'It is pitch black outside. We are hurtling along at 30 knots, and it is freezing!' he wrote. 'I am huddled down below at the nav station staring bleary eyed at the radar screen. We are at 53 30 south, around 1200 kilometers due south of Tasmania. The water temperature is 5.4 degrees Celsius and we are just north of the Antarctic convergence zone. The best information we have suggests that there is no ice in this part of the world, but with the water temperature below six you need to be really careful.'
Careful is an understatement. Hitting an iceberg at 25 knots is no different from driving a Ferrari into a brick wall at speed. The options for the crew, however, are limited. There are only two ways to pick up ice - a good radar or a good spotter on the bow of the boat - and neither method is 100% reliable.
Spotting the Danger
The spotters have a hard time differentiating between a cresting wave and a chunk of ice. They look the same, especially to a tired crewmember whose imagination is on an adrenaline charged high. Icebergs themselves are not a huge worry. It's the small pieces that break off the berg that present the most danger to a sailboat. These chunks of ice, usually the size of a small car, break off the main berg and float sometimes above the surface of the water and sometimes below. They are very hard to see with the naked eye during the day and all but impossible to see at night. The radar also has a hard time picking them out so it becomes a game of Russian Roulette, something best left for Las Vegas, and likely not something these sailors signed up for.
Will OXLEE has a lot of responsibility riding on his shoulders and he uses his instruments to their full capability. The radar has an alarm that can be set to go off if anything comes within a pre-set range of the boat. However like most electronics, they are not totally reliable as OXLEE describes in his log. 'Every so often the roaring of the water past my frigid hollow is interrupted by the insistent beeping of a target triggering off the guard alarm on the radar. So far the echoes have just been rain squalls, but each time I carefully watch the screen to see how often the echo is re-pasted. As a rule you ignore things until they re-paste at least three times. Often an especially large wave will show up as it rears up some miles ahead of us, but these echoes don't last for long. The rain squalls paste repeatedly, but they tend to have ragged edges and change shape over time as you watch the screen. Ships, of which we have seen none for days, paste as a solid, distinct echo. Icebergs...well here's confession time. I have never actually seen an iceberg echo on a radar screen in the wide ocean. I've seen them in places like Glacier Bay in Alaska, but not down here. So what the heck am I looking for as I stare at the screen. A consistent target a bit like a ship I guess, but perhaps larger.'
Sailors transiting these frigid waters do have some tools at their disposal. Satellite images are able to pick up large pieces of ice from outer space. They can discern currents by the way bergs are grouped in a certain way, and this information is passed along to mariners. It's fuzzy information at best, but at least the big bergs can be seen. The rule of thumb for sailors in the region is to always pass an iceberg to windward. The pieces that break off the main berg drift to leeward and they are dangerous waters, to say nothing of the wind shadow that is cast by larger ice.
Then there are other boats in the region. Shipping in almost non-existent, but there are some fishing vessels that report ice, and there are other sailors that use the same waters as their play ground. Another giant catamaran, Orange II, is currently attempting to set an around-the-world speed record. The boat is presently 3,000 miles ahead of Doha 2006 on a similar course and has not reported seeing any ice.
Perhaps the most important tool the sailors have at their disposal is a simple thermometer. Melting ice lowers the temperature of the water, and if the temperature starts to drop quickly, or if it stays consistently below 5 degrees Celsius, then the lookouts need to be posted and the radar fine tuned to filter out clutter.
So what do you do if you are the navigator on a yachts hurtling through dangerous waters? Will OXLEE is no stranger to this area and knows that much of what happens comes down to luck. He has his ways of taking his mind off the problems at hand. His log continues; 'For now, I sit here and watch our rapid progress across the electronic admiralty charts on MaxSea while keeping one beady eye on the radar. The nav station is in the starboard hull on Doha 2006. As we are on port gybe at the moment this is the low hull and all the sailing is done from the port hull, so it is pretty quiet in my part of the boat. That is if you ignore the incessant roar of water hurtling past just inches from me. Occasionally, for a change from the sound of rushing water, I put my iPod headphones on and listen to some chilled out music. Quite appropriate really.'
While OXLEE chills out, Olivier DE KERSAUSON and his crew on Geronimo are hard at work doing repairs in Fremantle. The clock is ticking.