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20 February 2005, 09:09 am
Southern Ocean Sleighride
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Oryx Quest 2005

While Olivier de KERSAUSON and his crew on Geronimo head cautiously for Western Australia, the other three yachts in the Oryx Quest 2005 are sailing at speed on the edge of the Roaring Forties. Long gone is the sunscreen and light clothing; hats, mittens and goggles are the order of the day as the wind pipes up and the spray flies with the force of a fire hydrant.
The "real" sailing begins as the boats prepare to circumnavigate Antarctica. Doha 2006 holds a comfortable lead on the fleet, but Cheyenne has closed the gap to less than 200 miles and these are conditions where the biggest of all the catamarans will finally find its stride.

Paul LARSEN on board Doha 2006 very succinctly summed up the last 36 hours in his log. "We are smokin'," he wrote. "It is fast and rough." It's likely to remain fast and rough for much of the next month as the boats sail under Australia, New Zealand and South America in that part of the world known as the Southern Ocean. Technically the Southern Ocean is that body of water below 60 degrees south, but sailors refer to the big waves and strong winds of the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties and Screaming Sixties as the Southern Ocean. It's a place of stark beauty and some of the most amazing sailing to be had anywhere on the planet. The weather is dominated by a series of intense low pressure systems that bring strong, moisture laden air, sudden shifts in wind direction as well as rain, hail and snow. For the navigators and weather routers the trick is to stay above the systems where strong westerly winds blow. If a low pressure happens to pass over the top of them they will get strong headwinds, not exactly ideal for a large multihull. The constant barrage of westerly winds drives the sea state into some of the largest waves on any ocean. More than waves, they are massive swells, some exceeding a hundred feet from crest to trough. On the face of the swells, smaller waves form, and between them they provide the basis for some heart thumping speeds. All of the boats will see speeds in excess of 40 knots at some point during their transit of this bleak landscape.

Doha 2006 was the first boat to find the new breeze and Paul LARSEN describes the sudden change in life and the new mood on board in his log. "With two reefs and a staysail up we are beam reaching straight down the course with the GPS log spending as much time over 30 knots as under. It's fast and wet. You can't drive for long without a full-face helmet. A few days ago I mentioned that conservation was the way of the day. Well not today. Today we feel hot and we are not holding back. Every cubic centimetre of buoyancy in the bow is being used as we obliterate a small to medium sized side swell. The boat is incredibly well balanced and just sort of sails itself around the 'sweetspot'. This here boat is right in its element so who are we to hold it back? Every now and then she gulps up a huge chunk of ocean and swamps herself in explosive spray." Staying dry is a constant battle for the crews as water crashes over the deck finding any small opening to cascade below. Larsen's log continues. "Twenty to thirty litres of water just came down through our last so-called safe breather vent and dumped itself onto the floor right next to me. I am about to head off watch and I'm going to see if any of that water got into my beloved bunk."

The Southern Ocean may be stark, but it is filled with wildlife and the first sure sign that you are in the deep south is the sight of the first albatross. On Doha 2006 skipper Brian THOMPSON described their first sighting in his log. "Saw our first albatross yesterday," he wrote. "It appeared on the bowsprit where Jonas was working. It was massive, much bigger than our strapping Swede and it passed two metres in front of him before swooping off to leeward." These majestic wandering albatross will be the constant companions of the sailors as they head east looking for fresh wind, smoother seas and the thrill that comes with knowing that you are living life on the edge.

Brian Hancock
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