Massive storms take out most of the competition in the Volvo Ocean Race

Posted March 30, 2012, at 6:16 p.m.

Day 8, Leg 5. Auckland, New Zealand, to Itajai, Brazil.

The Southern Ocean is up to its old tricks. That is if tricks include freezing cold, massive storms and tossing our 70-foot race boats around like rag dolls. Yes we are in a race, but at times it seems a bit more like simply surviving.

This leg started with the six-boat Volvo fleet all understanding what lay ahead. Night No. 1 brought nearly 50 mph headwinds that bashed the boat and nearly knocked two of our crew out of the leg. After two days of fighting light wind through a trough in order to get south, we punched through into one of the largest low-pressure systems that I can ever remember seeing — a low that was pulling the cold air straight off Antarctica and creating 50-foot seas to surf down.

You see, what we do is chase storms and put ourselves in the correct position — one hopes — to take advantage of beneficial breeze directions. We have amazing weather data that helps us set our routing software to determine the path to take. But what this often does is put us in harm’s way. In this case the fleet has been beat up pretty badly.

Storm 1 took out Abu Dhabi who returned to Auckland for repairs and is now following us across this expansive sea nearly 1,000 miles behind. Night 4 snapped Team Sanya’s rudder off, and they have been limping back to Auckland ever since, pulling out of this leg and reportedly shipping the boat to one of the next stopover ports. Day 6 took out CAMPER as they have announced they are limping to the west coast of Chile in order to repair major structural damage. And finally, in Day 7 Telefonica announced that the reason they were suddenly off the pace was because of structural problems in the bow section of the boat. They are continuing to Itajai, but certainly at a reduced pace at this point, and they went from right next to us to almost 250 miles behind.

So it leaves the French aboard Groupama and us “racing.” And I say that carefully because there are certainly times out here where we both have pulled the throttle way back in order to preserve. Even when you do that, the odd puff or wave will accelerate the boat at breathtaking speeds of more than 40 mph down a massive Southern Ocean wave. Hold on tight, as the next instant, the bow will be crashing into the wave in front of you sending a wall of 5 degree Celsius water over the boat, pummeling the crew on deck. Then you start that same process again … over and over and over.

Which is why we are simply worn out; yet we have three days to Cape Horn. It will be the most wonderful sight ever seen by these tired eyes when we get there. It means we are heading north. Away from the hail storms and massive Southern Ocean waves and freezing temps. Toward home.

Three more days.

Ken Read is skipper of the PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG team, competing in the Volvo Ocean Race. The 39,000-nautical-mile round-the-world yacht race is the world’s longest continuous professional sporting event. Visiting five continents over nine months, the world’s best offshore sailors risk their lives every day competing in the “Everest of sailing.” The race began in Alicante, Spain on Nov. 5, 2011, and will stop in Miami this May before finishing in Galway, Ireland, in early July. Follow the race at www.volvooceanrace.com

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