Global Ocean Race fleet prepare for next intense gale

Right in the middle of the maelstrom - Global Ocean Race 2011-12
Cessna Citation
Global Ocean Race 2011-12 (GOR) fleet are on the thirteenth day of racing in leg five from Charleston.

Since a ferocious gale swept through the GOR fleet on Thursday, any thoughts of Distance To Leader figures and losses or gains have been side lined temporarily as the four double-handed Class40s recover from the storm, assess any damage and – unfortunately – look ahead to the next, intense gale sweeping towards them across the North Atlantic.

Furthest south in the fleet, Nico and Frans Budel avoided the worst of the first storm with Sec. Hayai and ran into confused conditions and fickle winds, while Phillippa Hutton-Squire and Nick Leggatt managed to take Phesheya-Racing away from the storm’s direct path, but still recorded 37 knots of wind and had a deeply uncomfortable time.

However, it was the fleet leader, Cessna Citation with Conrad Colman and Scott Cavanough, furthest east and north of the Azores, and Class40 Financial Crisis, furthest north in the chasing pack, with Marco Nannini and Sergio Frattaruolo who felt the storm’s full and unrelenting fury.

On Financial Crisis, Marco Nannini and Sergio Frattaruolo tried to take a course that would keep them away from the strongest winds: 'But as we sailed deeper into the low, the wind was steadily above 40 knots and gusting occasionally at nearly 50 knots,' revealed Nannini early on Friday morning. The Italian-Slovak duo were intentionally conservative and rolled their Solent jib early, but not without incident: 'When it came to furling the sail we were hit by a gust and the violent flogging put a tear in the leach of the sail,' reports Nannini and repairs will be attempted as soon as the weather clears.

Nannini opted for three reefs and staysail, although the combination produced impressive speeds as the wind continued to build: 'We were still occasionally taking off in massive surfs at 18 and occasionally even 20 knots,' says the Italian-Slovak skipper who took cover below with his co-skipper as waves piled into the cockpit and the sea state continued to deteriorate. 'All seemed perfectly under control until we sailed down the face of one of these monsters,' continues Nannini. 'We started surfing almost vertically until at the bottom of the wave we buried the bow very violently.'

During the impact, Frattaruolo was thrown around in his bunk: 'Luckily he was sleeping feet first and wasn’t injured, but the whole boat tilted diagonally and just in that instant where you think you're about to come upright, the very wave that had sent us surfing broke over the boat in a thunderous roar.' Eventually, Financial Crisis struggled upright: 'We could have done a lot of damage, but other than the fright, we thought we had made it through unscathed,' says Nannini, although closer inspection forward showed the foot of the staysail had been ripped by the force of water.

On Cessna Citation, furthest east, the full force of the storm was felt later than the chasing boats and Conrad Colman and Scott Cavanough felt secure with two reefs and a staysail as the wind begun gusting to 40 knots, the Kiwi-Australian duo thought they may have missed the worst of the storm. But no such luck: 'The waves were building and we were surfing up to 20 knots, taking three-hour watches at the helm as we have done since the start in Charleston,' recalls Colman, but the sky soon turned dark with clouds: 'The gusts became stronger and the waves continued to get bigger,' continues the Kiwi skipper and with swells building to eight metres, the call was made to drop the staysail and put in a third reef as a gust of 50 knots hit Cessna Citation.

Colman and Cavanough judged that the reduced sail and reduced speed left them at risk of being pooped as the waves over took their Class40 and the staysail was hoisted as the wind dipped to 30 knots and when darkness enveloped the boat, the seas built out of control: 'We saw a series go past that were easily 11 metres with breaking crests,' says Colman. 'It was fun and manageable in the moonlight and we could skirt the monsters and surf the smaller ones to safety, but then the clouds covered the moon and it got scary,' he admits. 'With sustained 40 knots, I barrelled down a monster wave and piled into the bottom, soaking the boat in sheets of water just as the wave we had been surfing broke over the stern!' Despite being clipped-on, Colman was flung forward in the cockpit and desperately scrabbled for the tiller to prevent a Chines gybe.

However, this was just a warm-up and further monstrous gusts ripped through Cessna Citation soon after they had lowered the staysail and put in a third reef: 'I went inside and Scotty took the helm when 50+ knots came out of a cloud and threw us down the face of a huge wave where we came to a sudden stop,' says Colman. 'Scotty was ejected from the helm and landed on a pit winch and jerry cans, fire extinguishers and bags flew about down below.'

Miraculously, no injuries or damage were sustained as the boat was flung randomly around the North Atlantic, but Colman and Cavanough called time out: 'While Class40s are pretty indestructible and with three reefs it would be hard to do real damage, we had had enough and hove to with the storm jib to await sunrise and moderating conditions,' explains Colman and within three hours, the duo were back up to speed.

Furthest west in the fleet, trailing Cessna Citation by 827 miles at 15:00 GMT on Friday, Nico Budel has been deeply confused by the weather files: 'On Thursday afternoon, we thought we would pick up the good westerly breeze in the afternoon, but not a chance,' says the Dutch skipper. 'All weather files predicted westerly wind of about 20 knots, but we had five-knot headwinds!' The only option was to dig deeper south, but the Budels found further unforecast conditions: 'After six hours struggling to get south, we eventually succeeed and we found enormous grey seas and wind coming from everywhere!' continues Nico Budel. 'In one minute the wind went from five knots to a steady 22 knots! A really strange experience!'

With a second storm heading for the fleet, the Budels are watching the system develop to the south: 'Now we’re sailing downwind again and making sure we let the next depression pass ahead of us!' Nico confirms. 'I’m pretty certain – and I really hope - that we’ll have the next couple of days with stable breeze of about 20-25 knots so we can make some major progress!'

Having recently encountered winds up to 37 knots for 24 hours on Phesheya-Racing, Nick Leggatt was monitoring the weather closely: 'The forecast for the coming days seems quite bleak, almost all the way to the finish line of the Global Ocean Race,' says Leggatt looking at weather developing to the west of the fleet. 'Tropical Storm Beryl is now classified as post-tropical storm Beryl and that is almost certain to hit us on Sunday with winds forecast to reach 50 knots near the centre of the storm,' he predicts.

Shortly before 15:00 GMT on Friday, Phesheya-Racing gybed south-east, 460 miles west of the Azores in an attempt to avoid the storm’s path: 'It seems certain that we will not escape it, but at least we can position ourselves to open up as many options as possible,' reasons Leggatt. 'Once the worst of the weather has passed through it seems that we will be able to ride the westerly wind on the tail of Beryl almost all the way to the finish,' says the South African skipper, trying to look for a bright side in the remaining 1,600 miles to the finish. 'But just to throw another spanner in the works, the latest GRIB files show yet another storm pummelling the Bay of Biscay as we arrive,' he observes. 'This one has even more intense winds than any of the preceding systems! So it looks as if we could be in for a very interesting week...'

GOR leaderboard at 15:00 GMT 1/6/12:
1. Cessna Citation DTF 1061 7.8kts
2. Financial Crisis DTL 307 8.9kts
3. Phesheya-Racing DTL 621 2kts
4. Sec. Hayai DTL 827 9.5kts

Global Ocean Race website