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Getting Ready for the Southern Ocean

By Skip Novak

American Skip Novak, 48, has sailed four Whitbread Round The World Races, survived 300,000 bluewater miles and helped set two ocean crossing records. For The Race, Novak is co-skipper aboard the 110-foot maxi-cat Innovation Explorer. While he and the crew of Innovation Explorer (which includes his wife, Helena) race one of the fastest boats ever built through the sticky calms of the equator and the howling storms of the Southern Ocean, Novak will post regular updates to Outside Online.

Aboard Innovation Explorer

Courtesy of Innovation Explorer

Since last week, when we had our encounter with the sea creature who tried to break our dagger board near the Cape Verde Islands, we've had a lot of slow sailing. With the Northeast tradewinds petering out at five degrees north, it has been light and variable getting through the doldrums just north of the equator—luckily two major squalls quickly pushed us over 'The Line' and into the beginnings of the Southeast trades, so we have once again been on the wind.

Team Adventure and Club Med have been trading the lead a few hundred miles ahead, and in these light air conditions we know that even if we are smart enough tactically (which we haven't been so far) to sail up to them, our sail inventory, or lack of it, would quickly relegate us back into our third place position. We started this race missing a medium size gennaker- we have a small one that doubles as a reacher and as the outsize 550 square meter gennaker, but the gap in between those two is noticeable—not only does it represent a fair slice of the downwind sailing angles, but would have been in a way a spare sail. Lack of sponsorship precluded us buying a medium gennaker before the start. We had been negotiating with Grant Dalton to borrow or buy cheaply his first generation sail, but after a month of discussion he gave it the thumbs down. After all, this is 'hard ball' ocean racing and if we beat him, he would have a lot to answer for to his paymasters.

To top it all off, the center section of the small gennaker curiously delaminated yesterday, so we have had that down on the aft net making a repair that has quickly consumed the majority of our sail repair materials. All in all this is not good news, as we haven't yet reached the Southern Ocean where things will get a lot tougher. If this gennaker repair explodes (likely) it will leave us without a working downwind sail for the entire southern stretch.

But we don't know what is going on with the other boats and no doubt they have their problems. Breakdowns like sail repairs are a nuisance, but more serious problems like rig or rudder failure that can put you out of the race are never far from our minds. Playstation has unfortunately dropped out with a broken dagger board and an irreparable mainsail—she was one of the best prepared boats so it can happen to anyone, anytime.

Today we are drifting around at 33 degrees south in a glassy pool of ocean near the center of an anticyclone. Never going slow enough to have a swim, we are riding zephyrs of wind trying to get south into the westerly flow. The repair of the sail goes on today under a boiling sun and a few tempers flared, something about the rigger nicking a bit of material from the sailmakers bag—the French expletives were classic and easy to understand!

We are all anxious to get south and sailing fast again, where other factors like sail handling and keeping the boat rightside up will come into play. Stay tuned for more of an action story next week!

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