At 02:00 GMT (15:00 local) on Sunday 29 January, the five double-handed, Global Ocean Race (GOR) Class40s will cross the Leg 3 start line in Lambton Harbour off the city of Wellington, New Zealand, for the 6,200-mile course through the Pacific Ocean, around Cape Horn and through the South Atlantic to the finish line in Punta del Este, Uruguay. Leg 3 will take the GOR Class40s through the Pacific’s high-latitudes on the classic round-the-world race route and in addition to intense low pressure systems spinning off Antarctica and sweeping east across the fleet, there is the increasing frequency of icebergs drifting north from Antarctica’s ice shelves. Consequently, over the past few months, the GOR Race Committee has been monitoring the presence of ice in the Pacific Ocean.
In addition to the non-scoring, Felipe Cubillos Cape Horn Gate stretching north-south through Drake Passage between Horn Island and the Antarctic Peninsula, the bluQube Scoring Gate running north-south and located at 127.30W with a southern limit at 47S will double as a safety limit, bringing the fleet north from the threat of known and extensive ice fields.
For Josh Hall, Race Director of the GOR, the safety of the Class40 fleet is of paramount importance, but imposing safety measures without devaluing the unique excitement of high latitude racing is a delicate issue: “Finding the right balance between setting some responsible limits that allow a fleet to navigate through potentially severe weather conditions in an unrestricted way and keeping the spirit of high adventure alive is not an easy one for any race organisers,” Hall confirms. “We believe we have chosen the right path by requiring the fleet to pass above 47S at 127.30W and allowing them freedom of navigation either side of this,” he adds.
The risk of ice and the positioning of safety limits is a priority for round-the-world events, whether races or record attempts and advances in satellite imagery have been crucial in analysing and evaluating the threat of collision in the remote ocean encircling Antarctica. In the double-handed, IMOCA Open 60, 2010-11 Barcelona World Race (BWR), a South Atlantic ice limit was imposed while the fleet was racing towards the Cape of Good Hope; in the Indian Ocean, the BWR shifted the ice limits north mid-race and increased the number.
The most recent single-handed Vendée Globe also shifted their eastern Pacific safety gate as the IMOCA fleet spilled into the Pacific Ocean, leaving a fairly narrow and very steep, 1,400-mile descent to Cape Horn. Just over a year ago, the Velux 5 Oceans installed a safety limit in the Pacific and, most recently, in mid-December last year during their Jules Verne record attempt, Loïck Peyron and his crew on Banque Populaire V were routed through an ice field by Marcel van Triest using satellite imagery and nerves of steel, bringing the 40 metre maxi trimaran north from 56S to 50S.
The iceberg information collected by the GOR has been analysed and shared with the teams in Wellington: “We have shown our skippers the ice data we have but there are no guarantees,” warns Hall. “They must be extremely vigilant on this tough next leg.” There has been some resistance to the Southern Ocean waypoint. “We know that one or two of our sailors would prefer a ‘no-limits’ leg, but we would be irresponsible to agree to this,” he states. “If one boat dives very South there will be enormous pressure on the others to do the same, putting them a long way outside their comfort zones,” Hall explains. “Circumnavigations without any sort of restrictions are the sole domain of sailors on a private sojourn around the planet,” he adds. “Race organisers have to adopt a somewhat more prudent position.”
Icebergs around the fringes of the Antarctic continent are well documented and monitored via National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA using Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellites. A cluster of icebergs in the Amundsen Sea, 1,400 miles SSW of Cape Horn, including the 44x24-mile B22A, pose no threat to the GOR fleet and nor do the 11 icebergs currently occupying the Weddell Sea, although the 21x12-mile slab of ice tagged C19C is currently 600 miles SSE of Cape Horn and 100 miles east of the tip of Graham Land on the Antarctic Peninsula.
One of the main causes of concern further away from the coast of Antarctica in the southern Pacific Ocean are the remnants of the colossal iceberg B-I5; a mammoth berg originally estimated at three billion tons with a surface area of 4,200 square miles. B-15 calved from Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf in 2000, fragmenting into large sections, many of which drifted north, notably B-15A which fragmented further into B-15K and B-15J and continued to drift through the Southern Ocean, fragmenting and sub-dividing with the ancient ice currently spread across the Pacific at the bottom of the planet. Although crew-vigilance during daylight and on board radar at night can offset some of the risks, sending a racing fleet into B-15’s remnants is unacceptable: “Most would say that racing a Class40 hard across the Southern Ocean and round Cape Horn was adventure enough, without traversing known ice fields,” Hall believes.
Simon Kearsley, head of the browser-based financial and management accounting software company and GOR sponsor, has supported offshore racing for many years: “At bluQube we’re all about challenging ourselves and others in our industry, so to work alongside GOR and the inspirational skippers who are out there battling the elements is hugely exciting.,” he comments. “In business the big payoffs come by taking a chance and not always going for the easy option without being reckless,” he adds. “For us, that might mean approaching a financial process from a different angle, or just challenging business as usual. But the skippers will be pushed to their limits during the next leg, navigating weather systems and avoiding icebergs to score points as they pass through the Leg 3 bluQube Scoring Gate. We’ll be right behind the teams as they set off and will be there to meet them in Punta del Este.”
BluQube’s involvement with the GOR includes the company’s own virtual race around the planet. “If you’re up for a challenge, join our Virtual Race and we’ll give you the chance to see what it’s really like to sail a Class40,” says Kearsley.