Team Sanya has made it to Pirate Island ahead of the freighter with the rest of the VOR fleet, and navigator Aksel Megdahl didn’t waste any time debunking poorly reported stories that the awarding of the Leg 2 “Seamanship Award” to Team Sanya was ‘widely condemned’ by fellow sailors, and that Sanya’s decision to head into a low pressure system was a rash tactical move.
I wasn’t going to spend many thoughts on “what could have been” if we had not broken that rigging part on Leg 2 – rather try to make it happen on another leg later in the race. But then the other day a mate sent me links to a couple of quite shallow and factually incorrect articles citing our decision to head north towards the low pressure system off Madagascar as to the reason why the rigging piece broke. So I thought it was only right to tell the full story and get the facts right.
During the 08-09 race when I sailed onboard “Ericsson 3”, we probably sailed for more than 10 days in conditions similar to those we sailed in the night before the D2 broke – fast reaching with the wind angle just aft of beam. And quite a few days in what I would call “much worse” conditions, conditions you would avoid if you could.
The high boat speeds and the apparent wind angle makes it really uncomfortable to be on deck in conditions like we encountered on Leg 2, particularly at night when you can’t see the waves that are trying to smack you. But these conditions aren’t normally what breaks the boat, as you are sailing with small sails, boat not very loaded up and generally taking the waves at a good angle without much slamming or nose-diving that loads the boat up.
While we are at this strategy, the “problem” of whether or not to go north was something that was haunting all of the skippers and navigators for days since leaving the African coast. Basically, the traditional route for this leg is to head due east to get a better angle in the trades when you head north later. Significantly more distance, but you will also be sailing much faster than you will do upwind along the rhumb line.
This time however, there was a slow-moving cold front to our East. On the weather models and computer simulations this wasn’t very significant, but as soon as I saw it I doubted we could ever get through it. But the computer thought we could, and the majority of the fleet were sailing due East, so we decided not to take the risk to go upwind for five days only for the rest of the fleet to reach around us if they got through the cold front area.
We kept bumping into the front, hoping to break through it, but as soon as the wind started lifting and going lighter, we became slower than it and got into the old breeze behind it again. This seemed to repeat itself over a couple of days, which caused plenty of frustration in the fleet (Ken Read and others said the worst sailing ever) as we continuously changed sails and trim for the very changeable breeze. And the rain was pouring down. And the navigators started feeling more and more stupid for not having gone north the day before.
At the same time, the active zone we had to get through looked much bigger on the satellite pictures (up to 300 nautical miles, not 30-60 as in the weather models). The models aren’t any better than what info you put into them, i.e. the weather observations. And a quick look at the weather maps tells us that there are almost no actual observations in this part of the world, and as well it is not a very interesting area for the USA or EU – commercially or militarily. So the models aren’t “tuned” for these areas.
This time, the weather models were just quite wrong. And the fleet seemed very hesitant to accept it. I think all were happy to just keep doing what everyone else was doing. You want to be pretty sure before you turn around and sail the other way, which is why we waited so long before we did. By waiting we probably gave away one day or so, but we also reduced the risk significantly: We could watch the weather by Madagascar develop according to the weather models, which in the end made us turn around almost like at a top mark on an inshore course.
The biggest risk by sailing north was that the light air zone to the north of the cold front we were sailing along would cost us a lot of time. Then of course, if the low didn’t develop in the place we expected. There was also some risk of quite strong winds, but not huge given that some of the conditions the lows need to develop aren’t present southeast of Madagascar, and even if adding a good safety margin from what the models were showing, we wouldn’t have to sail for long in wind speeds or at angles we didn’t like.
At the time we turned north, I expected us to make a gain of about 12 hours over the next 72 hours. If “worst case” light airs and westerly position of the low was present, I expected we could lose half of this, but still have a good margin – which we would need reaching against the newer boats! The Juan K boats were already faster reaching than our boat in the 08-09 race, and they’re even faster this time.
As we didn’t trust the weather models much, we aimed to sail about 105 TWA (wind just aft of beam) to be sure to hit the low pressure system right, so that’s what we did overnight. After all, the winds are blowing around the low pressure, so if you have it just aft of beam you know you are aiming just for the center of it. And the center of an old, non-intensifying, low, contains weak winds. We were in a quite conservative mode and sailed with two reefs and the storm jib for a long while until we were sure that the winds didn’t increase anymore and unfurled the J4 and shook out a reef in the morning. Two reefs and the J4 would actually have been the right sail combo through the night, but we wanted to be prepared for the worst case, and were definitely not going to break the boat.
I was really happy to notice that our course was further east than expected, which meant that the low was further east and would allow us both to sail shorter, at a better angle and for longer on a good angle out on the other side of the low to presumably allow us to cross ahead of the rest of the fleet. But as we were getting close to the low and hoisting a bigger sail to skirt the north of it, Bert noticed the broken D2, so we will never know.
Like many have said, it felt quite weird to stop sailing without really haven broken anything while sailing. Normally you hit a wave and something breaks, something that stops the boat and you have to sort out immediately. Like a hole in the boat, rig falling down, tack line of the code zero breaking or a sail falling down. In this case, we were just sailing normally and slowly realizing that this was nothing we could repair offshore and we better stop sailing now rather than sail into the wind shift that would make us gybe over and load the side with the damaged D2.
For some, this story is probably a bit different than the impression they got from some media about our sailing into a tropical storm to “make it or break it”. Firstly, it’s not easy for the journalists to see what is going on from the outside, and secondly, I think the media and the event use these “big simplified stories” that everyone can understand to make an impact. Thirdly, imagine how the navigators around the fleet would be feeling about it as everyone probably thought it would be the fastest route, but no one wanted to take the risk relative to the fleet.