The Southern Ocean -- unleashed High seas, high winds and wave-swept decks provide sailors plenty of stories

The Whitbread Watch

November 19, 1997|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Swedish Match continues to hold the lead in the Whitbread Round the World Race, and race headquarters has predicted a Monday arrival in Fremantle, Australia.

"We are going like a Boeing, crashing around . . . with a top speed of 28.7 knots," Swedish Match skipper Gunnar Krantz reported by electronic mail yesterday. "Average speed is 19 knots and has been for about four hours. Finally all the young puppies on board now realize, on a W60, what the W stands for - wet, very wet."

But while Swedish Match was 306 miles ahead of second-place Innovation Kvaerner and 1,445 miles from Fremantle early today, the Southern Ocean is beginning to roar and gear is starting to break aboard boats from first to last place.

"Today the vang attachment on the boom broke. A high-tensile steel pin with a diameter of 17 mm just sheared off," Krantz reported yesterday. "Next was the quadrant on the rudder stock. It [shifted] and all of a sudden the steering was very sloppy."

Both problems were fixed, he said, and Swedish Match was able to average nearly 20 knots for several hours until a spinnaker sheet parted and the sail was wrecked as it was recovered.

Krantz said Swedish Match is heading deeper into a stormy low pressure system to maintain speed and keeping a close eye on the barometer.

"The barometer . . . it drops like it hit the wall," said Krantz, who reported 35 knots of wind and extremely rough seas. "Tonight [Tuesday] it can be a lot of wind."

George Caras, director of operations for Commanders' Weather, the race weather office, said all nine boats can expect rougher weather as early as today.

"They are all so far south [48 to 50 degrees latitude] that they have to be careful they do not get damaged by 40- or 45-knot gusts," Caras said. "I would think that [today] there is a reasonable chance for those boats to be hit by at least 35- to 40-knot winds."

During the weekend, Innovation Kvaerner hit a whale, damaged its bow and slowed for 20 hours to make repairs. As the crew was completing that job, a rogue wave broke aboard the Norwegian entry, swept away all the starboard stanchions and the starboard steering wheel - and caused the boat to crash through a tack.

"After some struggle we got her back on track again," skipper Knut Frostad said. "No one was injured. Now the steering wheel is back on and we are sailing full speed again - but what a night."

BrunelSunergy, the Dutch entry that has been in last place, reported winds over 30 knots Saturday, Sunday and Monday, a top speed of 30.3 knots, 18-foot seas, tons of water on deck and blowing out three headsails.

"BrunelSunergy was playing a U-boat sometimes," skipper Hans Bouscholte reported. "The feeling if you surf down a wave with 25-plus speed is incredible. On port and starboard nothing [but] two walls of water. . . . This is what most people are doing the Whitbread for: surfing in the Southern Ocean."

Toshiba, the U.S. entry now under skipper Paul Standbridge, is the farthest south in the fleet, sailing at about 50 degrees, and the night watch has been checking radar for icebergs.

Monday morning, with Toshiba making close to 20 knots in more than 35 knots of wind, the topmast backstay block "disintegrated" under heavy load and hit crewman David Blanchfield in the backside at "bullet speed." Blanchfield was not seriously injured, and Standbridge said it is a reminder of how tightly wound the rigs of the Whitbread 60s are.

"There is a fine line between going flat out and staying in control with no breakages," Standbridge said. Without breakages, he said, the weather forecast for the next several days might give Toshiba a chance to break its record 24-hour run of 434.4 miles set on the Atlantic Ocean last July.

Silk Cut, the British entry skippered by Whitbread veteran Lawrie Smith, completed 425.3 miles in 24 hours from 6 a.m. Sunday to 6 a.m. Monday, but then was swept stem to stern by a monster wave.

At the time, the crew had stacked 1,000 pounds of sails on deck to help trim the boat for high speeds and was making about 25 knots.

"A solid wall of water swept aft, dragging the sails hard enough to break off every stanchion on the side of the boat and leaving the sails hanging over the side," said Silk Cut navigator Steve Hayles. "This was a major situation as losing the whole lot meant losing the whole race."

The crew managed to recover the sails and patch the holes ripped in the deck when the stanchions were ripped away.

EF Language, with skipper Paul Cayard, also had several sails ripped loose by heavy seas, tearing away stanchions and pad-eyes. The Swedish entry was able to recover all but one, unspecified sail.

Swedish Match has begun to position itself for the sprint into Fremantle, and although the leader had lost some ground during the past couple of days, the stormy forecast for the next few days is expected to benefit the boats farthest east.

It could be a case of the rich getting richer.

Pub Date: 11/19/97

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