The perils of the Southern Ocean
Here we go! The 50th anniversary of the Golden Globe, the first singlehanded nonstop round-the-world race, is upon us. On July 1 one tribute event, the Golden Globe Race 2018, will start out of Les Sables d’Olonne, France, with a fleet of 19 amateur skippers setting out in production fiberglass boats, none longer than 36 feet, to race around the world without stopping. Meanwhile, another event, Longue Route 2018, is sending out another 26 amateur solo skippers, most in boats 43 feet and under, to also sail nonstop around the world. The latter is not a race, but more a “challenge in company.” Participants may start from and return to any Atlantic port in Europe or North America (north of 45 and 41 degrees north latitude, respectively) at any time between June 18 and September 30.
So the Southern Ocean will be unusually crowded this year. Potentially there will be 45 amateur singlehanders, all of them in relatively modest non-specialized boats, banging around Antarctica together in high southern latitudes. It is, in the annals of sailing, entirely unprecedented.
One question I’ve been asking myself: is it harder to do this now than it was before? The answer, not surprisingly, is yes. Average surface wind speeds and wave heights in the Southern Ocean have steadily increased since the 1960s and particularly so in the last 20 years. Significantly, the biggest spikes are seen in extreme peak conditions, and the “hottest” spot in the course is the stretch between Cape Town and Australia.
The simple anecdotal evidence bears this out. The 196869 Southern Ocean summer season during the first Golden Globe was, relatively speaking, mild. Bernard Moitessier, in particular, had it pretty easy at first in the Indian Ocean and this helped him achieve the transcendent state that led him to abandon the race after rounding Cape Horn and sail around again to Tahiti. Of the three competitors who made it into the Southern Ocean—Moitessier, Robin Knox-Johnston and Nigel Tetley—none were knocked out there.
This past season’s crop of Southern Ocean amateurs, by comparison, have had a rough ride. Guirec Soudée and his famous chicken Monique on their steel cutter Yvinec got rolled hard between Cape Horn and Cape Town. The indomitable Michael Thurston, sailing with two crew on his 48ft ketch, Drina, was knocked down twice in the southern Indian Ocean, with the boat’s steering pedestal sheared off the second time. While setting a record for circling Antarctica south of 60 degrees, the Polish crew on the Oyster 72 Katharsis II had their boom shattered southwest of Australia. And our own SAILfeed contributor, singlehander Randall Reeves, attempting his Figure 8 circumnavigation of the Americas and Antarctica, was knocked down and crushed by a wave in the southern Indian Ocean. This blew out a doghouse window on his 45ft aluminum cutter Moli, wiped out most of his electronics and bent a solid aluminum cockpit rail down on top of a primary winch.
Randall, before heading home from Tasmania to California to try again next year, told me in an e-mail that he had seriously underestimated the power of the Southern Ocean and hadn’t yet mustered the courage to take photos during peak conditions.
“I’m too scared, and it feels like bad luck,” he wrote, “like Actaeon, who spied the goddess Diana bathing, and she sicced his own hounds on him. I don’t want to tempt fate any more than I am already.”
Even the pro sailors in this year’s Volvo Ocean Race fleet have not escaped the deep south unscathed. Vestas 11th Hour Racing was dismasted southeast of the Falkland Islands in March, and Team Sun Hung Kai/ Skallywag tragically lost crewmember John Fisher overboard 1,400 miles west of Cape Horn.
I can tell you one thing for sure: all the folks in these two Golden Globe tribute events will catch hell out there, and many or most them will not finish the course. I will be a little surprised if they all come out alive. Which is not an argument for calling the whole thing off, but it is an argument for paying both these events the attention they deserve. I, for one, will be following them closely at longueroute2018.com and goldengloberace.com. s