Windy Southern Ocean a wild ride for Whitbread

On the Outdoors

November 16, 1997|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Early last week, members of the 12-man crew aboard Chessie reported they had been wearing shorts and sunglasses as the Maryland entry in the Whitbread Round the World Race headed south into that area of the world sailors call the Southern Ocean.

The Southern Ocean is the band of open sea that girdles the globe between the southern hemisphere continents and Antarctica. It is, for the most part, cold, windswept and removed from the sea lanes traveled by commercial ships able to speed from Cape Town, South Africa, to ports in Australia, New Zealand and the Far East regardless of wind strengths and weather conditions.

For the nine crews in the Whitbread, the Southern Ocean between Cape Town and Fremantle, Australia, is a speed course, where ferocious gales can howl out of the west for days and speed records under sail can be set.

By Friday, as leader Swedish Match and second-place Innovation Kvaerner (Norway) sailed deep into latitudes known as the Roaring 40s, the Southern Ocean had begun to live up to its billing.

"We've been sailing in winds gusting up to 51 knots while snowing heavily," Swedish Match skipper Gunnar Krantz reported as the race leader hurtled at near-record speed in a low-pressure system picked up just past the Prince Edwards Islands. "After almost two days of really hard sailing, with 424 miles in 24 hours, we're convinced that the Whitbread 60s are as wet as ever."

The record for a 24-hour run by a monohull is 428.7 miles, set in the Southern Ocean by the maxi-racer Intrum Justitia in the last Whitbread. The boat that can top that record in this race is eligible for a prize of 50,000 pounds ($86,076).

"The most amazing moment was when we had a gust between 48 and 50 knots," Krantz reported by electronic mail. "Sailing with a jib, staysail and two reefs in the main, [Swedish Match] was roaring down the waves, but several times just powered uphill on the backside of the wave in front at 23 knots."

Krantz reported one steering wheel has broken and so much water was over the deck that the boat's water-activated emergency location beacon (EPIRB) set itself off. Other breakage aboard has included an afterguy and a lifeline stanchion, and collision with an unknown object has damaged the rudder.

Innovation Kvaerner, skippered by Knut Frostad, trails Swedish Match by some 200 miles, but was sailing in the same weather system as the Norwegian entry passed the Iles Crozet.

"A rather dramatic night on board," Frostad reported at midday Friday. "Around 1 a.m. this morning, we were just a few meters from missing a whale while surfing down the waves doing 20 knots boatspeed.

"About one hour later, a big wave broke over the side, breaking all the webbing strops holding the sails on the rail as well as breaking a few stanchions."

One broken stanchion left a hole in the deck, and Frostad reported that several crew members were awakened by cold ocean water pouring through into their sleeping bags. Still, the racer was making more than 18 knots in 28 to 34 knots of wind.

"This is some of the hardest sailing on board," Frostad said. "The boat really jumps from wave to wave and life down below is just a big wet mess."

Toshiba, the U.S. entry skippered by Paul Standbridge (Chris Dickson resigned after the first leg), is in third place and at the tail end of the low-pressure system that is building the margin for Swedish Match and Innovation Kvaerner.

But while the first three boats are pulling away in the wet and cold, the remaining six have been sailing in high-pressure weather that Merit Cup skipper Grant Dalton calls "unprecedented.

"To the casual observer, it would appear that there is a bunch of hotshots out front who must be so much better than us clowns back here," said Dalton, who has sailed in every Whitbread race since 1974.

Aboard Chessie, which has been sailing in eighth place, some 700 miles behind Swedish Match, watch captain Grant Spanhake reported at midweek that "the mood has been doom and gloom" and the Southern Ocean should "be renamed the Whispering 40s."

Soon enough, though, the ocean will roar for the entire fleet.

Whitbread update

Status: Day 8, Leg 2


Boat ... Nautical miles to finish

1. Swedish Match 2,559.5

2. Innovation Kvaerner 2,824.0

3. Toshiba 2,961.4

4. EF Language 3,371.8

5. Merit Cup 3,385.1

6. Chessie Racing 3,415.2

7. Silk Cut 3,428.9

8. EF Education 3,431.9

9. BrunelSunergy 3,435.7

(as of 00: 2: 00 GMT)

Boat beat: Daily report from Chessie: "It's bloody cold down here at 44 degrees south. Yesterday, we celebrated Juan Vila's birthday by smuggling aboard a miniature bottle of rum. To Juan's credit, and our dismay, he didn't drink his present, but sacrificed the rum to the sea gods. We tried to tell him that the sea gods wouldn't be happy with rum. Juan would have no part of it, and poured the contents into the ocean." -- Grant "Fuzz" Spanhake, watch captain.

Weather: The leading boats will continue to see south to southwest winds of 20-35 knots.

Note: Information compiled from the Whitbread Round the World Race Web site at

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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