Cal TOMLINSON Sailing Manager for the Challenge Business gives us an insight into what it's been like for the crews over the last few days.
'It is dark, you have approximately 28 knots of wind from astern, the sea is wild with waves of up to 30ft.
'The boat is bowling along at anywhere between 9 and 12 knots, the mainsail is sheeted out as far as it will go and you are down to your smallest and heaviest spinnaker. Sailing like this depends on the relationship between the helmsman and the sail trimmers working in perfect unison. The trimmers in turn are assisted by the grinders who are providing the horse power for the winches and these guys need to be pretty responsive as well.
'There is a line squall approaching from the stern and is heralded by a sharp increase in the wind speed. Wind up to 33 knots now and everything depends on being able to keep the boat upright and underneath the rig. If the boat leans over, the force driving the boat moves to the left or the right and the boat wants to either broach into or away from the wind, the latter involving a crash gybe. The boat is going faster now and the loads on the rig are becoming critical.
'Ease the spinnaker pole forward a little to try and get the kite shielded slightly behind the main. The loadings on the winches are awesome and the guy ropes skip and chatter on the winches as the pole eases forward.
'Suddenly the stern lifts to a slightly bigger wave moving in from behind and the boat speed increases 12knots ….13….14…18…' Hooray' as 20 knots comes up. 'Sheet on, sheet on' you yell as the apparent wind angle moves forward. The grinders labour frantically as the trimmer pulls on the sheet. On either side of the boat there are great sheets of water as the bow wave increases.
'The boat is now in mid surf down a very steep wave and thunders on into the now pitch blackness in front. On it goes… 21 knots …when will it end? Then suddenly everything groans as 40 tons of boat runs into the wave ahead. The apparent wind pressure shoots up as the boats slows down. 'quick, ease the sheet' and you wonder briefly if the rig is up to it.
'Now the boat is vulnerable! Everything hinges on the helmsman keeping the boat on its feet. A crash gybe and subsequent broach now will surely cause long term damage.
'The debate suddenly starts as to what the top speed was - 'I saw 22.8' says Ricky on the spinnaker guy. You're not sure but want to believe him.
'You look astern looking for the next wave, you see it coming. You struggle to line the boat up - you just make it just in time and suddenly you're off on that wild romp again.
There are just a final few days left before the Global Challenge races into La Rochelle and the final stopover, before the homecoming and a hero's welcome in Portsmouth on the 16 July.
The latest ETA puts the lead boats arriving into the French city on Tuesday as Team Stelmar continues her lead over the fleet with a growing distance of 21 miles in front of Imagine It.Done, just four miles in front of Me To You.
Yachts have been reporting boat speeds of up to 23 knots as they hurtle towards La Rochelle.
However, after two days of gale force conditions it looks like these conditions are starting to subside which could have an interesting effect on the leaderboard.Imagine It.Done Skipper Dee CAFFARI told Race HQ this afternoon: 'With the wind easing it's back to the kites and trimming our way to France.' Likewise Duggie GILLESPIE, skipper of Spirit of Sark adds: 'The wind is finally beginning to drop after two days of gale force downwind. We have just changed from poled out headsails to the spinnaker making the boat more stable in what are still quite rough seas. We are continuing to take advantage of the squeeze and higher winds between a low and high pressure, but are looking to the high pressure system that is moving in from the south over the next day. This will make the jostling for positions more interesting with very few miles between us and our main rivals.'