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Inherent Danger

By Tim Zimmermann

Nothing in the Southern Ocean can ever be considered routine...except perhaps the 500-mile plus days Club Med and Innovation Explorer are ripping off with regularity as they lead The Race in its headlong sprint around Antarctica. Five hundred miles in 24 hours used to be a Holy Grail in sailing, like the four–minute mile. But thanks to shore–based weather routers, and ridiculous cruising speeds of 25-30 knots, the maxi–cats are setting up on, and surfing, the massive Southern Ocean depressions like they are 15-footers at Waikiki. In recent days, Club Med kissed the 600-mile mark (she set the outright world record at 625 miles last summer), while Innovation Explorer ran off 584.5 miles, both personal bests under the grueling conditions of The Race. No sailboats have ever crossed the Southern Ocean's stormy face at such pace. Since the December 31 start off Barcelona, Club Med has sailed almost halfway around the world at an average speed of 18 nautical miles an hour–about 3 knots faster than the speeds laid down during previous record circumnavigations. The current best stands at 71 days. It is within the realm of possibility for Club Med to get home in 60.

But Grant Dalton and his veteran crew are not worried about records right now. There are only two primal Commandments in effect aboard the big blue cat: keep the boat in one piece, and hold onto the 700–mile lead over Loick Peyron and Skip Novak's Innovation Explorer. "Ours is a very tentative lead, one that can be swept away with a single BANG," Dalton worried in an e–mail to Race HQ. Aside from the ever–present threat of gear blowing up without warning, the weather gods may be about to play a little game in the Tasman Sea. Club Med should approach the area off New Zealand late in the week, and long range forecasts are threatening a massive high pressure system with light winds that could allow Innovation Explorer to come charging up from behind. In racing vernacular, it's known as a "park–up," and the prospect already has Dalton and navigator Mike Quilter sweating.

If Club Med is obsessing about Innovation Explorer, Innovation Explorer is obsessing about Cam Lewis and Team Adventure. After four days of repairs to their broken boat in Cape Town, Team Adventure took to the oceans again on Friday morning, about 2600 miles to the rear. Team Adventure is probably the fastest boat in the fleet when the accelerator is down hard. But she is a long way behind–even Warta–Polpharma, the smallest cat in The Race is now sailing in the same waters–and set sail minus four crew. Two suffered serious back and neck injuries last week when Team Adventure plowed into a wave at 30 knots (navigator Larry Rosenfeld compared the experience to a bus crash, and two abandoned ship in Cape Town. Rick Deppe, a hardened Whitbread veteran from Annapolis, MD, explained to the Washington Post that the combination of a lightning fast catamaran and the Southern Ocean–with its icebergs, gales and mountains of waters–is simply too scary. "I kept thinking if you flip it won't come back up. It's a cumulative thing–you get a little anxious, then a little more anxious, " Deppe explained. "It's inherently dangerous."

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