Nico Martinez / Barcelona World Race

Introducing the 'Ice Wall'

Race Director Jacques Caraës explains the latest developments for the Barcelona World Race

Tuesday December 30th 2014, Author: James Boyd, Location: none selected

Crowds are gathering by Barcelona harbour, close to the Catalonian capital’s famous Christopher Columbus monument, ready for tomorrow’s start of the third Barcelona World Race. This doublehanded non-stop race around the world gets underway at 1300 local time with eight IMOCA 60s taking part.

Unlike its singlehanded equivalent, the Vendée Globe, the Barcelona World Race sets off from the Mediterranean and begins with a passage along the south coast of Spain to the Strait of Gibraltar. The shortest distance for this section is 530 miles. Earlier this week the forecast indicated that the start would be held in light winds, but it is now looking substantially more lively with the GRIBs indicating 20 knot northerlies for start time, propelling the boats off down the course at speed. This is until they come to a grinding halt in the Alboran Sea on New Year’s Day morning, the wind only appearing to fill in again from the east once they close on Gibraltar.

From there it is south down the Atlantic, an eastbound lap of the Southern Ocean, leaving the three 'Great Capes' - Good Hope, Leeuwin and Horn - to port, before returning north up the Atlantic and the final hard yards in the Mediterranean back to Barcelona.

However this time there are two significant differences to the course. Unlike the first two Barcelona World Races, this time it is no longer mandatory to pass through Cook Strait - between New Zealand’s North and South Islands. According Jacques Caraës, who heads the BWR’s new race management team alongside Guillaume Evrard and Hubert Lemonnier, removing Cook Strait was a decision of the race organisers. While before it was a media opportunity, providing an opportunity to see the boats and crews close up half way into the race, passing so close to land it was tempting for teams to make a pitstop. Sadly it was only those with bigger budgets, capable of flying shore crew and replacement gear or spare parts to New Zealand, which typically took up this opportunity. “It makes it more equal without that,” says Caraës.

A bigger change still is that ice gates – a feature of all recent round the world races, shorthanded or fully crewed – have been replaced for this race by an ‘Ice Wall’, formally referred to in the SIs as the ‘Antarctic Exclusion Zone’. This is partly the creation of the eminent navigator Marcel van Triest, the race meteorologist and a man highly familiar with these waters having both raced through them and most recently routing Banque Populaire to Jules Verne Trophy victory, which occasionally required him to thread the fast moving 40m long maxi tri through the middle of ice fields.

This time, as the boats pass through the Southern Ocean on their laps around the bottom of the planet, instead of having an arbitrary series of ice gates – typically lines running along a certain latitude which competitors had to pass to the north of somewhere along its length – the Ice Wall creates a continuous limit on the right hand (southerly) side of the race course.

From his weather forecaster’s lair in Majorca, van Triest has been and will be monitoring the extent of the Antarctic ice’s drift north with the help of satellite tracking of the bergs provided by CLS. The Ice Wall comprises 72 points/segments, at 5° intervals of longitude.

So why is this better? Caraës explains: “Before, between the gates sometimes you could go very far south, so it is not a great system and it is a bit outdated now. And if you have too many gates, it is maybe time to make an exclusion zone.”

Following the earliest BOC Challenges, Vendée Globes and Whitbread Round the World Races, when race boats’ passages through the Southern Ocean were almost entirely unrestricted, single waypoints were first added to the course to keep boats north, in a valiant attempt to keep them away from ice. However this created its own set of related problems as in attempting to round the waypoints crews could find themselves encountering extreme weather that they would have otherwise avoided. Replacing single waypoints with waypoint gates ir 'ice gates' alleviated this largely, allowing competitors to pass north of the gate anywhere along its length. But even this has led to issues, requiring competitors on one occasion in the last Vendée Globe for example to sail into an area of high pressure.

As the Ice Wall restricts the entire southerly extent of the race course, the organisers have been able to fix it generally further south compared to the position of ice gates in previous races. There is one exception - to the south of Australia, where, since the spate of capsizes (Tony Bullimore, etc) in the 1996 Vendée Globe, the Aussie rescue authorities insist that race organisers keep their fleet within 1000 miles of the Australian coast. However for this race, this requirement has increased with the ‘rescue zone’ now extending all the way west to the Kerguelen Islands, ie slightly closer to South Africa than to Australia. In fact thanks to the new Ice Wall, all of the remote Indian Ocean islands, such as the Kerguelen, the Prince Edward Islands and Crozet are now south of the ‘Ice Wall’, removing the possibility of competitors enjoying some Southern Ocean sightseeing.

“If you can’t see anything it is better and you have a safe race,” points out Guillaume Evrard. “They will see Cape Horn!” adds Hubert Lemonnier hopefully.

Again the Ice Wall should also serve to make racing fairer as with the previous system competitors, as they tried to cross each gate, would typically find themselves more or less lucky with the weather compared to their opposition, a predicament that the new Ice Wall should remove.

According to Jacques Caraës, the Ice Gate shortens the Barcelona World Race course by around 1,000 miles, while another 1,000 miles have been lopped off thanks to the boats no longer having to divert north from the Southern Ocean up to pass through Cook Strait – which can quite often cause competitors getting trapped in areas of high pressure, etc. The new race course is now roughly 23,000 miles long.

The 72 segments of the Ice Wall can be moved in the event that CLS/van Triest notice significant developments in ice movement. The race management team will be receiving fresh satellite pictures each day from CLS, and, as each one costs, they have kept some budget in reserve so that they can get the more up-to-date images as required, particularly on the approach to Cape Horn, which at 56°S, will be the furthest south the boats will go. As an indication of ‘how things used to be’ - during the 1990-1 BOC Challenge, while he was crossing the Pacific section of the Southern Ocean, Hungarian competitor Nandor Fa remembers he was able to sail all the way down to 65°S - something unimaginable today.

According to Caraës, the Antarctic sea ice is too far north in the Southern Ocean at present, but says “during the race we will get information every day from CLS and Marcel, so we can change the exclusion zone if we need to.” The latest the latitude of each segment of the ice wall can be changed is up when the first competitor is still more than 30° of longitude from it. Heading south down the Atlantic the latitude of the first Ice Wall segment is fixed once the lead boat crosses 15°N.

Generally the changes to the course have been welcomed by the competitors. It means that the duration of the race could be shorter by as much as one week, reckons Hugo Boss co-skipper Pepe Ribes. “Not going through Cook Straight will save at least four days and then I expect with the new Ice Wall that the race will be faster by a further three days."

It seems highly likely that Paprec Virbac 2's 2008 record of 92 days, 9 hours, 49 minutes and 49 secs (which, surprisingly, wasn't beaten in 2011) will fall this time.

“Without the gates, we don’t have to spend the whole time looking at them – before you tried to time going up to the gate to coincide with the weather, but now you don’t need to. Now you can go wherever you want to go, which makes it interesting because you can stay in phase with the weather rather than with the gate which makes it a different game.

“I am a big fan. I think it is a better system. Before it was a race from gate to gate, now you race to New Zealand or Cape Horn, so it has opened up the playing field a lot.”

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