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It Really Changes Everything

Courtesy of The Race

By Tim Zimmerman

The Race, for the moment, is not much of a race. The five surviving boats are strung out over two oceans and a distance of almost 7,000 miles. But it remains a spectacular show for one simple reason: S...P...E...E...D.

The latest junkie to take a hit is Club Med, leading by more than 700 miles and approaching Cape Horn, the globe's most notorious headland. A week ago Club Med's cocky crew was stung by the loss of their 625-mile, 24-hour sailing record, pilfered (by a mere four miles) by Innovation Explorer, the big blue boat's sister ship and closest pursuer. This impudence begged for a response, and from Wednesday to Thursday the usually stingy Southern Ocean cooperated with a veritable drag strip of smooth seas and winds reaching 30-35 knot. Placed perfectly on the edge of a depression that was moving east at the same speed as Club Med, skipper Grant Dalton and his 12-man team bowed their thanks to the weather gods and punched it. The result was not an incremental adjustment of the record, but an obliteration. Over 24 hours, the 110-foot catamaran sailed 655.2 miles at an average speed of more than 27 knots, with Dalton at one point standing at the mast waving his arms like a traffic cop to direct the helmsman through a Southern Ocean ice field. Club Med was the first boat to sail more than 600 miles. She is now the first boat to break the 650-mile barrier. "The extra speed these boats sail at means that we can just move around at the same speed as the weather systems," Dalton observed. "It's quite incredible compared to monohull sailing. It really changes everything."

One thing it can't change is the potential for horrific weather at Cape Horn, which juts deep into the Southern Ocean storm track. Club Med should slip by this weekend without too much trouble and begin the 7,000 mile slog to the finish in Marseilles. But Innovation Explorer is setting up to arrive early next week, along with a deep depression that could pack storm winds of 60 knots ("a real caning," predicts Dalton).

Bruno Peyron, organizer of The Race, and first man to skipper a boat around the world in under 80 days, experienced similar conditions at the Horn during his record-setting 1993 circumnavigation. The furious winds and steep waves threatened to somersault Peyron's 86-foot "Commodore Explorer" (now sailing in The Race as Warta-Polpharma), forcing Peyron and his four-man crew to attempt to "park" the catamaran by turning it into the wind and heaving-to. The dangerous maneuver prompted all the crew to simultaneously unsheath their knives, in case the big cat flipped and they had to cut their way out from under the trampoline netting to escape the frigid waters.

Innovation Explorer, already battered by days of hard running on the approach to Cape Horn, will not want to have to repeat the maneuver. "[Explorer is] starting to squeak and squeal in a spooky way as she is shoved around by waves coming a bit from every direction," reports Innovation Explorer's Elena Caputo, the only woman sailing in The Race. "Some of the noises she makes sound almost like human lamentations."

Next week Innovation Explorer and Club Med will be racing for home, just as Cam Lewis and Team Adventure set out across the Pacific. Club Med will be hard to catch. But The Race for records will continue all the way to Marseilles.

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