Sailing: Close only to the wind

The elements are conspiring against the Around Alone fleet.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
BACK in the days of the square rigger, trading ships would spend three weeks sailing backwards and forwards across the North Sea, their inefficient rigs unable to take them upwind through the Dover Straits into the English Channel and on to the open Atlantic. Soul-destroying stuff indeed.

Rigs might have improved to the extent where boats today can sail much closer than a miserable 90 degrees to the wind. Nevertheless, there are times in sailing where you just cannot point where you want to go and for the last few days the Around Alone fleet has been confounded by south- easterly winds. Cape Town lies to the south-east and they have been steadfastly pointing at the South Pole.

The finish of the first leg of this four-leg single-handed round-the- world race lies just over 2,000 miles away from the leaders but right now it might just as well be on the other side of the world. They would have expected by now to be enjoying fast progress directly towards Cape Town with the hard work of this leg behind them and the main chances of a decisive break past. Instead they face a few days of hard tactical sailing with no clear choice about which route to take. "The South Atlantic high is forecast to stay stubbornly and unusually far south which will give us head winds of varying strength," said the Briton Josh Hall from Gartmore. "The temperature has fallen and for the first time since Charleston I have donned trousers."

With high pressure across the route, light winds are predicted on the direct line to Cape Town and up in the lead Isabelle Autissier in PRB has been confused by information she is bringing on to her boat. "It's pretty hard to predict what will happen next. Some weather sources have reported a high pressure front passing through but I don't see it on the Internet site I check. So I'm changing tactics. Yesterday I was heading due south. Now I'm close to the wind. It's a waiting game but it makes more sense than continuing south west [away from Cape Town] where you pay for every mile."

The constantly changing conditions make for hard sailing. With a full crew, continuous sail changes and re-trimming of the boat would be taxing. For a single-handed sailor they are seriously debilitating as the sailor strives to keep the boat as close as possible to peak performance. "I feel very tired this morning," said Mike Golding from Group 4 on Thursday. "The last few days have been very hard on the boat and me. I had changed to every shift and turn of the breeze and had to concede defeat. I slept for an hour having left the boat with a double-reefed main and staysail set."

Golding, who last night was lying third behind Autissier and Marc Thiercelin, has recently overtaken Hall. But as the leaders have headed into the light wind parking lot, they can only look behind at Giovanni Soldini steaming up aboard Fila. "Giovanni," says Golding, "has positioned himself with the benefit of having seen our track abruptly halted. It is not impossible for him to sail around the whole lot of us."

If they didn't know it before, the Around Alone single- handed sailors are learning right now the nature of sailing. They have been hammering their boats and themselves into storm-force head winds away from the direction that they want to go for a week and all the hard work could be confounded in a day as they stop dead in the water and someone 300 miles behind sees their plight and sails around them and into the lead. Cape Town must seem a depressingly long way away.