On Sunday, the fleet will depart Cape Town ...and head to much colder, and more mysterious climes.
In 2017-18, the Volvo Ocean Race is going back to its roots, with the fleet set to race three times more Southern Ocean miles than in recent editions.
The first 6,500 miles of that voyage begins on Sunday 10 December, as the boats depart Cape Town, the Gateway to the Southern Ocean, to head south and east, into colder, mysterious waves that roll around the bottom of the earth.
With double points at stake, Leg 3 could be one of the most rewarding in the whole race, and whoever takes the glory will put themselves in a strong position to make a tilt at the trophy.
Call them whatever you like – the Liquid Himalayas, the Great Southern Ocean, Antarctic Ocean, South Polar Ocean, Austral Ocean, Roaring Forties or Furious Fifties – conquering these almost mythical, southernmost waters of the planet has long been a badge of honour for the world’s best sailors.
With freak waves as big as houses, biblical storms and gale-force winds, the Southern Ocean is menacing and enticing in equal measure, and since 1973, our sailors have been obsessed with it.
© Jeremie Lecaudey/Volvo Ocean Rac Jeremie Lecaudey/Volvo Ocean Rac
Dongfeng's Stu Bannatyne, dubbed the 'King of the Southern Ocean' after spending a major part of the last two decades racing through the area, admits that he's addicted to the pull of the most remote area of the planet.
“At the end of the day, it is the best sailing in the world, diving into the Southern Ocean,” he says. “It’s worth coming back every time just to get those days of really fast downwind sailing.
"Those times when you get to settle in with a nice sail combination in some big waves, it’s pretty hard to find that kind of racing in any other area of the sport. One thing about this race is that the memories of the bad times seem to fade a lot faster than the memories of the good times."
Unforgettable images of Volvo Ocean Race legends clinging on for dear life in the Roaring Forties, Furious Fifties and Shrieking Sixties speak for themselves.
With waters cold, dynamic and unpredictable as they charge around the bottom of the planet, unhindered by land, generating winds as strong as 70 knots, this area of the planet poses unique and formidable dangers to the fleet.
In the early days of the race, back in the 1970s and 80s, the sailors would sail south as far as possible – down below 60 degrees, as close to Antarctica as they dared – in order to shave vital distance off the racetrack.
© Yann Riou / Dongfeng Race Team / Volvo Ocean Race Yann Riou / Dongfeng Race Team / Volvo Ocean Race
Inevitably, that meant having to negotiate icebergs and, worse, smaller and harder to spot growlers – making the Southern Ocean a decisive and frightening trade-off in terms of risk and reward.
In 2017-18 there will be an Antarctic Ice Exclusion Zone on Leg 3 as in the much faster racing boats of the modern Volvo Ocean Race era, hitting the ice at speeds three times those of the early boats would have catastrophic results.
The goal for the skippers and navigators is to use the weather data at their disposal to find the low pressure systems and ride the fringes – staying just on the right side of the danger zone.
With hurricane-force storms a common occurrence, even if the boats should not encounter ice, racing in the Southern Ocean remains just as much of a gamble is it ever was.
Text by Jonno Turner
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