Gulf Stream battle heats up Three routes to current produce different results: Boats to south are winners

May 06, 1998|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Forty-eight hours after starting Leg 8 of the Whitbread Round the World Race, the nine boats racing to La Rochelle, France, yesterday were reaching easterly at 12 to 14 knots and piecing together the puzzle of navigating the Gulf Stream.

The fleet has been trading positions at each position report. At today's first report at midnight (GMT), Monaco's Merit Cup had a 2.5-mile lead over second-place Silk Cut of Britain. Maryland entry Chessie Racing, which had led Monday, was in ninth place, 14.2 miles behind Merit Cup.

Since leaving the Chesapeake Bay, the fleet has spread in three groups, north to south, but only .3 mile separates Silk Cut and Swedish Match, which moved into third place, 2.8 miles behind Merit Cup, after riding in last place earlier yesterday.

"Yesterday [Monday] morning we popped out of the Chesapeake in a W60 procession, and since then the fleet has fanned out," EF Education navigator Lynnath Beckley wrote in an e-mail yesterday. "It appears that all the boats are taking the southern routing option, utilizing the Gulf Stream to varying degrees to get easting before heading up toward Newfoundland to get round the central Atlantic high pressure zone."

Monday night, Beckley said, EF Education picked up the Gulf Stream, and "the big blue roller coaster" was adding 2 to 3 knots of current as the women's team and the rest of the fleet reached across a 15- to 20-knot southerly breeze.

"The main strategic issue since we left the coast of Maryland has been how to approach the Gulf Stream and how to position yourself . . . for the expected changes in wind direction and speed over the next 48 hours," said Innovation Kvaerner skipper Knut Frostad, who has chosen to sail the Norwegian entry southerly and easterly to pick up the full strength of the north-flowing Gulf Stream. "This is a long-term investment. . . . [although already we have made] good gains on the northerly boats and have had up to 5 knots of current with us."

Several skippers reported the change in water temperature that signals entrance to the Stream, with readings generally changing from 13 degrees Celsius to 27 degrees.

On board overall leader EF Language of Sweden, skipper Paul Cayard reported the team's first-line water maker broke and the back-up broke as well - and the crew was faced with the possibility of sailing 3,000 miles on negligible freshwater supplies or putting into a port for repairs.

"The emergency, hand-held water maker makes 1 cup of water per hour; a lot of work for very little water," Cayard said. "Would we have to pull into Halifax [Nova Scotia] and take a big loss on this leg, or would we go for it and hope to catch some rainwater? Did I want to risk everyone's lives, or was it time to realize this is just a sport?"

During a period of more than six hours, crew members worked the handheld unit and produced more than 4 quarts, while other crew members worked over the water maker, rebuilding it and remounting it five times before it began to function properly.

"When it worked, you have never seen a happier group of people," Cayard said. Food carried on the racers is freeze-dried and requires large amounts of water to be reconstituted.

On the racing front, EF Language and Swedish Match, second overall, had been sailing close together since leaving Chesapeake Bay.

"We believe that the proper route was the one Merit Cup and Kvaerner are on, more southerly than ours," said Cayard, whose strategy is to finish ahead of Swedish Match at almost any cost and protect his lead in the point standings. "This should get them into [the strength of] the Gulf Stream first, and, in my opinion, they are not paying much in the way of speed [now] for that future benefit."

Already, with today's first position report, Merit Cup's plan appears to have worked.

Cayard and EF Language navigator Mark Rudiger said the current position of the central Atlantic high pressure system [Azores High] will be a confounding factor as the boats sail north toward Newfoundland.

"The Azores High is wildly out of place at the moment and is forecast to be right on top of us by Friday," said Cayard, adding that by then the leaders will have reached the northernmost limits of the course allowed by race officials.

The limit mark at 46N/45W was put in to ensure the racers do not encounter ice and fog on the Grand Banks, where the cold Labrador Current meets the edge of the warm Gulf Stream.

"If the high stays north, we will be squeezed up against the limit mark trying to stay out from under the center of the high, which has no wind," Cayard said. "This could have the effect of slowing the leaders who arrive there first and allowing the trailers to catch up."

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