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Speeding to Cape Horn

Courtesy of The Race
Laundry day: Innovation Explorer's crew steps out of the fast lane to attend to real business
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, February 6, 2001

We have finally found the real Southern Ocean. It's blowing 50 knots and predicted to top out at 55, possibly 60, before this low moves through. We are down to a storm jib and 3 reefs and will soon be dropping the mainsail altogether. Even though we are broad reaching, the ride is very bumpy and violent. Once again the deck has turned into a washing machine and the interior is a wet sponge. It's 3500 miles to Cape Horn where we turn into the metaphorical millpond of the South Atlantic and we can breathe a collective sigh of relief. Until then, it's minds focused and eyes forward for the next seven days or thereabouts.

After her passage through the Cook Straits, Club Med opted for a very southerly route and she is already at 55 degrees south and most likely being pushed deeper by this same low. Our tactic is to stay more north to avoid the 60-knot plus wind near the center, and whether this has paid off will be evident at the Horn. The implications of being south or north are never final until that mark is rounded and we bear north for home.

The last few days have been action packed for our crew. On February 2 we broke the 24-hour sailing record at 629 miles by a slim margin of 4 miles. This was much to Grant Dalton's displeasure as previous record holder. No doubt Cam Lewis on Team Adventure will have a go along the way, and it is clear to me this record will not stand for long. Even though we averaged 26.2 knots overall, for the first 12 hours we averaged 28, and on one of my hour-long tricks at the wheel I never saw the speed fall below 31 knots. The paradox is that you don't need a lot of wind. 25 to 30 knots is ideal. Any more than that and the sea gets up and we have to eventually slow down for safety reasons. Also, the wind angle must stay constant. Anywhere near the beam is optimum—if the wind is too far aft you will surf, and the low speeds at the bottoms of the waves will cancel out the fast speeds while riding them. Constant pressure is the key. And because the distance run is calculated point to point over any 24-hour period on a whole hour, the course must be in a straight line. All added up, on one of these giant cats we can easily see that 700 miles in a day is a possibility. As one crew on Club Med said when they broke the record at 625, that's a long way to drive in a car in 24 hours!

The passage through New Zealand via the Cook Straits was idyllic. We screamed into Tasman Bay with 45 knots and then in one hour were becalmed as the most spectacular sunrise illuminated the crew replacing three broken battens suffered in a reefing misadventure hours before. We sailed in light winds all morning with a hot sun warming our bones and making a good job of drying out our wet clothes and gear. By afternoon the predicted northwesterly kicked in and we slid out past Wellington at full speed with the big gennaker pulling hard. It was a bit tough to get so close to New Zealand, (we could almost smell those sheep) and not stop. The crew lined the rail taking it all in and vowed to return for holiday. No time now as we have a job to do—we are hot on Club Med's tail and we aim to run them down.

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