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18 May 2005, 11:08 am
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Rolex Transatlantic Challenge 2005
New York USA

In today's digital age, it is difficult to comprehend how tough it was for those competing in the 1905 transatlantic race for The Kaiser's Cup. For the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge crews setting sail from New York this Saturday 21 May, almost every aspect of life on board has gone through wholesale changes over the last 100 years.
Yachts racing for the Kaiser's Cup were wetter than their present day counterparts, sailing a course so far north that several encountered icebergs. Following the same course a century on, crews in the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge will find the greatest boon will be their modern foul weather gear. In 1905 crews endured hours on deck relying on woolen undergarments, oiled or waxed protective outers (hence the word 'oilskin'), rubber boots, felt hats and sou'westers to keep them warm and dry, but this gear was far from waterproof, and none of it would be warm if it got wet.

Today's foul weather gear is truly waterproof with effective neck and wrist seals and taped seams to prevent water ingress through the stitching. The latest gear is made from material that is not only breathable to prevent build-up of condensation within the clothing but is often covered in a water repellant coating. Underlayers are now made of synthetic fabrics, and these not only do not absorb water, but actively direct moisture away from the body.

The mobile communications age has also made its mark. Navigators in 1905 relied on a sextant in taking sun sights and from this could work out their position to within a few miles - assuming there was no cloud cover. While yachts still carry a sextant as a back-up, the Global Positioning System (GPS) today enables yachts to know the exact position of their yacht to metre accuracy via a $200 device that fits into the palm of one's hand.

In 1905 only one yacht racing for the Kaisers Cup was fitted with a Marconi radio - Edmond RANDOLPH's 198-foot (60.3m) Apache - and according to Scott COOKMAN's book on that event, Atlantic - the last great race of princes, 'the gear filled a stateroom, required a skilled operator to use and maintain and even then was notoriously unreliable.' In 2005 short range VHF radio is still widely used, but bouncing HF radio waves off the ionosphere is now mainly confined to HAM radio enthusiasts. Reliable voice communication is today readily available via satellite through an Irridium phone, little bigger than a cellphone, while most boats competing in the Rolex Transatlantic Race will have on board access to the internet to send and receive email or download weather forecasts.

In 1905 there was a basic understanding of weather systems but, without the means of communicating it to yachts, weather forecasting tended to be carried out solely on the experience of the crew looking at cloud formations, sea state and barometric pressure - a falling glass meant bad weather ahead and would send the crew scurrying to set up oil bags on the bow (at the time it was widely believed that pumping oil out helped flatten the sea). While crews still today maintain a 'weather eye,' and the barometer is just as important as it ever was, today they tend to rely more on weather forecasts generated by purpose-built supercomputers. These are still a long way from being 100% accurate. For those on board being able to anticipate severe weather to some degree of reliability so they can take countermeasures, represents perhaps the greatest single improvement in safety since the Kaiser's Cup.

Race update

The Rolex Transatlantic Challenge fleet is now down to a round 20 with the withdrawal of Randall PITMAN's Whirlaway.

At present Tiara, Mariella, Leopard of London, Sariyah and Stay Calm are docked at the pre-race base in the shadow of the US aircraft carrier Intrepid, on the west side of Manhattan. Up river, Mari Cha IV and Windrose are at 79th Street Boat Basin, while Drumbeat and Selini are at North Cove Marina, and the modern square-rigged Stad Amsterdam is at South Street Seaport.

The remaining yachts competing in the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge are currently in Newport, Rhode Island where they are due to leave tomorrow.

Event Media. Image, Life on boats like Mari-Cha IV is along way from the conditions the crews had to endure back in 1905:© Event Media
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