Leg 3 of the Volvo: Into the Southern Ocean

Author:
Publish date:
W1772_SAIL_WEB_BANNERS_700x150
Just keeping the boat in one piece is a big part of success when racing through the depths of the Southern Ocean

Just keeping the boat in one piece is a big part of success when racing through the depths of the Southern Ocean

After a 12-year absence, the Cape Town to Melbourne leg is back. No more diverting north toward the bathtub-warm waters of the Persian Gulf to keep a bunch of sponsors happy: just a 6,500-mile straight shot through some of the roughest ocean waters on the planet in a stormy downwind passage that recapitulates the glory days of the old Whitbread race. 

To this end, on Sunday, December 10, the fleet of the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race will jump off from Cape Town and, after a few laps back and forth for the sake of the fans onshore, set out into what, even today, remains in many ways the great unknown. True, the boats are much better equipped these days to handle the conditions, and the combination of satellite communications and state-of-the-art forecasting means there will be few, if any surprises weather-wise. However, none of this changes the fact that every crew taking part knows there are inevitably going to be at least one or two big Southern Ocean graybeards out there with their name on it. 

Then there’s the matter of the sheer stamina involved in keeping up weeks of nonstop racing against some of the best sailors in the world. 

“In the last race, when we got off the boat in Brazil after Leg 5, I remember saying to one of our shore crew that if I ever talk about doing this race again the answer is no,” says 38-year-old Team Brunel crewmember Annie Lush with a laugh. “But here I am, back again. Sometimes you love it and sometimes you absolutely hate it, but there is no more extreme thing to do.”

Brunel’s Annie Lush is back for another stab at Southern Ocean sailing in the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race

Brunel’s Annie Lush is back for another stab at Southern Ocean sailing in the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race

“At the end of the day, it is the best sailing in the world, diving into the Southern Ocean,” says Donfeng’s Stu Bannatyne, who has come to be known as the “King of the Southern Ocean,” in recognition of his having spent a major part of the last two decades racing through the area. “It’s worth coming back every time just to get those days of really fast downwind sailing. Those times when you get to settle in with a nice sail combination in some big waves, it’s pretty hard to find that kind of racing in any other area of the sport. One thing about this race is that the memories of the bad times seem to fade a lot faster than the memories of the good times."

Beyond that, for the entire fleet, Leg 3 will likely prove to be a major factor in the overall standings in the months to come. Currently, the leaderboard reflects the dominance of the more veteran teams, with Mapfre, Vestas 11th Hour Racing and Dongfeng separated by a mere three points in first, second and third. However, all seven teams have now theoretically had a chance to both get their sea legs and fine-tune their programs during legs 1 and 2, which means the race is now comprised of all “veterans,” so to speak. 

Stu Bannatyne, the “King of the Southern Ocean,” does a trick at the helm

Stu Bannatyne, the “King of the Southern Ocean,” does a trick at the helm

In addition, because of the challenge involved, Leg 3 is worth double points. And of course, we all know how unforgivingly competitive the VOR is these days. A single breakdown due to a knockdown or failure to hook onto a weather system correctly and the first could easily become last, allowing the last to become first. 

Tactically, Leg 3 remains the same as ever in terms of Southern Ocean racing. On the one hand, there is the age-old question of how far south you should steer after leaving Africa. The closer to the pole, the stronger the winds, but farther distance sailed since Melbourne is essentially due east of the Cape of Good Hope. On the other, there’s watching the weather and doing your best to hook on to one of the series of low-pressure systems that continually make their way west to east along what is known as the “Westerly Storm Track.” Back in the day, when the boats rolled along at 8-10 knots they were sitting ducks for the weather systems that would roll up behind and then overtake them. But now the boats are fast enough to just about keep pace with the storm systems and a lot of smart strategy is required to both position the boat correctly and then sail the correct heading to stay in the strong winds of each low for as long as possible.

Then, of course, there’s the matter of keeping your boat in one piece. This is a stretch of water that in past races has seen everything from major hull failures to near-total dismastings. Bottom line: in heavy weather, in particular, the crews are continually having to make a judgement call as to just how hard and fast to push themselves. The goal is to venture right up to the breaking point, but never beyond. And where exactly is that breaking point? That’s the $64,000 question.

Good luck to all the crews, and here’s to the start of one of the world’s last great adventures! 

December 2017

W1772_SAIL_WEB_BANNERS_700x150_V3

Related

02-'17-Trans-Atlantic_Downwind-Schralpin

At The Helm: Man Overboard!

Imagine this simple scenario: the boat’s powered up, sailing close-hauled in a building breeze under full sail. I come on deck as the skipper during the watch change to make sure the new crew is comfortable and the boat is properly set up for both the current conditions and ...read more

Promo-01-LEAD-MGR00321

Contrasting X-Yachts & Moody Cruisers

One of the most fascinating things about sailboats is the different ways that sailors, naval architects and builders will approach a single design problem. The result has been a bewildering array of rigs and hull forms over the years, and in the case of the two boats we’ll be ...read more

04-Yacht-anchored-in-front-of-one-of-Lastovo's-gunboat-tunnels-(3)

Cruising Charter to Croatia

As is the case with so much of the Mediterranean, to sail in Croatia is to take a journey through time. Centuries before the birth of Christ, Greeks traded amphoras of oil, wine and grain across these waters. During the first millennium, the Romans built lavish palaces and ...read more

m123728_13_01_171012_PMA_02901_9999

Alicante Announced as an Ocean Race Europe Stop

The Ocean Race Europe, a new event in offshore sailing, will include Alicante as one of four stopover cities. This European offshoot of the former Volvo Ocean Race will include the biggest change to the racing rules under the new title—fully crewed IMOCA 60s will join the ...read more

01-LEAD-doublehanded2

Preparing for a Doublehanded Race

A few months ago we took a look at the development and attraction of doublehanded racing (Two to Tango, June/July 2020). Hopefully, that served to whet your appetite. If so, the question becomes: “How do I get started? The good news, as we explained in Part 1, is that if you are ...read more

01-LEAD-Day-three---dolphins.-300-dpi

A Key Approach to Passagemaking

How you approach offshore sailing is key to the success of each passage. In addition, some of the most valuable, even crucial attitudes and skills may not be either learned or valued in everyday life on shore and may even fly in the face of talents that are greatly admired and ...read more

OceanVoyagesInstitute-2048

Point of SAIL: Mary Crowley of the Ocean Voyages Institute

In this episode of Point of SAIL, Principal Editor Adam Cort talks with Mary Crowley, founder and executive director of the Ocean Voyages Institute, a not-for-profit based in California that has been both educating sailors and working to preserve the health of the world’s ocean ...read more

01-Ocean-Voyages-Institute_PHOTO-READY_1_pg

Tracking and Catching Plastic Waste

Plastic waste—in the form of everything from plastic soda bottles to abandoned fishing nets—constitutes a major threat to the health of the world’s oceans. Giving the immense size of an ocean, though, actually finding all the plastic floating around out there in a time-efficient ...read more