Under warm sunshine, but a solid 20 to 25 knot wind and a lumpy sea, the Open 60 fleet set out yesterday morning from Yaiza, Lanzarote on the second and final leg of the Regatta de Rubicon.
Nick Moloney, fresh from his record breaking Jules Verne run on 'Orange', has taken over the reins of currently second positioned Kingfisher from Ellen MacArthur. He is joined also by fellow Jules Verne sailor Hervé Jean for this second decisive 1200 mile leg that will take the highly competitive fleet of Open 60s first to the Gibraltar Straits and then on through the Mediterranean to St.Margerhita, near Genoa, Italy.
The leg splits in to two tactical legs - first from Lanzarote 750 miles to the Straits of Gibraltar - a real wind funnel. And secondly from there across the Mediterranean Sea, passing Balearic Islands, then to the north of Corsica and in to the Italian coast. The fleet are likely to see everything from 30 knots upwind, and downwind, as well as total calm. Tough on the nerves, and tiring for the crew.
The first two position reports of this morning at 0500 and 0700hrs GMT revealed no big surprises in the fleet order, as Tiscali Global Challenge (Bianchetti) remains in the lead, followed like a shadow by Kingfisher (Moloney) and Sill Plein Fruit (Jourdain). The Regata Rubicon fleet of 6 Open 60 monohulls have spent just under 24 hrs at sea and only 5 miles separates the leading trio, the greatest distance at 22 miles to back marker Temenos (Wavre).
Last night the crews got a real shakedown pushing against mountainous seas and a North Westerly blow on the nose, reducing the sails to 2 reefs in the main and either Solent or staysail. The conditions have left no options to the teams but to tough it out on port tack upwind heading North East towards the Gibraltar Straits.
Simone Bianchetti on leading boat Tiscali Global Challenge is happy with his lot: "This boat is a rocket in these conditions. This morning the wind eased and we shoved all the sail up after dodging the spray all night! We have organised the watches so that there is always a mix of French and Italian, which is good for our languages. The night watchmen have handed over the helm for us to attack the kinder breeze off the Moroccan coast."
Clearly it is an Australian voice at the other end of the radio next - Nick Moloney, the fastest Australian around the world after his Jules Verne Trophy - the skipper who has replaced Ellen MacArthur at the helm of Kingfisher. Back in the driving seat so soon after covering more than 26,000 miles of ocean in one go on the giant catamaran 'Orange', how is he finding the upwind slog compare to his downwind record breaking run? "Last night was good, the fleet are still in close contact and we're all waiting for that Westerly wind shift. We had the mainsail up with 2 reefs and Solent during the night, and had Tiscali just above us, and Sill just below! In fact, I'm pretty surprised by the new potential of Kingfisher after the refit."
A similar story was echoed by Bilou just 1.2 miles behind: "! ;We've been in some kind of ocean washing machine all night. The wind is easing off, we've got 20 knots now, and if the conditions last night were rough for the guys, I don't want to imagine how painful it was for the boat!" It was Sill Plein Fruit's winning skipper who said before the leg began that the main thing was not to break anything, as with this kind of full on crewed racing any setback would put you right into the pit lanes for good.
Each yacht is on the same heading between 43 and 50, and the fleet are 140 miles from the Gibraltar Straits, and every skipper not letting up a split second to give even a slight advantage over their racing companions. "Now is not the time to be trying anything radical, even if my mind is ticking over with options," Bilou added, the priority clear for those at the helm is to focus on pure boat speed and make gains to the North East without too much stress on the boat. Sill's Breton skipper ended: "It's a difficult task for the helmsman, especially at night when you can't see the waves coming. It's been a full immersion in every sense for the guys who've just joined the second leg."
Fourth placed Bobst Group - Armor Lux (Stamm) is covering Virbac (Dick) in their own match race to the lee of the leaders, and yet the Swiss skipper will also looking over the other shoulder and attacking the 4 mile gap between his boat and Sill Plein Fruit to windward.
The Westerly blow awaited by all will not pick up the fleet before tomorrow according to the weather models. On the other hand some relief that the sea will get calmer in the hours that follow.