After a frustrating few days of unseasonably light air, the fleet still lags behind schedule and can expect more of the same as they approach the Doldrums

After a frustrating few days of unseasonably light air, the fleet still lags behind schedule and can expect more of the same as they approach the Doldrums. During the first few days of Leg Six, the yachts traveled barely half the distance anticipated. But even as they finally picked up speed towards La Rochelle today, the question was raised: will they make the scheduled 20th June restart for the final leg to Southampton? Boat speeds clocked since the 13th May start have generated ETAs ranging from 2 July to 12 July, and the Race is due to finish in Southampton on 23rd June.

Race Headquarters manager John Keating emphasised that computer-generated ETAs were based on average speeds to date, and that arrival times will be much earlier. “They will be maybe two and one half to three days behind,” he calculated.

“We have only travelled 400 miles or so, at a painfully slow pace,” noted BP skipper Mark Denton earlier this week. “So fluky and local are the winds, that in the last 24 hours we only did 76 miles. Spirit of Hong Kong did 36, and they’re not so far away from us.”

From Spirit of Hong Kong – who on Wednesday logged the slowest 24-hour run of the Challenge so far, putting only 33 miles astern – legger Richard Loughlin made the sardonic comment: “When Chay gave us the briefing for Leg Six he mentioned the ‘gin and tonic leg’. What he didn’t mention was the very real risk of injury from smashing your head on the deck from the sheer frustration of having no wind.” “We expected this in the Doldrums, but so early in the leg with the prospect of more later is a little depressing,” added Laughlin. “Skip [Stephen Wilkins] philosophises about the vagaries of ocean racing as a way of explaining our current predicament. Well I tell you, if I catch a vagary on deck, I’ll tie it down and stun it with a winch handle before sending it packing.”

Some yachts had better luck – but just scarcely. Even Friday’s frontrunner Norwich Union reported unusual calm. “Back on the water, we have experienced Doldrums conditions early,” said crewman Chris Laufale. “The wind has been fickle as we crawl for the tip of Eastern Africa. Positions change as fast as a counter on a snakes and ladders game, climbing steadily and sliding back as fast as we have gained.”

By end of last week the fleet was clocking runs of roughly 150 miles, as a north-westerly breeze filled in. But the 72-foot Challenge yachts should be making at least 240 miles a day, noted Keating – and Spirit of Hong Kong’s 33-mile feat contrasted sharply with capabilities. Spirit of Hong Kong set a record 24-hour run of 255.27 miles in Leg One. “Of all the legs sailed so far in this race, this will be the most fickle,” predicted BP’s Denton. “And of course there’s the doldrums to tackle, an even more windless zone than the one were in right now.”

The Doldrums – also called the Intertropical Convergence Zone, or ITCZ – is a windless band that hugs the equator from the coast of Africa to Brazil. This, traditionally, is where the fleet slows down, before bolting through the North Atlantic trades to the Bay of Biscay. “How are we ever going to get there?” queried Denton. “Wait for things to change I guess. One thing’s for sure, we’ve already started putting food aside: not rationing , just gleaning off the excess, because it looks like we could be in for a long haul.”

A slight north-west wind which filled in towards the end of last week gave hope to the fleet. “We’re humming along nicely now, in a good breeze and in the sun,” noted Derek Brennan aboard Save the Children. Team-mate John Quigley added, “We are probably already two days behind schedule so we spent a little while yesterday sorting out some food. We stretched 33 days into 38 just in case. We will be hitting the trade winds in a few days so hopefully we will start hitting some high speeds to make up for lost time.”