The two American adventurers sailing non-stop from Hong Kong to New York celebrated a major milestone today as they navigated clear of the dangers of South Africa's treacherous Agulhas Current and entered the Atlantic Ocean.
Rich Wilson and Rich du Moulin reported that their 53-foot trimaran Great American II was just 74 nautical miles south of Cape Town, enjoying moderate winds and seas as they headed northwest for New York before a following breeze.
In their 11-week-long 15,000-mile voyage the pair is aiming to break the 154-year-old passage record set by the extreme New York clipper ship Sea Witch which raced her cargo of tea to Manhattan's waiting markets in 74 days. They are enduring the cramped, uncomfortable conditions in their small boat in the name of education - reaching out to 360,000 school children with a real-time learning adventure on the Internet, and in supporting newspapers, through Wilson's www.sitesALIVE.com website.
"It feels like we have been trying to round Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of the African continent, for the entire voyage,"
du Moulin reported today. "The past week has been an endless battle against winds that were too light or too strong, and always from the wrong direction: west. With the Agulhas Current pushing us strongly we were always able to make positive distance every day, but the westerly winds against the current sometimes made for very unpleasant waves."
Du Moulin estimated they were 90 miles ahead of the position reported by the Sea Witch, which also rounded the Cape on her 37th day at sea.
In a companion message, Wilson noted that sailors have read for ages about the appalling sea conditions in the strong-flowing easterly current on the Agulhas Bank that set up when powerful westerly winds generate giant, steep waves with a confused wave pattern. "Huge ships have been known to break in half and, comparable to rogue waves, there are rogue holes that ships plunge into,"
"We had a strategy for clearing the Agulhas Bank ahead of an advancing cold front but we were becalmed and then got hammered by a low pressure trough in advance of the front. Within five minutes of the wind hitting us we were scrambling to lower sail right down to three reefs and the staysail, then to just a corner of the staysail. We could make no miles west and ran off to the south.
"All afternoon and night my heart was in my throat. How much abuse can GAII take? I pat her from time to time, which sounds silly I'm sure, but I have tremendous affection for this boat that has taken me and shown me the great oceans of the world, and she has always defended me in storms, and has excused my sail-handling mistakes with her tremendous strength.
"But how can she be strong enough to put up with the utterly extraordinary off-the-charts forces and loads exerted by tens of thousand of pounds of water crashing into her from all angles. I cringe at every onslaught; I wince and grunt as if punched in the stomach when she takes a particularly bad one. Somehow, she shakes them off and rises to confront the next wave. And, together, we move on."
Wilson said that in their nighttime plunge southward they sighted the enormous gas flare of the offshore oil platform Ocean Patriot, complete with a tanker moored nearby, and hailed it on the radio.
"I told the operator in maritime lingo 'This is the sailing vessel Great American II, 36 days out of Hong Kong, bound for New York.' I love saying that on the radio. It harkens back to the old days when ships identified their route and time at sea. Captain Bully Waterman of the Sea Witch mentions several times in his log that he 'spoke the bark ....., 14 days out of Canton for Falmouth.' I just love that, it tells so much, in so few words.
"The radio operator asked if we were stopping in Cape Town, I said no, we were headed non-stop, and explained our school program. He wished us well and we signed off."
As they sailed through this legendary patch of water, Wilson reflected on the milestone in their own journey but also paid homage to all the great explorers who have sailed this route before them.
"This morning at 8:02 am, we passed the longitude of Cape Agulhas, one of the Great Capes of the world. What a feeling!"
wrote Wilson in his log. "We have rounded a continent, and a major maritime hurdle and historical point. Think of the great explorers who made their way down this coast looking for a route around to the treasures of the East. They all sailed RIGHT HERE. It is, in the most literal sense of the word, awe-inspiring."
Some 360,000 schoolchildren are following this adventure on a daily basis through the sitesALIVE! educational program--and the students are learning about maths, weather, problem-solving, and other disciplines in the context of GAII's live drama. Some of these students hope to be in New York when the vessel reaches its final destination. If GAII can beat Sea Witch's pace, the boat will arrive in New York sometime the week of May 26.