Velux 5 Oceans - Wet and wild start to sprint three

Skipper Gutek (Zbigniew Gutkowski) onboard his yacht Operon Racing at the start of Ocean Sprint 3, from Wellington New Zealand to Punta del Este, Uruguay. - Velux 5 Oceans
Velux 5 Oceans third sprint ride solo round had a wild, wet and windy start at the world yacht race today as the four ocean racers blasted out of Wellington Harbour. Grey, drizzly conditions with strong 25 to 30 knot winds greeted the skippers as they set sail on the sprint to Punta del Este Uruguay, the third of five legs that make up The Ultimate Solo Challenge.

Despite the weather, hundreds of people flocked to Queens Wharf in central Wellington to watch the emotional departure ceremony before thousands lined the city’s waterfront for the race start which took place just a few hundred metres from the shore.

As the starting gun fired at 2.30pm local time (0130 UTC) it was American skipper Brad Van Liew, the overall race leader, who was first across the line on Le Pingouin and out towards the first turning mark laid inside the harbour, two nautical miles from the start. But it was Polish ocean racer Zbigniew ‘Gutek’ Gutkowski on Operon Racing who stole a march on the fleet rounding the turning mark first.

After a dramatic run-up to the start, where he had to fix an oil leak onboard Active House, Canadian Derek Hatfield crossed the start line in third place but overtook Brad Van Liew on the way to the first mark. By the time the racers headed out through Barrett Reef and Pencarrow Head and into the Cook Strait, winds had reached 50 knots. By that point Brad and Derek were already locked in battle, at times just a few boatlengths separating the pair. British skipper Chris Stanmore-Major started the race in fourth after problems with the genoa on Spartan meant he could only put up a storm jib.

The 6,000 nautical mile sprint from Wellington to Punta del Este in Uruguay will see the fleet head deeper into the Southern Ocean than they have been yet as they dip down to the latitude 56 degrees south to get round Cape Horn, the southerly tip of South America. Along the way the skippers will face waves that could reach up to 25 metres tall and winds that will consistently blow between 25 and 40 knots - and often more.

They will also pass Point Nemo, the most remote spot in the world, more than 2,000 nautical miles from land in every direction. After surviving all the Southern Ocean can throw at them they must round Cape Horn, one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the world, where millions of tonnes of water are forced through a 400-mile wide gap between the South American continent and Antarctica.

Run by Clipper Ventures PLC, the Velux 5 Oceans started from La Rochelle in France in October and features five ocean sprints. After starting from La Rochelle in October it headed to Cape Town, and then Wellington in New Zealand. The fleet is now on route to Punta del Este in Uruguay and then on to Charleston in the US before returning back across the Atlantic to France. The 2010/11 edition of the race is the eighth its 28-year history.

Derek Hatfield: 'Ocean sprint three really is the pinnacle for me. I liken it to climbing Mount Everest – you have a massive struggle to get to the top but then you have to make it all the way back down again and you still have a long way to go to get to safety. Cape Horn is the summit – once you’ve made it safely round the Horn and you’re into the South Atlantic you can start to rest a little bit easier. Everyone seems to be on edge a little, we’re all a little nervous about the next leg. You’re very exposed in the stretch of water between Wellington and Cape Horn, there’s no commercial traffic, just 4,000 miles of ocean. When you’re halfway to Cape Horn you’re further from land in any one direction than astronauts in space. That gives you an idea of just how far away from civilisation you are. That’s the biggest challenge.

'During my first round the world race in 2002, the Around Alone, my boat pitchpoled in 80 knots of wind and 60ft waves. My mast broke and I had to pull into Argentina. I managed to fix it and carry on to finish the race so I got round, but I didn’t see Cape Horn. In my second round the world race I dismasted south of Australia so I didn’t make it to the Horn. My hope in this race is to get round the Horn cleanly and safely and get up quickly to Punta without any big incidents. Because of that incident in 2002 I have a massive respect for this next section of the race.

