view counter

Caught Between the Clouds

Sailors ­battle winter monsoons and South Pacific trade winds in Leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race

Ian Walker pilots Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing yacht Azzam through a storm cell. <<photo © Matt Knighton / Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing / Volvo Ocean Race>>

When Joni Mitchell wrote the curious lyric, But clouds got in my way in her haunting melody “Both Sides Now,” she could have been talking about the Volvo Ocean Race. From Spain to Capetown … Capetown to Abu Dhabi … Abu Dhabi to Sanya … then the 5,264 nautical mile Leg 4 challenge from China to New Zealand, the race has been an endless struggle to navigate around and through the clouds.
    The oceans make the weather on the planet earth, and clouds are born in that nursery. So are the winds.
    Sailing north to south across an ocean is like one of those crazy video games where threats pop up in your path and you have to figure out how to avoid the ambush. Of course, in sailing you have no joystick or weapons other than your wits and team skill. So you have to either steer around the trouble or blast your way through.
    That’s the unnerving thing about clouds on the ocean. They are mini storm cells. Some have tremendous winds at the surface, while others suck all the wind skyward, creating dead zones where a boat can get caught in their grip and languish for hours or even days.
    To add to this chaos, there are the dreaded doldrums. These areas of no wind ringing the planet from east to west around the equator.
    Doldrum is an old maritime word whose root is dold, meaning stupid. By definition, doldrums are a state of inactivity, mild depression, listlessness or stagnation.
    Technically doldrums are an area of low pressure around the equator, the Intertropical Convergence Zone, where hot air rises and prevailing winds are calm. As this hot air climbs into the upper atmosphere, it is drawn toward the north and south poles. When it runs out of gas, it drops back to earth, transforming into the much-welcomed trade winds at the equator’s uneven edges.
    There is no way to avoid the doldrums, but sailors can cut their losses by avoiding the wind-sucking clouds or bouncing off the squalls. Even then, a lot of luck is involved.
    This time of year in the western Pacific, it gets even trickier because within this tropical zone not one but two wind systems converge: the winter monsoons and the South Pacific trade winds. Overall patterns are predictable, but in a Volvo 65 in the middle of the Pacific, local conditions are ultimately determined by individual cloud cells.

Leg 4’s Cloud Traps
    Francisco Infante, Mapfre’s onboard reporter, described one such encounter as a “storm cloud that looks like an atomic bomb.”
    What do you do when facing such a threat?
    You sail around it. But that is often easier said than done.
    Dongfeg had been clinging to a tenuous lead for several days when the boat got trapped in a black cloud’s windless grip. Sitting there helplessly, the crew watched Abu Dhabi and Mapfre sail right on by.
    This is what it felt like on Dongfeng, as described by Sam Greenfield. “Can a cloud be inherently good or evil? Do clouds feel? Tonight a cloud stopped us dead in the water and allowed Azzam to sail past us from four miles back.”
    Sometimes, when the race is so tight as it is with these evenly matched one-design yachts, it’s better not to be in the lead. The boats behind can see what’s happening to the leader up ahead, either visually or on their radar, and steer clear.
    It was a photo finish in Auckland, the City of Sails, as tens of thousands of fans came out by land and sea at 9:30pm, right after watching their national team defeat Australia in the Cricket World Cup. They cheered as the top three boats crossed the line within eight minutes of one another after more than 20 days racing across the Pacific Ocean.
    Replacement skipper and Volvo veteran Xabi Fernandez sailed the Spanish boat Mapfre to victory, edging out Abu Dhabi by four minutes, with Dongfeng in third. Mapfre’s victory was even more remarkable given a twice-broken antennae leaving the crew without radio communication or weather reports for three days.
    Fittingly, the finish line on the North Island of New Zealand is called Aotearoa by the native Maori. The word means the land of the long white cloud.
    Next Stop: Itajaí, Brazil.