Got a spare 5 minutes to help us improve our website? Take this survey.

Outside Online Archives

Playing Catch Up

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, Feb 20, 2001

Since our dramatic rounding of Cape Horn more than a week ago, things have been comparatively tame. We have spent the majority of our time fighting our way through one high pressure ridge after another in pursuit of race leader Club Med, who seems to be always one step ahead of us in weather systems.

She is now almost 1200 miles in front—the biggest lead yet. Today she is locked into the southeast trade winds and going fast while we are still negotiating the last (we hope) ridge before finding the trades ourselves. By tomorrow, Club Med should start to slow up when approaching the doldrums near 1 degree North, so we should see her lead shrink as we run up to her. Unfortunately, the rubber band effect will probably happen when she breaks free from the doldrums and we are stuck in them.

The hard reality is that Club Med is about 25 percent ahead of us with 4000 miles left to go, which in any ocean race is a virtually insurmountable margin (barring gear failure of course). Our routier, Pierre Lasnier had a last ditch (and it is time for those now) scheme to pass the doldrums at 24 degrees West which is extremely far east. Club Med will pass most likely around 32 degrees West, which is statistically the narrowest band and the current satellite pictures agree. However, Pierre, who has studied the doldrums extensively as a meteorologist, sees a cyclical narrowing and expanding pattern at 24 degrees, and if you hit it right you pass as quickly through and then have the added bonus of having about 500 miles of easting in the bank for the run up through the northeast trades. This could be significant as we would be sailing a lot faster with a better wind angle than Club Med. The question is, does the risk of getting stuck in the doldrums in the expanding phase and losing more miles outweigh the possibility of a miracle scenario that would enable us to pass Club Med?

These are the questions the brain trust on board ponders continually. The rest of the crew, not burdened with these decisions are generally enjoying themselves in the dry, warm conditions. We have thoroughly cleaned the boat inside, dried out all the sodden clothing, sleeping bags and miscellaneous gear and in doing so feel a lot better about our situation.

Even though we still have 4000 miles to go, it seems like we are close to home. It is extraordinary that we have been able to push this prototype machine so efficiently—and more to the point safely—around the world without major mishap or (touch wood) injury to the crew. I speak for us and for Club Med when I say this is a testament to superb seamanship. It's as simple as that.

More Adventure