The snow flurries and cold temps of three weeks ago seem like a distant memory as the the Class 40 fleet thunders past St. Barts. After what seemed like an eternity in dry suits, the snow flurries have made way for hot sunshine while the heavy gear has been put away in favor of shorts and sun block to deal with the Caribbean heat.
But with the heat, the fleet is dealing with humidity. Lots of it. All of the skippers are reporting a relentless string of storm cells and thunderheads, with torrents of water hammering down on them. It is warm, but everything in the boats will be wet at this point. But the bigger challenge comes with the wind conditions. Local conditions are dominated by these thunder storms that alternate between sucking all the wind away from underneath them to blowing like snot on the outer edges. During the day the boats can "hunt" their way through the cells to try to avoid getting under one, but at night they are stuck dealing with each as they come, often times surprised by 60 degree wind shifts and winds that jump or drop 20 knots at a time with very little notice.
In the bigger picture, the wild card is Hurricane / Tropical Storm Ida. This Cat 1 (or formerly Cat 1) storm is hovering north of the Yucatan and is tracking towards Florida. The closest boat is still 3 days away from the center of the low and all expectations are that the fleet will not have to face the storm. But in the mean time the boats are dealing with a trade wind flow that is disrupted and messy. The prevailing winds are from the east and deep as sin, forcing boats to run way, way down. Boats like Peter Harding’s 40 degrees or Gio Soldini’s Telecom Italia with their articulating poles have a benefit in these conditions… but no one is able to avoid gybing. The excitement of throwing an expertly executed double hand gybe of a big piece of sail cloth has long ago been replaced with sheer boredom of doing yet another gybe at this point.
The other complicating factor is that the winds have gone light within the islands. This has led to some compression in the middle half of the fleet, but also creates a sail selection challenge. The temptation will be to go with their biggest kites for this deep running, but the risk is that they end up with wild wind shift and increase with one of the squalls which would leave them with either a damaged sail or a quick sled ride well away from the rhumb line. Many boats are working with damaged or depleted inventory of kites at this point. Some like 40 Degrees have a Rube Goldberg solution that involves repairing their spinnakers with any piece of sticky back material they have handy. The question for all of them is how hard to push the envelop on their surviving sails.
At this points, those boats that have managed to retain their wind wands will have a distinct advantage…. letting them drive the boat to a true wind heading and allow them to conserve their strength and also focus on trimming. Lack of wind instrumentation will mean the crews are working that much harder, and are that much more tired and that much less effective. .
Life aboard the lead boats remains unchanged. De La Motte and Initiatives Noveda retain their lead of approximately 110 miles, over Stamm and Soldini. Both of those competitors indicated they might stop in St. Barts for repairs, but the threat turned out to be more of a head fake than anything else. With less than 1,000 miles to go for the front runners, the boats are sailing within sight of each other and as of the last check in were about 3 miles apart. Stamm is currently beating Soldini, but no one counts out the wily Italian.
Spare a thought when you sleep on your comfortable bed tonight for these guys who have now been at sea for 22 days. – Rail Meat.