For long periods on this leg, hardened offshore veterans wondered whether they had stumbled upon the wrong postcode when they found cross-country skiing where a mogul run should have been. Even rookies cast doubt on the validity of legendary tales they’d heard. But 48 hours ago, the Southern Ocean awoke from its slumber and delivered 50-knot gusts and nine-metre seas. Welcome to the latitude with attitude – 40-60 degrees South.
When the Southern Ocean decided it was time to live up to its billing, it did so with all the force of a wrecking ball. The rookies doubted no longer, and the Whitbread/Volvo vets were in their element.
Ericsson 4’s Jules Salter, who is competing in his second Volvo having been aboard Pirates Of The Caribbean in the 2005-06 race, has, like the rest of the navigation brotherhood, been chasing a ride on a low pressure system towards Cape Horn.
The centre of that low best illustrated the fearsome reputation of this lonely part of the planet.
"Yesterday will be remembered as a day when we got a good pasting from the Southern Ocean,” he wrote in an email this afternoon.
"In line with the forecast and from observations of the low we have been tracking, we met some of its mighty force today. It’s all very well looking at the numbers and predictions and graphics on your laptop of the bright red wind barbs and orange shading moving towards you, but reality is a lot harder and more uncomfortable.”
Salter added that the last 31 days have taken their toll on mind, body and boat. "On deck the guys are showing signs of wear and tear from the constant salt spray and cold. People are tired and the freeze-dried diet and Chinese snacks don't really cut it in the energy stakes. This is when the crews dig deep to keep it all together in boat and people-breaking conditions.”
As for the rookies, Salter reports they are taking it in their stride, in this school of hard knocks. Witness Salter’s account of a near conversation with bowman and fresher Ryan Godfrey. “Ryan came below dripping wet in his survival suit goggles and harness and was halfway through telling me how short the sea was and how bad the nosedives were, when the boat stood on end,” Salter recalls.
"I slid along my nav station seat and he disappeared mid-sentence and flew five metres and hit the mast bulkhead. The Flying Adelaide Atom was launched in his yellow jumpsuit like a human cannonball, luckily he was not hurt but the effect is like being stood on a train when the emergency brakes get slammed on. It’s not the flight that hurts but the deceleration when you meet something solid, like the mast. That hurts.
"Yesterday some of the gusts were over 55 knots. A wipe out at 30+ knots doesn’t bear thinking about (although I do all the time).”
Green Dragon skipper Ian Walker, himself a first-timer, viewed the hostile conditions as a “perfect recipe for breaking boats, masts, sails and people”. The main image today is a screen grab from a dramatic video entitled “Big Winds and Heavy Seas” now showing on .tv.
Walker added that the Irish-Chinese entry had opted for discretion over valour when conditions were at their worst.
"We sailed a slightly conservative line to avoid the peak winds of the low pressure and have throttled back on several occasions as the slamming of the hull became intolerable. It is a decision I am happy with. Deep in the Southern Ocean, 1,000 miles from anywhere, is not the place for hoisting the 'hero' flag.”
Telefonica Blue skipper Bouwe Bekking has also resisted putting the pedal fully to the metal. The Dutchman is mindful of coaxing his jury-rigged boat to Rio in one piece.
"The sea is confused, and there is good pressure, we have been changing from masthead to fractional sails and vice versa,” he said. “We only sail with so-called tight luff sails, as these have a strong cable in the front of the sail, which works more or less like a forestay. I have been asked if we should put the biggest spinnaker up, but I have vetoed it.
"No point in pushing to the limit, this reduces the risk of damage to the boat, or worse, to a crew member. We are sailing fast but not on the edge.”
On long-time leader Ericsson 3, there is also talk of limits – and records – from navigator Aksel Magdahl. “We are sailing on the borderline of what boat and crew can take,” he said.
"As I am writing this, the wind speed average over the past hour has been 38 knots, 46-50 in the gusts, and they are frequent. Just before I got up from my bunk I noticed 56 knots on the instrument by the nav station. I think this is a record wind speed for Ericsson 3 so far.
"The boat's movements are violent, and one can feel how she twists in every wind gust or when landing after launching off a wave. Most guys keep a nervous eye at the wind speed on the instruments down below while feeling and judging the impact of every wave, dozing off every now and then. The bunk and sleeping bag become one's "home", the only private hiding spot onboard.”
PUMA’s Media Crew Member Rick Deppe reported that this was everything the travel guides said it would be. He added that it was at times like these that the helmsmen really earn their corn. And dressing for the occasion is vital, as this video shows.
"Well this is what we signed up for,” he wrote. “It's a bit wet and wild in our little corner of the universe today. Big waves and a 47 knots, which is a lot for one of these boats.
"Our primary helmsmen, Rob (Salthouse), Sid (Gavignet), Erle (Williams) and Justin (Ferris) have been doing an amazing job keeping the boat on the rails. Driving the boat in these conditions requires the driver to take in an infinite number of visual inputs every second he is on the wheel: wind-speed, heading, boat orientation, crew safety.
"Like a jockey, the helmsman is feeling the boat through his boots and through his hands on the wheel; the boat is talking to him and he to it.
"The helmsman must constantly process all this data and make instant decisions – gently coaxing the boat in the direction he wants to go or physically muscling the wheel, letting the feisty thoroughbred know that he's running the show.
"The helmsman goes through this process whilst being physically pounded by tons of water rolling across the deck up to three feet deep. The crew can protect themselves, they can turn away from the spray or find a little corner to hide in. The helmsman must stand square to it, looking forward and taking the full force of every wave.”
The bad news for the fleet was delivered by Mark Chisnell this morning, who suggested that the crews can expect more of the same for the Cape Horn rounding, likely to be around ZULU time tomorrow morning for the leaders.
This was borne out by Ian Walker, who said: “It looks like the elements are saving one last strong throw of the dice in the shape of more gale force winds which will hit us just before the Horn.”
By the 16:00 GMT Position Report, Ericsson 3 was eyeing maximum points at the Cape Horn waypoint – less than 400 miles away. The Nordics held a 48-mile lead over the sister ship which in turn had a 140-mile buffer to PUMA. Green Dragon was 270 miles off the lead.
Telefonica Blue (+814), operating in a completely different weather system to the rest, is also in the thick of the Furious Fifties and unlikely to be helped too much by the expected compression beyond the Horn.
Finally, a note reaches Race HQ, from Captain Felipe Garcia-Huidobro of the Chilean Navy, the sentinels of Cape Horn. “The Chilean Navy is very proud to welcome Volvo Ocean Race crews in the southern part of South America,” he wrote. “We have in the area, the Maritime Control, located in the Cape's lighthouse, and in case of emergency, our organization and assets will be in conditions to support the boats.”