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19 May 2005, 02:49 pm
Challenge Remains the Same
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Image, Mari-Cha IV and the New York City skyline:© Daniel Forster / Rolex

Rolex Transatlantic Challenge 2005
New York

While the world may have changed dramatically in the years between the race for the Kaiser's Cup in 1905 and the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge starting this Saturday 21 May, off New York Harbour, one constant remains, the North Atlantic Ocean.
The great circle route (the shortest distance) between New York and Land's End (the first landfall in the British Isles that the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge crews will see before they head for the Lizard and on to Cowes), measures 2,834 nautical miles. However, as this route would take the boats over Rhode Island and Nova Scotia, the usual practice is for navigators to aim for a waypoint off Cape Race, the southwesternmost tip of Newfoundland.

Due to the potential hazard of running into icebergs on this course, the race committee of the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge will be setting this waypoint themselves, requiring competitors to leave a 'Point Alpha' to port (i.e. to their northwest). Although the exact location of this will not be revealed until the Captains' Meeting at 1800 EDT on Friday, it is unlikely it will take the yachts far off course, says New York Yacht Club spokesman Andy SCHOLTZ 'Fortunately for the racers and organising committee, there is no ice south of Newfoundland. It gives racers the better chance to sail a great circle course and go farther north. During the 1997 race, the ice was as far south as 42.5 degrees north, almost the latitude of New York.'

Tactically, upon crossing the start line, navigators are immediately faced with the choice between taking the shortest route (shaving the shallows of George's Bank and Sable Island Bank) and heading southeast where there is usually more wind and the opportunity to pick up extra knots of boat speed by hitching a ride in the Gulf Stream. This latter process is not easy. Far from being a warm river coursing north from Florida, the Gulf Stream is really a series of eddies where the current is as likely to send yachts southwest as it is to work in their favour. Fortunately, through judicious use of satellite imagery, clever navigators can determine where the favourable current lies. Veteran Volvo Ocean Race and America's Cup navigator Mike QUILTER, racing on board Maximus, says the Gulf Stream can provide four knots of boost but doesn't feel it will play too much of a part in this race. 'This time, if you ever get involved with the Gulf Stream, you'd just clip the top of it.'

Before the yachts pass Newfoundland and are truly into the open ocean, there are numerous hazardous shallows lying off the east coast of the States. Best known of these are the Grand Banks, extending out 250 miles southeast of Newfoundland. Here the cold Labrador Current meets the warm Gulf Stream, and the result can be thick fog, with the added danger of the area being a favourite fishing ground.

Once in the open Atlantic, the great circle route takes the yachts as far as 51 degrees north across waters up to 4.5km deep. 'In an ideal world you have a nice big high pressure system and you just smoke around in the westerlies around the top of the high, but that doesn't look like it is going to happen,' says QUILTER. Often, in mid-Atlantic, boats will head north of the great circle to keep sailing in wind. As a result, their trajectory towards the British Isles sees them making their first landfall at Land's End, before sailing the last 20 miles on to the Lizard. Based on this, the shortest course to the Lizard is closer to 2,900 miles, plus an additional 100 miles up the English Channel to the ultimate finish line at the Needles.

And the weather for the start? 'At the moment, the forecast shows light air, so you'll have to start trying to get east into breeze,' says QUILTER, who expects Maximus's passage time will be eight to nine days. 'We have to sail out of the high pressure. The first day will be slow trying to get out into the breeze, and then we'll start reaching.'

Sue Maffei Plowden (As Amended By ISAF) Image, Mari-Cha IV and the New York City skyline:© Daniel Forster / Rolex
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