Sailing: How and Why: The Round the World fleet is entering dangerous waters

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The second leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race started fom Uruguay yesterday. It will take the yachts, three twin-masted ketches and 11 single-masted sloops, nearly 8,000 miles to Fremantle, Western Australia. A hostile climate makes it the most dangerous leg of the race, one which the competitors will be glad merely to finish.

The route

The 'round the world' course means up and down the Atlantic and then a circle round the Antarctic. The shortest route from South America to Australia means going south as well as east. Because the earth is not so fat down south as it is at the equator the distance is shorter. So, even though the yachts must pass north of the Prince Edwards Isles, a safety measure to keep them out of the icebergs a bit, you still have to dive south. Stay further north and you sail many more miles than your opponents. But further south the weather is more hostile. Around that shorter circle there is not much land, so the winds just blow and blow, and the seas run and run, with nothing to stop them. Little yachts riding huge seas, their spinnakers powered by gale force winds, means riding on the edge of control for much of the time.

The equipment

The boats cannot be built so heavily that they are bullet-proof because, if they were, then their lighter competitors would be over the horizon and gone. So equipment is built to be as light as possible but to be raced in the most rugged conditions. It has to be looked after, especially masts. The ketches have two masts, and so, if they lose one, they at least have another to keep them going, if more slowly. A single-masted sloop is different. No mast, then little power. Nor is there any little harbour to motor into. The engine would be next to useless, there is nowhere to go, there is no coastguard because there is no coast to guard, and you are well out of helicopter range of everywhere.

The environment

Arctic and debilitating, so special clothing has to be worn to protect the crews. A combination of condensation and perspiration leads to smelly discomfort. Too little protection and you are soaked. If it is too cold you can no longer work. Being too hot is very unlikely. The clothing should also protect if a man is swept overboard. An automatic bleeper will then transmit you position back to the yacht. It should be able to find you, but visibility can be atrocious and picking poeple out of the water can be as hazardous as it is life-saving. At least your survival suit will give longer protection from the icy cold, which kills fairly quickly. But if you are not found in time that merely means a slow death rather than a quick one.

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