy. “We’re not yet out of the woods, though, as the forecast shows one more patch of light and variable winds coming our way later this afternoon or evening, before we get properly into the Trade Winds.”
Whether in flat calm or fast conditions, the South African duo continue to log observations for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) research programme running throughout the GOR: “We’ve seen some great natural sights, but also some disturbing evidence of human impact on the environment,” she reports. “Amongst the natural sights we have seen a few more turtles and lots of dolphins. This morning we saw a particularly acrobatic pod of dolphins which we suspect are Spinner dolphins, though they were too far away to identify with certainty and our guide book seems to indicate that it would be unusual to find this species so far north,” continues Hutton-Squire. “Whatever type they were, they made some really spectacular vertical leaps, well clear of the water and earlier we also saw a school of tuna in a feeding frenzy on the surface.” Conversely, sailing close to the coast and passing near the busy shipping lanes that route through the Canary Islands inbound from South America and Southern Africa en route to Europe and outbound from Europe to Asia and Australasia has resulted in regular sightings of marine debris: “The down side was seeing large chunks of polystyrene floating past yesterday, and this morning we caught a huge chunk of plastic around our starboard rudder,” the South African co-skipper records. “We managed to recover it intact and have kept it aboard or proper disposal on shore.”
In the 15:00 GMT position poll on Sunday, Marco Nannini and Paul Peggs in fourth place on Financial Crisis were through the channel between the Canary Islands and Africa making just over seven knots on port gybe. “We’re heading south and still no sign of the Trade Winds, which Nick Leggatt suggests get their name from the fact that if you sail trying to find them, you end up trading your boat for a caravan out of desperation,” reports Nannini. “On board all has been super, no damage so far to bones, sails nor egos and we are pleased with our position.” Conrad Colman and Hugo Ramon in third place with Cessna Citation are 66 miles ahead of Nannini and Peggs having increased their lead by 50 miles since the wind shut off around the Canaries on Saturday. At the head of the fleet, Campagne de France is making the best speed at nine knots, extending Mabire and Merron’s lead over BSL to 24 miles.