The Three Great Capes are reality and legend, geography and myth. Sailing through them entails facing dangers that, over the centuries, have killed many sailors. From that moment, security measures on board have improved a lot and communication systems have been developed to be highly effective. Nevertheless, the best nautical athletes who manage to tackle difficulties successfully are usually compared to fearless great mountain climbers. This is because they depend on the weather and their performance, on their previous experience, on the technical knowledge and on their ability to anticipate to adverse circumstances before they arise.
A route full of history only available for the most daring sailors
Legend has it that Francis Drake was the first sailor who, in 1578, wore a gold earring on his right ear to show everyone he had returned Cape Horn unharmed. After that, the cinematographic industry later associated that earring with pirates and filibusters, as a symbol of good luck and courage. Those pirates and merchant sailors were the ones who, during the golden centuries of commercial sailing, made the first great global journey possible by moving slaves, sugar, spices and gold from one end of the world to the other.
Nowadays, sailors at the Vendée Globe follow a route that is marked by speed and strong winds and turns more violent as sailors approach the south. It starts in Europe and traverses in a south-easterly direction, crossing the Cape of Good Hope (at 35˚ South latitude) at the end of the African continent, reaching the Indian Ocean. The next milestone, Cape Leeuwin, is a little further north, at 34˚ South latitude. It is the southern limit of Australia, a passage from the Indian to the Pacific Ocean. Finally, after many hours of sailing in isolation, sailors must face Cape Horn, beyond Tierra del Fuego, at a fearsome 56˚ South latitude. That is the point where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans collide in a brutal way, where big waves, strong winds and some icebergs can be found.
An extreme challenge that requires maximum security
Overcoming all these difficulties is precisely what makes the trial appealing. Neither its participants nor its organizers are reckless personalities, but sportsmen with a defiant spirit instead. We spoke to Jacques CARAES, director of this incredible race, so that he could share his opinion on the most dangerous aspects of this nautical route.
“The entrance to the Indian Ocean is always the most difficult part of the race. If the descent of the Atlantic is a continuous struggle, the entry into the Indian is a moment of great pressure for competitors, especially if they are beginners. The Indian Ocean symbolizes a harsh reality of cold and humidity, and of great distances. The start of the race is the first psychological difficulty to deal with. Sailors must master their behavior and enter a long dark tunnel in which they need to straighten up with the weather systems with audacity, courage, and determination.
Indian and South Pacific are two oceans that put skippers and boats in risk. Skippers must learn how to preserve their energy and their ability to take the right decisions while they are sailing at high speed. They need to:
– learn to maintain their boat working perfectly, which includes the hardware, the sails, mechanics, electricity and computing;
– know how to repair small damage on a daily basis to prevent severe damage;
– manage their sleep in active and impressive oceans to be alert and ready take the right decisions (strategic and reassuring), considering performance and safety;
– anticipate obstacles, such as weather conditions or getting closer to prohibited areas (AEZ: Antarctic Exclusion Zone);
– know how to balance food in cold areas and keep the cabin dry so as not to lose calories that could affect the skipper՚s performance.”
A team on permanent alert
Due to all these difficulties mentioned above, organizers of the Vendée Globe are always on the alert. This is how the person in charge states it:
“The race management team under my direction remains on alert 24 hours a day throughout the whole race until the last competitor comes ashore. We take turns, as crews do at sea. Our concern is to follow the route of each competitor and to fully identify the weather conditions they are experiencing and its consequences. In case there՚s a change in their trajectory or they are sailing too slow, we are alerted immediately. Then, the Race Direction will first try to contact the competitor’s team manager to learn what is happening on board. If that person does not receive a clear answer, the Race Direction will try to contact the skipper by phone or e-mail to find out about the state of the boat. If there is no rapid response, the nearest competitor is contacted to provide assistance or further details.
In order to monitor the competitors՚ boats, the Race Direction works in advance with the various French CROSS and MRCCs (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres). We set up a “rescue” site that allows the different MRCCs to accurately identify a competitor in distress. We inform them, one by one, about the boats that sail through that area. All MRCCs have access to our contact sheets for each boat as well as to their physical description.
Apart from that, equipped with its weather cell, the direction transmits a daily weather report to each competitor according to their position. This bulletin is for safety purposes, it doesn՚t have a routing purpose except for heavy damage, in which case the competitor is forced to reach a shelter as quickly as possible.”
In addition, the direction replies competitors’ emails as fast as possible. It offers a privileged daily link between each sailor and its shore referent. It is also an exclusive communication link in case the AEZ points are updated by new satellite captures on icebergs. In case skippers need to modify their courses, they are notified. Then, they should send back an “acknowledgement of receipt”.
Striking a balance between security and the extreme risks involved in the challenge is, in short, the ultimate responsibility of the Race Management. According to Jacques Caraes, there is only one possible formula: “to establish a relationship of trust between the Race Management, the participant and the Team Manager”.