Ronnie Simpson’s farewell storm before Cape Horn & other challenges

Ronnie Simpson’s farewell storm before Cape Horn & other challenges

Text: Marco Nannini
Image: Ronnie Simpson - Shipyard Brewing @globalsolochallenge

Ronnie Simpson is approaching Cape Horn with less than 200 miles to go to the summit of his “Everest of the Seas”, a metaphor we’ve been using to try to convey what an incredible achievement it is to reach this milestone in a solo circumnavigation. Ronnie patiently paced his arrival to the tip of the south American continent to avoid two nasty storms that were in his path, until he finally saw a window to attempt the rounding. As it often happens the forecasts changed as he sailed east and the South Pacific has decided it will not let him go without a farewell storm.


Ronnie is sailing in sustained winds which are probably around 40 knots and as early as this afternoon he may be hit by winds gusting over 60 knots. On the bright side, if we really want to look for one, the wave height should not exceed 6-7 meters which in those waters is actually good news. There is a problem however, the current strong winds are brought by the arrival of a low pressure system with the usual sequence of northwesterly winds followed by southwesterlies as the cold front sweeps by after the warm front.


It now seems unlikely that Ronnie will be able to sail past Cape Horn before the arrival of the cold front which means he will have to deal with two major problems, the change in winds which will bring cross seas seas and the fact that, whilst he is now sailing in the warm sector of the depression, a stable air mass, the cold front brings an unstable air mass. In practical terms the cold front will bring squally conditions with winds that will be gusty and fierce and temporarily may be well stronger than the forecast.


Each skipper is responsible for taking their own decisions, and the organisers do not provide instructions on weather tactics as the choices heavily depend on the boat, the skipper and the actual conditions. Obviously we’re always available to support any participant at any time and we’re alway just one message away. In many circumstances and especially in the most critical situations such as Dafydd Hughes’ loss of his primary autopilot, Ari Kansakoski’s dismasting or Edouard De Keyser’s loss of his rudder we have always been in communication with the skippers who are free to discuss with us anything they want. Often the discussion may involve their shore team, if they have one, and we may be just one of the parties in the discussion which does not affect the fundamental principle that the final decision is with the person in charge, and that is always and only the skipper.


During the course of this morning, 1st February, Ronny seems to have chosen a more southerly course and we will have to see what he will chose to do, he can either sail more directly to Cape Horn when the wind backs from the north-north-east to the north west and go for the rounding without any further evasive strategy, or opt to stay west of the strong band of winds after the cold front which would however require either heaving-to (stopping the boat with two sails on opposite tacks and drifting) or briefly sailing on the other tack.


It’s interesting to watch the tactics as both Philippe Delamare’s and Ronnie Simpson’s rounding of the Horn remind me of the situation I found when rounding on 24 Feb 2012. The similarities lie in the timing of the cold front which is due to sweep over Cape Horn exactly at the time of the rounding. In Philippe’s case I would say the conditions were heavy but not critical and Philippe gained room to the south before heading est but did not need to change course.


When I rounded, the low pressure system was coming from the southwest and was bringing seas in excess of 10 meters at its center, we opted to stay behind the low and did in fact heave-to for a few hours when the cold front swept by before resuming course. In hindsight we certainly opted for the safest option and conditions were very windy (gusting approximately 65 knots) but the sea state, although dantesque, never posed a real threat. Having said this, who knows what we could have found if we had reached the continental shelf with those sort of waves stirred up by the storm. By the time we reached the Horn the wind had dropped to 20-25 knots and then died completely, so much so that we took the shortcut through the strait of Le Maire which no one has done so far.


I’d say Ronnie’s storm is probably somewhere between the one faced by Philippe and the one we saw in 2012 and this would make all strategies valid, either go for the rounding despite the approaching cold front, perhaps giving the continental shelf a wide berth, or take evasive action and round behind the system, which however may prove to be unnecessary. We will follow Ronnie’s approach closely as we know he’s been studying the situation carefully for several days and evaluating all options.


Rounding the Horn often turns into a game of chess dodging storms and dangerous seas and even the approach is never a simple matter. Approximately 1000 miles behind Ronnie things took an unexpected turn at least for one of the skippers. Riccardo Tosetto on Obportus opted for a significantly longer route than his nearest rivals Andrea Mura on Vento di Sardegna and Francois Gouin on Kawan3 Unicancer. A large area of fickle winds was forecast to block the direct route to the cape and Riccardo made a bold choice by heading decidedly north to stay in more pressure and avoid getting stuck.


When the direct route is blocked by light winds the skippers are always confronted with the dilemma of whether to wait for the wind to fill in or opt to sail a longer route to avoid slow progress. This type of considerations for example comes into play when boats sail south in the Atlantic. The direct route from Europe to Cape of Good Hope is effectively impossible, the doldrums around the equator, the St. Helena high pressure and the tropical calms all have to be considered and the result is a route that from Europe goes to Brazil, then south to reach the influence of the south atlantic low pressures. The route often involves staying west to avoid the light winds of the St. Helena high.


