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5 February 2005, 09:21 am
The Course
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Orxy Quest 2005
Doha, Qatar

The idea of racing sailboats around the world is nothing new. The first circumnavigation race took place in 1968 when nine intrepid adventurers set off from England, bound for England, via Cape Horn. Robin KNOX-JOHNSTON, an officer in the British navy, was first to finish and the only competitor that made it all the way around. It took him 312 days to complete the course.
Fast forward to 2005. When the Oryx Quest 2005 gets underway from Doha tomorrow the world will witness the latest generation of high-tech mega-multihulls in an event certain to inspire and create awe in all who follow the progress of the yachts as they circumnavigate the planet. The first of these space-age sailing machines will arrive back in Doha less than two months after the start gun fires, covering the 27,000 mile course in around 55 days. Knox-Johnston averaged 3.2 knots for his trip; the winner of the Oryx Quest will average more than 20 knots.

The Oryx Quest 2005 will mark the first time a major international sailing event starts and finishes in the Middle East, and Doha, the capital of Qatar, is a unique place from which to set out on a voyage around the world. Located on the east coast of Qatar its location will offer some interesting tactical challenges from the outset. Once across the start line the fleet will head east and slightly north until they enter the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow strip of water that separates Oman and Iran, known for its strong currents and heavy shipping traffic. The tricky sailing will deny the sailors any rest or opportunity to settle into a routine until they have passed through the Strait and raced down the Gulf of Oman, transited the Arabian Sea and entered the Indian Ocean. Once clear of the encumbrances associated with civilisation, the fleet will free-fall south heading as quickly as possible for the strong winds of the Southern Ocean. First they will have to deal with the vagar! ies of the doldrums belt where the light, fickle wind and torrid heat will take their toll on the teams, but once across the equator they will find trade winds and pleasant sailing to take them to the cold waters of the deep south.

The Southern Ocean is that body of water that circumnavigates Antarctica known for gale force winds, mountainous seas and bone chilling temperatures. It's where the real race will begin as the giant yachts begin to clock speeds in excess of 30 knots and life is lived on a razors edge. The brave will dive deeper south looking to cut some distance off the course, but trading the gain for knuckle-biting days scanning the radar for icebergs and dodging the full intensity of the legendary frontal systems that bring dangerous winds. This is the area of the world known as the Roaring Forties and Screaming Fifties. Fortunately the wind will be from behind and the yachts will skirt under Australia and New Zealand, cross the International Date Line, losing a day, before entering the southern Pacific Ocean. At some point as they transit the Pacific the yachts will pass over a spot on the earth that is as far away from solid land as you can get. The teams will be truly alone at this p! oint.

While Cape Horn at the tip of South America usually signals a gateway to calmer conditions, this will not be so for the boats competing for the million dollar purse and the Oryx Quest Trophy. A turning mark off the coast of Uruguay has been added to the course to bring the boats up and out the Southern Ocean away from the chunks of ice that break off the Antarctic ice pack and drift north in the Weddell current. The stretch of water between Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope is particularly dangerous hence the turning mark. Once around they will drop south into the westerlies, round South Africa's Cape of Good Hope before turning north seeking warmer weather and a respite from the high-anxiety sailing. The trade winds will once again provide decent sailing conditions, the doldrums will dish up their usual mix of squalls, waterspouts, soul destroying humidity and fickle breezes, and the fleet will have to deal with shipping and currents in the Straits of Hormuz one last ti! me before making a final dash for the finish in Doha.

It's a tough course, but also a unique and interesting one. Most traditional round - the - world yacht races sail the length of the Atlantic and there is plenty of documented weather information for that region. The Persian Gulf and adjacent waters are new to offshore ocean racing, and those waters, and the transit of the Indian Ocean, will offer some tough challenges for navigators and weather routers. It's like starting with a blank slate; almost like having a whole new untraveled racecourse.

Brian Hancock
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