The longest race of the Rolex TP52 Global Championship - officially 18-24 hours in duration - is race seven of a ten race series taking part during Acura Miami Race Week.
At 1430 local time yesterday afternoon, the Premiere Racing Race Committee started the fleet at the tip of Key Biscayne on an approximate 178 nautical mile course. The course is effectively counter-clockwise around a square, the first leg taking the boats east from Miami across to the Bahamas Bank, then north around a mark at the top of the Bahamas Bank before returning due west to Florida and then south down the Florida coast to the Miami finish.
With a night on the water, the distance race represents a very different proposition to the fleet after the six, short duration windward-leeward races they have enjoyed for the last two days. 'You have to think about the weather and we have the added interest of crossing the Gulf Stream twice which is great,' commented Stay Calm's Adrian STEAD (GBR). 'There is plenty of breeze for these boats and we know they like breeze. After six windward-leeward races it is a really good change.'
Not everyone was looking forward to the race. 'It is cold, it is wet, it is dark, it is hateful and the best boat doesn't necessarily win, so I am not a lover of the offshore race in general,' said Rush's owner Thomas STARK (USA). His team has put considerable effort into winning this race. 'We have developed the requisite sails for offshore, we have practiced offshore, we have worked on our dietary requirements offshore, we have trimming, driving and hiking strategy for offshore.' For Rush the result in the distance race, counting for 1.5 times the points of the windward-leeward races, is all the more important following their failure to finish the first race on Wednesday.
Unlike the windward-leewards, for the distance race professional sailors are allowed to take the wheel after the first 30 minutes of racing. On board Stay Calm owner Stuart ROBINSON (GBR) will be sharing the wheel with double Olympic gold medallist Ben AINSLIE (GBR). On some boats this situation has also been affected by crew changes. The 75 year old owner of Braveheart, Charles BURNETT (USA), is standing down while business commitments have prevented Pegasus 52 owner Philippe KAHN (USA) from sailing this race. 'He said 'unfortunately I had to put my priorities in line here - so don't mess up!'' recounted Ken READ (USA) of KAHN's instructions. After the start READ will be sharing the helm with Chris LARSON (USA) and Morgan LARSON (USA). On Rush, owner STARK will share the driving with America's Cup helmsman Ed BAIRD (USA) and Canadian Hank LAMMENS.
On 24 hour long races there is also the issue of sleep. Crew who are not trimming, steering or involved in manoeuvres or sail changes will spend the duration of the race sitting on the rail. Fortunately, after the first beat upwind across the Bahamas, the subsequent leg should not require too many manoeuvres, so the crew will be able to grab a fitful sleep as they sit with their legs and bodies dangling over the side. Patches' Ian WALKER (GBR) explained the situation, 'You have to be on the rail with these boats even on a dead run in anything over twelve knots, with the exception of one weather bunk down below so that one of the drivers or trimmers can rest.'
From a technical point of view the distance race will also require the boats to utilize the 'reaching' sail inventory, not normally use on windward-leewards. These specialist sails including masthead Code Zeros and flat reaching spinnakers as well as smaller jib tops.
Aside from the physical hardship of competing throughout the night, the race is also challenging from navigational and tactical points of view. Several boats have specialists for these roles such as Pegasus 52's navigator Adrienne CAHALAN (AUS), who was a crew member on Steve FOSSETT's (USA) maxi-catamaran PlayStation when it set the world record for being fastest non-stop around the world and more recently on the Rolex Sydney Hobart race 'triple winner' Wild Oats XI. Similarly Ian MOORE (GBR), racing on Patches, was involved with the last Volvo Ocean Race winner illbruck Challenge and is now with Emirates Team New Zealand America's Cup campaign.
With a high pressure system out to the east of the Bahamas, the forecast for the race is ten to 20 knots of south easterly wind although some forecasts have it piping up to 25. According to MOORE the first leg across to Ocean Cay, the Bahamas, will be the most challenging. Although the route is not hard on the wind it has the potential to be if the boats try and compensate for the strong northerly effect of the Gulf Stream, which can flow as much as four to five knots. Thus the boats will need to head south to counter this. The question remains of whether the fleet will do this immediately after the start or will they make up the deficit to windward when they reach the other side.
Once at the Bahamas the boats head up to round Great Isaacs Light, skirting or possibly finely cutting Bimini and the edge of the Bahamas Bank. Then the boats will jibe around the light and head back across the Straits of Florida toward the next turning mark at Hillsborough Inlet on the Florida coast. The effect of the Gulf Stream will be less on this leg because the boats will be speeding downwind, said CAHALAN. From there the fleet has a 25 mile, one tack beat back to Miami and the finish.
While crews will be attempting to stay awake they will also be sailing in the dark with the increased risk of encountering lobster pots or coral heads. 'We'll have to be cutting the corner a little bit after Bimini to get to Great Isaacs,' warned MOORE. 'Although it looks like there is enough water through there, at that stage we'll be doing 20 knots through four metres of water and you have to hope that no coral heads have grown up recently.'
The start was held in twelve to 15 knots of wind, but in a sea far more lumpy than kicked up by the wind. Karl KWOK's (HKG) Beau Geste got the best start, tacking at the committee boat, but it was Patches who slowly pulled out a lead by taking the right side of the opening beat. Rush was the first boat to break hard right. Two hours into the race, Patches was still leading the fleet with Beau Geste, John BUCHAN's (USA) Glory and John COUMANTAROS' (USA) Bambakou heading directly across the Straits of Florida. The rest of the pack had put in a tack south.
If the forecast holds true the boats are expected to finish today mid-morning.