We can call this type of route choice macro-routing, or seasonal routing, i.e. choosing the fastest “typical route” given seasonal average conditions. At each point then the skipper has to decide whether to deviate from the shortest macro route to seek better winds. In this case the route to Cape Horn is simply the shortest route from the corner of the ice limit to their west. Any other option would qualify as a tactical choice and the further you sail away from the shortest route the more your choice constitutes a gamble. In sailing lingo we can say that Riccardo went off on a flier, i.e. on a considerably different route hoping for a make or break outcome. This is always a risky choice, forecasts as we have seen are to be taken knowing there are degrees of approximation especially in the longer term.


Riccardo’s route is yet to yield results, as in fact he has lost his 5th place dropping to 7th to the benefit of both Andrea Mura and Francois Gouin. Unfortunately for Riccardo the light air area seems to have tracked further north than expected pushing him to sail even further north to stick to his plan. At the same time, the area of no wind on the path of his two direct competitors filled in creating a corridor that allowed them to press on the shortest route, which currently seems to have paid off.


When you gamble and deroute by a very large margin you have to accept that it’s a game of head or tails, you can break through and make great gains or pay your choice very dearly. For this reason when sailing in close proximity to other competitors I always prefer relative strategies to absolute ones, and, if I believe I can keep a good pace, I always choose to cover rather than create lateral separation.


In this scenario it would have made no sense for Riccardo to cover Andrea as the latter would simply sail faster and overtake him. However the choice to separate so drastically from Francois is highly questionable as until now Riccardo seemed to be able to sail faster in equal conditions. Perhaps we can say it’s a case where Francois’ low risk conservative strategy will yield the better outcome. The duo has been battling for position for nearly the entire circumnavigation and if this will prove to have been a mistake for Riccardo the route is still very long to make up for it, but it’s an interesting scenario to analyse.

Andrea Mura meanwhile overtook both Francois Gouin and Riccardo Tosetto yesterday gaining 4th place on the water and his boat is currently projected to be able to reach and overtake Ronnie Simpson on Shipyard Brewing and, perhaps, even give more than a headache to Cole Brauer who must hope she does not find too many light patches on her route north.


Behind this trio of sailors David Linger on Koloa Maoli has kept good speed and has been favoured by the slow patch encountered by his front running competitors and has considerably closed the gap and was sailing today at an excellent average. William MacBrien on Phoenix further back towards New Zealand seems to be having mixed luck with the wind, he was first battered by a few heavy storms, now he’s slowed down by a ridge of high pressure and he must be wondering why so many spanners are being thrown in his wheels, or perhaps he just takes what come and patiently moves forward.

After all, deciding to sail around the world is a little like a marriage vow, for better or for worse, and anyone who ventures in without even accepting a few days of unfavourable winds would be a fool. Matters change however if a breakup threatens the relationship between skipper and boat. Skippers often use the plural “we” when they speak, as skipper and boat end up taking care of, and rely on each other. When something happens, the relationship is under threat and it often takes hard work to save the situation. Sounds familiar?

Louis Robein has shown great care and empathy for his struggling companion, with no energy left and no use of the autopilot we have followed him nursing Le Souffle de La Mer III to Hobart in a journey that must have tested Louis to the limit, having to alternate long shifts at the helm with short period of rest with the boat drifting. He sailed up the river Derwent and reached a buoy where he could spend the night before heading tomorrow to the quarantine dock to clear into Australia with the tireless help of Jason Cummings. He’s become the point of contact for all skippers stopping in Hobart and whom we want to thank for such precious assistance. Louis voyage was one of patience and resolve, never having considered giving up. Louis and Le Souffle de la Mer III now have just under 10 days before their window of opportunity to restart in the Global Solo Challenge closes, but having planned the stop in advance they should be able to restart.


Pavlin Nadvorni and Espresso Martini have had their fair share of issues during their voyage but had always managed to patch things up at sea until enough was enough and the two decided to take a break, so to speak, in Bluff Harbour. Patience and time made their strong bond flourish again and after fixing the existing issues the two are finally ready to set sail together again tomorrow.


Edouard de Keyser in Port Lincoln is dealing with his unexpected rudder breakage on Solarwind and we are awaiting updates on the course that his project will take.


Yesterday another crisis broke out. This time between Alessandro Tosetti and Aspra. It was only the prompt reaction by the Italian skipper that allowed him to save the day. The lower port diagonal shroud broke and dismasting was narrowly avoided. Alessandro changed tacks, secured the mast and is heading for Hobart 500 miles ahead of him to fix the rigging. Disaster was avoided and we hope the two can reach Tasmania safely and after a brief pause carry on their voyage. The route is long and it’s not a honeymoon.


We should mention Philippe Delamare and Mowgli, holding extremely well onto first place having skipped no beat with no onboard issues to report. The two should cross the equator in the next couple of days.

Cole Brauer and First Light warmed up their bones and dried up in a moment of calm yesterday in the South Atlantic and are now moving north in gentle winds and rising temperatures which Cole described as the feeling of entering into spring.

Back in the Indian Ocean Kevin Le Poidevin on Roaring Forty is in the full swing of sailing the latitudes that gave his companion the name. Storm after storm, with personal speed records and calm patches, nasty seas and even a knock-down without serious consequences. Each ocean seems to have its own personality, as someone commented on an Instagram post. Each skipper and boat live through their intense bond and relationship through a perilous and challenging voyage, for better and for worse.


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