Team Brunel is currently in the doldrums, together with the other five Volvo Ocean Race teams. This region around the equator is known for its lack of wind and the unstable weather conditions. The Dutch sailing team is doing everything possible to maintain their lead in these equatorial calms, and to be propelled to Auckland in first position, by the south-easterly trade wind.
The doldrums is the area around the equator. Above this imaginary line, which separates the northern and southern hemispheres of the earth, a large circular flow of wind blows clockwise. Below the equator, an equally large flow of wind blows counterclockwise. These are the so-called trade winds. These two large wind paths meet at the equator. This frequently results in severe thunderstorms and rain showers, sometimes accompanied by gusting winds. The extremely variable wind can come from any direction here, and at times, there may even be no wind at all.
“We crossed the equator this morning,” skipper Bouwe Bekker reports from the Pacific Ocean. “I can see more and more unstable cloud formations on the horizon. Those cloud formations are actually micro-weather systems, around which the wind circles. Each watch is given the freedom to interpret the weather as they see fit, and to adjust the sails or approach as necessary. We’re actually sailing from cloud to cloud at the moment, zigzagging our way through the calms. That’s why our followers at home can see so many changes of tack on the Volvo Ocean Race tracker.”
The fact that the boat is reasonably upright and hardly getting up to speed, does not mean that the men can take it easy. On the contrary. Some rain showers are accompanied by wind, while other rainclouds deposit their contents straight into the Pacific Ocean. And so the crew must be continually alert in order to anticipate such unexpected weather changes. Sailing the doldrums therefore requires frequent boat and sail handling, such as sail changes or tacking manoeuvres.
“It’s essential that we react quickly and effectively to whatever the weather throws at us, so that we don’t end up in the wrong calm, wind change or gusting,” Bouwe Bekking continues. “We were surprised by an enormous wind change last night, for example. Within a fraction of a second, the wind suddenly came from the opposite direction. We were smacked almost flat against the water in the pitch dark night, with the large Code Zero headsail stuck to the wrong side of the stays. It was all hands on deck. Even the men whose turn it was to sleep, helped get the boat back under control. All was well again within a few seconds, and we continued the same course, but with a change of tack, on towards Auckland. Unfortunately the Code Zero sail did not come out unscathed. And so we dragged everyone out of bed again, this time to lower the large headsail and hoist another. Today, Laurent Pagès and Gerd-Jan Poortman have the task of repairing the two holes in the 300 m2 Code Zero.”
Bouwe Bekking is very aware that the race has not been run yet. “We’re so close, yet so far away from a possible victory if you consider the number of miles still to be covered. We now need to defend our leading position. We’re doing so by sailing the right course, making sure we stay between the chasing group and Auckland, and simply sailing as fast as we can.”