Ah, autumn on the Bay of Biscay…As I sit in New York City on a pleasant Monday afternoon, the sun is leaving the Bay of Biscay and night is falling on the fleet of twenty-four Class 40’s entered in the Solidaire du Chocolat. After their light air start yesterday, the boats have enjoyed winds that picked up to the low 20’s by this morning and most have spent the day riding the fresh south easterlies and screaming along at boat speeds in the mid-teens. The fleet remains fairly tightly grouped, although the front of the pack is legging it out a bit over the back of the fleet. Up front, Bouchard & Krauss on Pole Sante captured the lead from Stamm & Jourdren on Cheminees Poujoulat and then lost it again. With less than a mile or two separating the boats, most expect that the lead will trade back and forth for a while. Both of these boats took the middle route, with other packs of boats splitting to the north and to the south. The northern group remain largely in sight of one another, with the Spanish duo of Botin & de la Plaza on Tales leading the way. Meanwhile, we saw two of the favorite boats, Telecom Italia and Initiatives Novedia take a southern option, diving more directly towards Cape Finisterre. So far, this route has proven less rewarding, with perennial favorites Soldini & d’Ali on Telecom as far back as 19th with their slower speeds. Tanguy de La Motte and Hardy on Initiatives-Novedia broke back to the North during the day today, and have picked up considerable speed and stormed back to 3rd place as a result. It remains to be seen if Soldini’s investment in the southerly route will eventually pay similar dividends, but if anyone can make a flyer pay, it’s Gio. Interesting to watch this pair; if there is an Italian Volvo 70, they will likely run it.
Much of that pay off may be determined in the coming hours as the fleet switches over from racing mode to survival mode. The impending heavy weather is a little gift from Canada, with a deep low moving Southeast from Newfoundland and now arriving in European waters. Winds are already building, and the files show a shift to south/south westerlies and promise wind speeds from 35 to as much as 45 or 50. And the US East Coasters that saw part of this system know that it’s a really, really cold one. While the boats are definitely going to see rain, they may very well see snow.
Even as you read this from the comfort of your seat, the wind will have set the rigging on these boats humming at a noticeable pitch. By now, the boats will have all taken the steps to be prepared. All loose gear will have been strapped down and the smart sailors will have eaten as big a meal as they could fit, and should have spent as much time as possible sleeping today in preparation for what should be a very long night. Just as dusk fell, most will have swapped out from the code sails they have been flying on their sprits and instead hoisted their solents. These smaller stay sails are typically fitted out to be slab reefed, and as the winds build to 30 some one will have to draw the short straw to go forward to move the reefed tack down to the deck, roll up and secure the loose foot, and move the sheet position to the higher clew. It will be a wet job, with the boats now on a close hauled course and taking green water over the deck on a regular basis..although given how cold the air temperature will be, it may actually be a welcome and warm relief to be buried in a wave every now and then.
With conditions promising to be worse closer to Cape Finisterre, the front of the fleet is going to have a tougher go than the aft end. But with boats still relatively tightly packed, it probably won’t make a huge difference to the outcome when we wake up tomorrow. What will, however, make a huge difference is both seamanship and the build quality of the boats. The winds are challenging, but with 3 or 4 reefs in the main and a slab reefed solent most boats will be well balanced and feel no need to go to a storm jib or trysail even if they see the forecasted 50 knot gusts. The seas, however, will be a different story.
The storm is pushing a surge in front of it, and as that swell piles into the edge of the continental shelf, the waves will build to the same 6-7 meter (18-21 feet for the metrically challenged) Biscay seas that have destroyed so many ships through the ages. Given the fleets location, they will be seeing wave patters with a relatively short period, and perhaps worse they will see a very confused sea state as the NW’ly swell is overlayed by a shorter S’ly chop. This will make some short, steep, and most importantly, unpredictable waves, and it’s going to mean some loose fillings in the skippers’ teeth by the time dawn breaks. Skippers (and builders and naval architects) are sure to be crossing their fingers as their boats get a beating.
Race organizers are clearly worried about this low, and went so far as to mandate use of survival suits in Saturday’s skipper briefing. It will certainly be a chance to separate the wheat from the chaff, and by this time tomorrow we should see some clear winners from tonight’s survival contest. Hopefully all will be able to continue the race, and past history is promising in this regard. The last time a Class 40 fleet faced conditions that resembled this was 2008’s Transat where the fleet took a pasting about 14 days into the race, just SW of Iceland. The outcome during that storm, just SW of Iceland, bodes well for tonight’s drama; no rigs lost, and only one boat withdrawing to Nova Scotia to repair composite damage.
Stay tuned, and check out www.lasolidaireduchocolat.com often for tracking and rankings. -Railmeat.