Round-the-World Racers Hit Brutal "Liquid Himalaya"

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
November 30, 2001
Gale-force winds drive the frothy seas to towering heights and punishing
waves of frigid water roar across the deck, threatening to sweep away
anything not lashed down. Icy spray stings the eyes of crew members, who
are already exhausted from long shifts.

Under such extreme
conditions, most sailors would focus on only the most basic of thoughts:
survival. But for the 97 people competing in the round-the-world Volvo
Ocean Race, the quest for victory means that speed is constantly played
against safety in a delicate balancing act.

The limits of safe racing are truly pushed to the edge during the race's grueling 6,550-mile (10,545.5-kilometer) second leg, from Cape Town, South Africa, to Sydney, Australia. This stage, now underway, sends boats flying across some of the world's wildest ocean landscape. It happens in a remote section of the Indian Ocean sometimes called "the liquid Himalaya."

"Climbers do Everest, divers do the deep sea, and sailors do the Whitbread" (now the Volvo Ocean Race), victorious skipper Paul Cayard told National Geographic during the last race, in 1997-98.

Other ships avoid these treacherous waters. They have since the opening of the Suez Canal offered an easier route to the East. So the Volvo racers are geographically isolated, surrounded only by albatrosses, whales, and icebergs.

Another companion is storms—known to sailors as the Roaring 40s and Furious 50s for the latitudes of the ocean where they occur.

Sail at Your Own Risk

All entrants in the race use the same type of boat. In the Southern Ocean, 60-knot winds whip up 20- to 30-foot waves, allowing the race vessels to reach remarkable speeds of up to 35 knots.

The winds also subject the boats and their crews to weeks of cold, wet pounding. The hazards facing the twelve-person crews are many—being swept from the deck, caught by an errant line or a flailing sail. Four Volvo sailors have perished in these waters since 1973.

The boats are also endangered in these waters when they're being pushed to such extreme extreme limits. Surfing down rolling waves at high speeds, the specially designed boats are so fast that they risk plunging their bow into the side of the next oncoming wave and being thrown into a dangerous breach.

Drudgery and discomfort aboard ship goes hand-in-hand with the danger.

Below deck, the only respite from the rough conditions above, the cabin is cold and damp. Reconstituted food is the only sustenance. The accommodations are spartan, and the crew members take turns sleeping in the six-rack bunks. They never bathe, and rarely remove their foul-weather gear.

Recipe for Big Seas

In both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, storms are frequent at the 40s and 50s latitudes. But there is one big difference responsible for the extreme conditions found only in the Southern Ocean: its absence of land, which break up winds and pressure systems.

"To get big waves, you need big winds and they have to blow on the water for a long time," said Chris Fairall of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the large land masses of several continents limit the distance of ocean surface that winds blows across, which is known as the fetch. This, in turn, limits the size of waves.

In the southern latitudes, however, the absence of land masses means that the fetch becomes very long. "You could almost imagine waves going around the planet," said Fairall.

That's because southern latitudes 40 to 60 have no land masses to stop waves and winds from rolling across the sea. As they travel together, the winds act upon the wave surfaces, building them to ever-greater sizes.

The combination of high winds and waves creates a dangerous environment. But it's exactly these conditions the Volvo Ocean 60 crews hope to find. They hope to ride the speed of the storm to a competitive edge over their rivals.

It's "the most extreme thing I have ever done, and so far it is the best sailing experience I have ever had," Cayard wrote during his 1998 run to victory. "The actual sailing here cannot be compared with anything else," he added.

The Volvo Ocean Race competitors will finish leg two about December 4, when they arrive in Sydney for a welcome break from the intensity of the race around the world. The race will finish in Kiel, Germany, in June 2002.

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