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BT Challenge fleet hits the Doldrums

by Betsy Crowfoot, Quokka Sports on 4 Nov 2000
“The majority of the fleet are parked in a car park to the northeast
of us. They must feel wretched watching the Kiddies sneaking by to
the southwest,” ribbed Save the Children skipper Nick Fenton, from
just above the equator.

The BT Global Challenge 2000/01 fleet has hit the doldrums –- an area
notorious for erratic air, where huge gains and losses occur. The
leaderboard shows it, with a mix-up of biblical proportions: "The last shall
be first, and the first last." Quadstone, for some time in second place, has
slipped to ninth -- meanwhile VERITAS, which had been ninth, is now
second. TeamSpirIT, which snuck up with the frontrunners during the
week, is currently 10th. One-time trailer Spirit of Hong Kong has inched up
to sixth.

For the 12 boats racing from Boston, U.S. to Buenos Aires, Argentina,
crossing the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) has been a
long-dreaded milestone in the 5,840-mile leg. Although each team has
painstakingly surveyed weather forecasts and data to select the best route
through this patch of frail air, many have still been snared.

“Well today was the day that we finally slowed right up,” announced Andy
Lomas, from aboard Logica. “The trade winds have died on us and we have
a combination of squalls, light airs and sloppy seas.”

“Just as we were about to take our position at the leaderboard we were
reminded of the cruelties of ocean racing,” said BP’s Stephen Breen.
“Trucking along at a great angle, clocking up the miles, and next thing we
hit a hole right smack in the middle of the Atlantic. No wind. Our green
machine came to a eerie standstill.”

“We're slowly making our way south to the equator,” added BP legger
Nancy Doyle. “We're about four degrees north and the wind is very
variable. It is frustrating at times to be bobbing out here waiting for wind,
but we are slowly making progress.”

“We woke up this morning to see TeamSpirIT a couple of miles away on
our port side,” Breen continued, “so the race is still on. The priority now is
to get the boat moving again.”

“This is classic doldrums,” exclaimed John Keating, Race Headquarters
manager and past Challenge racer. “Boats within a relatively short
distance are getting totally different weather –- it happens with boats within
sight of each other!”

“If you take away the first and the last boats, the remaining 10 are within
70 miles of each other. After 3,000 miles of racing, that’s pretty exciting!”

But it’s also “frustrating” reminded Spirit of Hong Kong skipper Stephen
Wilkins. “It requires persistence and patience and these can be hard to
muster when the temperatures are high, the humidity up and boat speed
slow.

“Winds varying from as high as eight knots down to none at all has kept
myself and the crew on their toes. We have sailed, at times, to every point
on the compass. We have tacked, then tacked back again. Everything
done slowly and controlled in order to keep the sails full and the yacht
moving wherever possible.”

The 12 yachts chase whatever breeze Neptune musters -- to keep
momentum plus the ability to find better wind.

“We continued to tack frequently for a couple of hours as the fickle wind
stalked us as if we were a trapped animal,” explained Fenton. Maximizing
what breeze they do encounter requires a speedy response. “The slightest
delay in completing a reef or a head sail change means that we lose
benefit from the squall. That means giving places to other boats.”

“Every ounce of wind has to be squeezed out by all of the boats to get an
advantage on the rest of the fleet,” summed Chris Laufale on Norwich
Union.

However, Tina Williamson, crewmember on TeamSpirIT, pointed out the
fickle breeze isn’t the only thing affecting position reports. “While we have
moved down to seventh position, and it appears we are on our own, we are
confident our route east is right. We are placing ourselves for the longer
term when we have to go around the top east corner of Brazil.”

Tactics play a pivotal part in the day-to-day changes in place rankings. It
is critical to, “keep close to the tactics of the opponent,” Williamson
admonished. “So we will continue to monitor the fleet and play our game
as best we can.”

Quadstone’s Paul Covell admitted the team, which won Leg One, has
found themselves, “a long way back from the leader.” But planning the
most advantageous point of entering the doldrums has been key. “The
next week will determine whether we have got it right.”

Olympic Group skipper Manley Hopkinson was optimistic that perhaps his
Team Large had “got it right” this time –- especially considering the boat
was last in during Leg One.

“Our long tack southeast, to cross the doldrums where we calculated to
be the best place, had achieved its aim. We are now through.” The bulk of
the fleet, he noted, “charged down the east side enjoying the trades for
two days after we hit the light stuff. The fleet concentrated as expected
and Large were 9th. But then they stopped!

Continued Hopkinson, “We still had the breeze and within 12 hours, we
find ourselves in second place!”

Ah, but that too can change.

“The first out of the doldrums will have an advantage,” predicted Boyle.
“We are sailing as fast as we can so that it will be us. It will be almost like
a restart of the race.”

Added Breen, “I've a sneaking suspicion that each place will be fought for
to the end --right to the dock on the River Plate in downtown Buenos
Aires.”

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