Icebergs may force changes in Volvo race

Leg could be lengthened after Atlantic sightings

Icebergs may force alteration in course


April 25, 2002|By Candus Thomson and Joel McCord | Candus Thomson and Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

After a near disaster on Leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race left sailors shaken, officials have decided not to tangle with an iceberg field in the North Atlantic.

The race committee may establish a "no-sail zone," and order the eight boats leaving Annapolis for France on Sunday to sail far south of an area known as Iceberg Alley.

An International Ice Patrol bulletin yesterday warned that as many as 20 icebergs have been sighted in a region 250 miles off the east coast of Newfoundland, directly in the intended path of the yachts.

Although the plan would force the crews 1,450 miles south of where they want to be and add up to three days to the seventh leg of the race, they say they're happy about the change.

"Bloody right I was," says Neal McDonald, skipper of ASSA ABLOY, the boat in second place overall. "Without ice as a problem, we can drive the boats harder."

His navigator, Mark Rudiger, seconded that. "On the one hand, it slows you down, but personally it's a relief."

Race director Michael Woods says taking the precaution "completely changes the nature of this leg," but might be necessary to prevent an incident like the one in February on the run from Auckland, New Zealand, to Rio de Janeiro.

The boats had to slalom their way through ice fields in the Southern Ocean, and News Corp, the boat then in third place, slammed into a small iceberg at 29 mph.

"It was an instant shock," says Ross Field, who was at the helm. "We thought we were through the ice and all of a sudden -- bang. It hit the bow, the keel and then the rudder."

Although there appeared to be no damage to the boat, the yacht's rudder snapped off nine days later. The crew suspects the accident was responsible.

Even though News Corp was the only boat damaged by ice, the incident rattled the entire fleet and had crews discussing the North Atlantic as early as the stop in Miami two weeks ago.

"The Southern Ocean leg was a little bit of Russian roulette, and [going farther north in the Atlantic] would be the same scenario," says Rudiger.

Big icebergs show up on radar. The smaller ones -- called growlers or bergy bits -- hide in wave troughs and do not. Each yacht has computerized charts that show iceberg sightings from other boats as little triangles.

Avoiding the icebergs, however, isn't always easy. While racing at 30 mph, the yachts have a narrow steering window, about 10 degrees from left to right. Larger, emergency maneuvers at that speed can cause a boat to capsize or disintegrate.

"It was pretty horrific," says McDonald. "It was out of our control and it was frightening."

Smacking into them isn't wise, either.

"Iceberg ice is extremely dense and pressurized. It's heavy ice," says Brian Grebe, a U.S. Coast Guard marine specialist assigned to the International Ice Patrol. "Even a growler can do quite a bit of damage. That's why they're so dangerous."

The North Atlantic iceberg season runs from February to August, with most of them staying above 48 degrees North latitude, Grebe says. But the Titanic struck ice at 41 degrees, and, in that same year, 1912, an iceberg was sighted 75 miles off the Maryland coast at about 39 degrees.

Skippers like to travel what's called the "great circle route" over the Grand Banks and across the North Atlantic to cut the distance and take advantage of prevailing westerly winds.

Four years ago, the round-the-world racers ventured as far north as 45 degrees latitude. This time they may be restricted to 40 degrees, which would add about 300 miles to the 3,400-mile leg.

"It could slow us down a bit. It depends on what the weather is like farther south," said John Kostecki, skipper of illbruck Challenge. "But we support it. We'd rather be safe than sorry."

The race organizers will set route parameters at a skippers and navigators meeting Saturday morning. Should the icebergs float farther south, officials could make changes via satellite phone.

Tyco skipper Kevin Shoebridge, who braved the ice in the Southern Ocean, has no desire to do it again: "You are constantly walking the line between being fast and being unsafe."

The cold facts

Iceberg size classifications:

Category Ht. (ft) Lgth. (ft) Growler up to 3 up to 16

Bergy bit 3-13 15-46

Small 14-50 47-200

Medium 51-150 201-400

Large 151-240 401-670

Very large over 250 over 670

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