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17 April 2003, 10:45 am
Pushing to Keep the Pace in Large Confused Seas
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China Tea Trade Clipper Ship Route
Indian Ocean

The course of Great American II, the 53-foot trimaran sailing from Hong Kong to New York to challenge a 154-year-old passage record, has mirrored that of her nemesis Sea Witch this week.

Although Sea Witch sailed this passage well over a century ago, the wake of the clipper ship is very present to modern adventurers Rich Wilson (Rockport, Mass.) and Rich du Moulin(Larchmont, N.Y.) on Great American II.

"GAII and Sea Witch have been winding through each others' wakes thepast two weeks," said crewmember du Moulin. "Imagine if we were here at the same time: we probably would have sighted each other. It's a real race to the Cape!"

The path these two vessels have cut across the Indian Ocean is the only thing they have in common: 32 days out of Hong Kong, Great American II is reporting sea conditions unlike anything Sea Witch had encountered thus far. For much of the week, GAII has been sailing in large, confused seas-and this boat and her crew have been getting thrashed.

"How can a boat survive such a beating?" queried Wilson in a satellite email. "GAII is all heart and incredible strength, but even she must have a limit. The forces that have been exerted on her since Saturday are overwhelming. Waves that shock the pontoon, that then shocks the rig: you wonder how could it possibly be still standing? How could that pontoon not have caved in yet?"

In stark contrast, in Sea Witch's logs of January 1849, Captain Robert "Bully" Waterman recounted a string of pleasant days at this point in the journey, with lighter winds and clear weather.

The trimaran's course is north of the clipper ship's, but both vessels are neck-and-neck. The logged positions for day 32 are approximately equidistant from the Cape of Good Hope.

This week's reports from the GAII crew don't focus as much on the horse race taking place over the span of thousands of ocean miles: Wilson and du Moulin are pushing as hard as they dare, trying to preserve their boat, and reporting on the rigors of daily life inside what Wilson has dubbed "a washing machine." GAII has had a Global Positioning System (GPS) failure, so they switched to the backup GPS antenna and were able to calculate their position. But every time a wave hits, the jarring motion causes them to lose their position.

"Of course, if you had a new stereo system, and every 60 seconds or so, hit the shelf it was on from the underside with a sledgehammer to make it jump off the shelf, after a while you wouldn't expect it to work," explains Wilson. "That is exactly what we have here. The GPS transceiver is next to my bunk. When these waves hit the underside of the cross beam, it lifts me right off the bunk, and it hurts: make no mistake, it hurts. So how could electronics possibly survive?"

Even provisions are not safe from the conditions. When he went to get a snack, Skipper Rich Wilson found one inch of water in their snack bin; then found soup and oatmeal in four inches of water in another bin. Wilson went on deck to learn that water was forcing its way through the sealed port-side solar panel cable hole that comes in through the side of the boat. "Every wave that was crashing tons of water into that side of the boat was forcing a drop through there," he said. The drops accumulated until some provisions and pots and pans were swimming in seawater.

The crew on GAII did not expect to find these sea conditions so soon in their passage. The size of the waves--reported from 10 to 18 feet, with some waves swelling to 25 feet with crests--is not the sole problem: it is the waves' confused patterns. Earlier in the week, Wilson reported seas that seemed to arise out of nowhere and descend on the boat.

But the crew's concern is not just focused on the present tumult onboard: they are wondering what lies ahead. "It is known that off the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Agulhas that the appalling seas can break ships in half," reported Wilson earlier this week. "We are 1300 miles from there, but from our satellite imagery, we know that we are in an eddy of current that must be contributing to this confusion. If this is what it is like off Madagascar, what can it be possibly like off the Cape if we get the wrong weather?"

GAII's next waypoint is the Cape of Good Hope, where she'll turn north into the Atlantic Ocean and head for the finish line at New York's Statue of Liberty.

Keith Taylor
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