Southern exposure can be a chilling experience Treacherous conditions abound on 4,600-mile leg

September 21, 1997|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Geographers and cartographers label it with different names, but blue-water racers know it as the Southern Ocean, that expanse of chaos and calamity that girdles the globe beneath the five great capes of the Southern Hemisphere.

The Track Chart of the World published by the Defense Mapping Agency Hydrographic Center in Washington terms the regions of the Southern Ocean as the South Atlantic, South Pacific and Indian oceans. The fleet in the coming Whitbread Round the World Race will have close encounters with each of them.

But since the race began in 1973, it has been the lower expanse of the Indian Ocean - between the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa and ports in Australia - that has produced the most treacherous conditions. Four sailors have been lost at sea during the six runnings of the Whitbread, and three of the deaths occurred in that stretch.

Not even the dozens of passages of storm-fraught and fabled Cape Horn at the tip of South America have rivaled the gales that rampage from the west in the Roaring 40s - named after the latitude on the globe - between Cape Town, South Africa, and Fremantle, Australia.

In the 1997-'98 Whitbread, the course has been separated into nine legs, and the fleet has been limited to Whitbread 60s, a class designed expressly for this style of racing. Eight of the 10 boats were designed by Bruce Farr and Associates of Annapolis.

The boats can be expected to be faster than last time around, when elapsed times were the fastest ever, and the crews can be expected to be better. Perhaps, the shorter legs from Sydney to Auckland, Fort Lauderdale to Baltimore and La Rochelle to the finish at Southampton will be more forgiving.

But as ever, prevailing winds and heavy following seas and how to use or overcome them will go a long way toward determining who wins.

The tentative start from Cape Town is Nov. 8, a time of year when the far south of the Indian Ocean can be a dangerous place and the 4,600 nautical miles to Fremantle can seem endless.

"This is an endurance race, and you have to adjust to long stretches offshore," said Grant Spanhake of Annapolis, a veteran of two Whitbreads who will sail aboard Chessie, the Baltimore-Annapolis entrant. "But it also requires several periods of intensity every day."

The crew will sail in four-hour shifts around the clock - four hours on, four hours on standby and four hours off unless there is an emergency aboard. Emergencies are not uncommon in the Southern Ocean, where sustained westerlies can reach 70 mph for extended periods.

"So, in effect, you are sailing three to four yacht races every day," said Spanhake, 38. "And in every case, you want to keep your top possible speed, so the sailing is incredibly intense."

The shortest distance between two points on the globe is called a great circle route, but in the case of Leg 2, the great circle to Fremantle involves seas pocked with drift ice and icebergs and snowy gales - even at the height of summer in the Southern

Hemisphere. From Cape Town east, through the Roaring 40s, it is a stormy passage at best to Fremantle, even when sailing north of the remote Kerguelen Islands, generally the northern limit of ice in summer.

North of about 40 degrees south, winds are steady westerlies, and, below that latitude, strong gales are frequent and boat damage and injuries to the crew are an accepted part of the race - but it also is where boat speeds climb to record levels, with extended periods approaching 20 knots.

Low pressure systems that produce the November gales on this leg hold the key to being first into Fremantle - unless the Roaring 40s reduce a craft to rubble. Sailing too far south of a stormy low will produce an easterly wind and for a period force a change in direction off the best course to Fremantle and a loss in elapsed time, if not boat speed.

"When you get down there," said Mark Fischer, president of Chessie Racing, "you sort of have to make your best guess. Even with weather satellites and meteorologists, you have to read the local weather and give it your best shot at the time."

At that time, the best boats will be less than a month at sea, and the worst might well struggle to stay afloat.

Rick Deppe of Annapolis raced aboard Fortuna in the last Whitbread and found the long ocean legs of this race require an attitude adjustment.

"We were trying to do sail changes and tacks and things as fast as possible, just like in racing around the buoys," said Deppe, 33, who will be aboard Chessie. "In the Whitbread, that just won't do. After all, in this race, the buoys are islands and continents, and if you blow out a sail a third of the way into a leg, you have to continue on without it."

The same applies to broken masts, rudders, arms, legs or collarbones.

Deppe said the ability to work together with a "good combination safety and seamanship" is mandatory in the Southern Ocean.

"You have to learn to sail the boat with six guys at the most, and these are a lot of boat to be sailed by those few," said Deppe. "But you don't want to get an 'off' watch on deck unless you have to - they have done their share and have earned their rest."

It's four-hour rotations around the clock for days on end while the hull shakes, the rigging rattles and the psyche rolls from exhilaration to terror.

"You know you are going to be scared to death part of the time," said Chessie bowman Jerry Kirby. "But that is why you go."

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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