Leg Info

Leg starts on:
10 December 2017

The return of the Prodigal Son?

Oh yes, after an absence of 12 years, Cape Town to Melbourne is back. Like Leg 6, Leg 3 is part of the route from the original Whitbread Round the World Race, and as such it carries the heavy weight of history with it – and double points.

So, what’s the big deal?

It’s 6,500 nm, and none of them will be easy. The fleet will start on 10 December, and head south from Cape Town to the Cape of Good Hope, before turning left and heading east across the Southern Ocean. They will go deep into the storms and waves of the Westerly Storm Track before arcing back to the north to cross the Great Australian Bight, enter the Bass Strait and so into Melbourne. 

This is more about brawn than brains? 

Back in the day, yes – when the boats rolled along at 8-10 knots they were sitting ducks for the weather systems that would roll up behind and then overtake them. But now the boats are fast enough to just about keep pace with the storm systems and a lot of smart strategy is required to position the boat correctly. 

And no Climate Zones this time? 

Apart from the start and finish there is really only one – the aforementioned Westerly Storm Trackwhere some serious weather, storms and depressions swirl west-to-east around the globe. While this section in the Southern Ocean will dominate the leg, the start and finish can also be tricky...

Tell us about the pitfalls on this one?

The race south: Cape Town is far enough north to be under the influence of the St Helena High (a stable, semi-static area of Subtropical High Pressure in the South Atlantic) and so the first section – south down the Cape Peninsula to the Cape of Good Hope and beyond – can often be in light winds. It will be tense, because the race is on to get south and into the Westerly Storm Track to pick up an eastbound low pressure system to ride towards Australia. 

In a nutshell: due south should get the boat into stronger breeze faster, but more distance will be travelled as the course to Melbourne is actually surprisingly close to due east. Can enough extra wind (and hence speed) be found to make up for the extra distance sailed, compared to a boat that just tries to shorten the distance? 

A lot will depend on the timing of the approach of the next inbound low pressure system. The precise speed of the boat as it heads south or east on the different possible routes must be carefully measured against the predicted movement of the low pressure. This one will be keeping the navigators busy.

The Southern Ocean: Once they get hooked up with a low pressure system in the Westerly Storm Track the teams will be working hard to stay with it. The strategic problem is to position the boat so that they don’t get too much wind and break something, or not enough so that they slow up and get left behind by the weather system... and anyone still hanging onto it. This section will take them deep into the big breeze and big waves of the legendary Roaring Forties. 

The final approach: The finish in Melbourne is back up north and right on the edge of where the Storm Track meets its northern neighbour, the Subtropical High Pressure Zone. So broadly speaking there are two scenarios for the final approach.

One: a low pressure system can come far enough north to sweep through the Bight, and create fast downwind surfing conditions all the way to Bass Strait. This is going to make it wet and wild all the way to the finish and they won’t feel like they’ve left the Southern Ocean until they get in the shelter of Cape Otway.

Two: The alternative is that the great desert that is central Australia gets on a roll and really heats up. The vast mass of hot air rising off the Nullarbor Plains creates what’s called a heat low. That low pressure is then matched by a high pressure situated out in the Great Australian Bight – which is strong enough to force all the Southern Ocean low pressure systems south of the course. This is scenario two and it could make the finish of this leg just about as tactically interesting as the Doldrums.

I’m guessing there are some epic tales from past legs?

The 2005-06 leg from Cape Town to Melbourne probably had one of the highest ever rates of attrition. Two boats finished by alternate modes of transport (container ship and truck). Two more had to pitstop in Western Australia, leaving just two boats to race cleanly to the line. This leg also humbled Paul Cayard’s (eventual) winning crew in 1997-98. After a spectacular win in the first leg, they eventually limped across the Australian finish line in fifth place after a series of damaging, violent and high speed crashes... 

 

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