Favorable wind blows Silk Cut to 24-hour record British yacht's wild ride covers 449.26 miles

November 22, 1997|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Late last week, Silk Cut, the British entry in the Whitbread Round the World Race for the Volvo Trophy, apparently set a world record for the fastest 24-hour run by a single-hulled sailing yacht -- 449.26 nautical miles, an average of 18.7 knots.

In e-mail reports to race headquarters, Silk Cut navigator Steve Hayles recounted the 24-hour run, which began at 8: 20 GMT Wednesday as the fleet raced across the frigid Southern Ocean.

"We have worked hard on keeping the boat in one piece," Hayles reported Thursday morning. "Although we have had problems, we have solved them quickly, or the backups have saved the day."

Before the run began, Silk Cut was trailing Paul Cayard and EF Language by 70 miles, and, Hayles said, there was concern aboard the British boat that the stormy low-pressure system it had been sailing in would pass it by and allow EF Language to gain even more ground.

"We had to push as hard as we could, knowing this was a critical point in the race," Hayles said, "and the weather system gave us a little break, moving a little slower than forecast and allowing us to stay in it."

With wind speeds averaging well into the 30-knot range and seas building steadily, Hayles said Silk Cut struggled to keep its largest spinnaker up, and as the wind increased and the waves built larger, the miles began to blaze by.

"Wave height is a function of how much wind you have and how long it has been blowing. The longer it goes on, the longer the waves get and the faster they allow you to sail," said Hayles. "There used to be a rule on the old clipper ships that the helmsmen should not look behind them. You can understand why when you look aft from the main hatch [aboard Silk Cut]."

Each wave crest, Hayles said, towers above the helmsman as it approaches, and then the boat rises, stern first, on the face of the wave and, with clear wind in its sails, shoots into the trough ahead.

"Looking forward, things seem far more sensible, although we have had one or two waves which have been extremely steep," Hayles said. "The trouble in these waves is that you risk plowing into the wall of water in front of you [which] slows the boat very quickly, makes a broach [sudden loss of control] possible and places enormous loads on the rig."

The trick, Hayles said, is to maintain control by tightening or loosening the lines that control spinnaker shape and position at exactly the right times to keep the front of the boat up and the rudder in the water at the back of the boat. And doing it right dozens of times an hour over a period of several days.

Even with near-perfect control during the record run, as wind speed and wave height increased, Silk Cut changed down to a smaller spinnaker, which Hayles said was somewhat slower but also safer.

"But the wind gods came up trumps again, and we got a few more knots more wind during the hours of darkness, which meant the smaller spinnaker was perfect," Hayles said, adding that during two successive six-hour periods Silk Cut averaged nearly 19 knots. "Things were looking good with a potential record-breaking run in the cards."

Overnight during the run, Silk Cut lost its instruments for a short while, Hayles said, a breakdown as potentially disruptive as a blown-out sail.

"The boys rely on instruments 100 percent at night," Hayles said. " and even a small fuse blowing and a tiny instrument light going out could result in a serious wipeout."

Silk Cut maintained its standard watch pattern through the 24-hour run, although on several occasions standby crew were called on deck when additional manpower was needed suddenly.

"The hardest thing at night is not being able to see the little squalls coming through," Hayles said. "During the day you can see them. If you can't see anything, it is very hard to know how much more is coming and how long it will last."

Smith, the skipper, sent word that while he was "delighted" to have regained the record first set by his crew on Intrum Justitia in the last Whitbread, he is "looking forward to doing 480."

Intrum Justitia covered 428.7 nautical miles in 24 hours, a record that was broken by Toshiba, a U.S. entry in this race, last July with 434.4 nautical miles.

The record still must be sanctioned by the International Sailing Federation.

Whitbread update


Status: Day 14, Leg 2


Boat Nautical miles to finish

1. Swedish Match 539.2

2. Innovation Kvaerner 832.5

3. Toshiba 953.1

4. Silk Cut 1,096.9

5. EF Language 1,132.3

6. Chessie Racing 1,240.3

7. Merit Cup 1,502.8

8. EF Education 1,568.0

9. BrunelSunergy 1,623.2

(as of 00: 2: 25GMT)

Boat beat: EF Language crew member Curtis Blewitt clung desperately near the top of the mast Friday as the yacht hit high winds and the helmsman lost control. Sailing fifth, EF Language was challenging Silk Cut for fourth place. With Blewitt up the mast, the crew was resetting the spinnaker when the drama began. "We were repairing the spinnaker from an earlier, smaller mistake," said skipper Paul Cayard. "It opened before it got to the top, the helmsman lost control and spun into the wind. Curtis was up the rig while it was shaking violently. I thought he was going to die."

Weather: SW winds 25-40 knots.

Note: Information compiled from the Whitbread Round the World Race Web site at www.whitbread.org

Pub Date: 11/22/97

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