Watch: Clipper crews face 'phenomenal' 40+ foot waves in cross-ocean race to Seattle
SEATTLE -- The 12 teams competing in this year's Clipper Race Round The World race safely made it to Seattle this week after a 5,500 mile, 28-day journey across the Pacific Ocean, but it wasn't just a battle among the teams; it was a battle with Mother Nature at times.
"The low (pressure center) after Japan was huge," said Simon Rowell, the race's meteorologist. Teams faced consistent winds of 55-65 knots (63-75 mph) with wind gusts over 80 knots (92 mph).
As you can imagine, in addition to having to dealing with the winds, a storm that magnitude would whip up some waves. Rowell said they measured over 14 meters -- 46 feet! -- at times. Take a peek:
"So, officially 'phenomenal,' " Rowell said, referencing the top rung of the Douglas Sea Scale. "I've been involved in one way or another with every Clipper Race since 2001, and that’s one of the two strongest systems we’ve had."
Dale Smyth, who is the skipper of the "Dare To Lead" yacht painted this picture during a race update: "Outside its blowing a solid 50 knots and gusting 70-75 in the hail squalls. The temperature is sub zero [Celsius]. The sea state is massive and regularly breaking. We Just hit a top speed of...wait for it 32.8Kts! This is where you tread lightly and feel like a gazelle running between a pride of lions. Safety is top priority, we stopped ‘racing’ 24hrs ago.
“On the flip side, this is my drug, my passion, the reason I sail. The scene outside could not be captured in a million frames or painted on a million canvasses. Your weekend yachtsman will never see nature unleashed like this. This is what makes us human, risk and reward. These wild ocean vistas get tattooed on your soul.”
But when you're racing via sails, most of the time the race's enemy is the opposite problem -- a lack of wind. While a captain's experience is key in noting wind patterns in the immediate area, Rowell does give teams a daily weather report to let them know generally what they're in for.
The data includes forecast charts showing current lows/highs and fronts and their projected movement over the next 2-4 days, a thermal infrared satellite image of the area of the ocean they're currently located, a map that hows current estimated surface winds as measured by satellite, and a general 24 hour forecast.
In addition, captains are provided one daily update of raw computer forecast model output data showing essential forecasting data such as wind, rain, sea level pressure and upper level temperatures -- a daily forecast for the entire ocean out to 7 days, and forecasts that show the next 5 days in 6 hour increments over the region they're heading.
"For me, it’s all about system movement so as to keep in good wind for as long as possible," Rowell said. "As a former race skipper I try and think 'why do I care about this type of data?' when I send it out. They have enough to do without wasting time on something that I think is fascinating but really is only of academic use."
But even though all skippers get the same data, reading it properly can provide a strategic advantage.
“In a one design race there are not many things that can be done differently. How the crew sails the boat and where you sail the boat are two of these, and where you sail the boat depends on how you understand and apply the weather," Rowell said. “Each Skipper has their own way of doing using the information I send across, but they use this to help make decisions on a short term and then a long-term time frame for the race.”
The crews next head to New York City via the Panama Canal for the 7th leg of the eight-leg race. From there, they will head back across the Atlantic Ocean to where the race started: Liverpool, England. The team that has accumulated the most points over each leg will be awarded the coveted Clipper Race Trophy.
The Clipper Race was established in 1996 by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first person to sail solo non-stop around the world in 1968-69. His aim was to allow anyone, regardless of previous sailing experience, the chance to embrace the thrill of ocean racing. So if this sounds like a challenge that would interest you, no previous experience is necessary. The group says 40 percent of of the 700+ crew members involved in this year's race are novices and have never sailed before starting a comprehensive training program.