'With some good luck and a lot of hard work I think I could win this leg. That’s my goal. The competition is getting tougher as the race goes on, as we all get more used to our boats. Of course, the boats are getting more and more tired. It’s all about perseverance, just like a marathon. You have to keep up the pace but you also have to keep the boat together. It’s all part of the game.'

Brad Van Liew: 'The biggest challenge with ocean sprint three is Cape Horn. Job number one is getting round the Horn safely. The reality of this leg is that you can get rough weather at any time, even after Cape Horn, but the biggest concern for me is getting round Cape Horn safely.

'My aim is to get well stuck in to the leg, approach it with a good attitude and try to reboot a little after the experience of ocean sprint two. I’ll try to get down south enough to hook into those westerlies, all the time watching out for ice, and then round the Horn safely. A certain amount of that comes down to the luck of what the conditions are when you get there. If it’s going to be bad weather I’ll have to play that system, either putting the handbrake on or heading north a bit – the thing to avoid is ending up right on the shelf at Cape Horn.

'The thing that’s so dangerous about Cape Horn is the passage is so narrow – you’ve got to thread the needle. It also gets shallow very quickly there so you have this huge amount of water and weather being forced between the Andes and Antarctica. The water moving through there is going from thousands of metres deep to very shallow, very quickly.
'I wouldn’t say I am scared, more apprehensive. Everyone will have a little bit of apprehension - it’s Cape Horn after all. I’m just going to go out there, sail hard and have a good time doing it within my boat’s ability and my ability. I’ve got to be careful, I’m not going to go in gung ho. I’m just going to sail as fast as is safe and enjoy the chess match that us skippers play.'

Chris Stanmore-Major: 'Cape Horn is obviously the biggest challenge of the next sprint. It’s a famous point in the ocean and rightly so. The world’s currents and winds circle the planet completely unimpeded until they get to Cape Horn. There things get pretty spicy.

'Normally if big heavy weather system is coming through we can head up north to avoid it but on this leg we are pinned in position by the landmass of South America. Anything that comes through we will just have to ride it out. Getting away from the coast of New Zealand will be the first challenge and then the next big one will be 'Cape Horn. Once round the Horn heading towards Uruguay it will become very tactical.

'Cape Horn is a new challenge for me. I have never done it before but I know what is coming and how rough it’s going to be and I’m not looking forward to it. The boat proved itself so much on the last leg, she really got smashed around and came out on top. I know she can take whatever is thrown at her on the next leg.

'I had some hassle from the boat on the first leg, and on the second leg I was the one that messed up. I’m going to be more conservative with tactics on this next leg. I will be paying particular attention to tactics once round Cape Horn. The boat has great pace and potential and could beat any other boat in the fleet – it just comes down to me.

'I can mix it up with the other guys. Spartan has needed very little work to it while the others have been working quite hard on theirs. As long as I can get into the groove I think you could see good things from Spartan and I. I relish the challenge that being on the ocean brings. I have learnt such huge lessons each day I’m onboard and I really enjoy it.'

Zbigniew Gutkowski: 'The next leg will be similar to the last one, back into the Southern Ocean, but this time we will be going even deeper south. It’s an empty place without any life. To be honest the passage to Cape Horn will be quite straightforward – where it is going to get tactical is after rounding the Horn. Once in the South Atlantic, this is where the leg could be won or lost.

'You can never plan for the Southern Ocean – it is never the same conditions twice, there are always different winds, temperatures, waves. You must always stay alert, use your brain and look around you at what is happening. This is what you have to do to survive the Southern Ocean.

'The most important thing is to keep the boat in one piece. After Cape Horn, it will all be about tactics. One mistake and you could lose lots of miles on the other skippers. I will always be looking for slip-ups by the other skippers and if there is an opportunity to pass them I will take it.'

Velux 5 Oceans website