Friday, January 20, 2017

Finishing the Cape to Rio Race

Approaching the finish line of the Cape to Rio Race presents some interesting choices that must be made on all boats. Some choices are because of the wind conditions generated by the topography of the land close by and some are because of timing of the approach.

I have completed this race three times, in 1993, 1996 and 2000. Those races were all a bit different from this one in that we had the island of Trinidade as a mark of the course, to be left to port. This island is about 600 nautical miles east of the Brazilian mainland and having to go around it forced all boats to approach the finish from the northeast, with Cabo Frio as landfall and an obstacle that must be rounded. From there to Rio there are areas of fluky winds that have to be negotiated.

Trinidade is no longer a mark of the course, so the boats cut the corner and mostly approach from a more easterly direction. Whereas in the past we sailed close by Cabo Frio, this time many will only have seen Cabo Frio on the horizon. Now few are getting themselves trapped in the windless waters around the islands 25 miles from the finish, instead staying further out to sea in cleaner breeze.

The other difference from the races that I have sailed is that the finish line has been moved for some reason that is not known to me. Refer to the image below for a comparison between the two finish lines. This is an image from the tracking map today, December 20th. It shows the tracks of all boats that have finished the race.
Tracking map of the approaches to the finish line. Click on the image to enlarge. Image courtesy of Xtra-Track.
The landward end of the finish line in the past has been at an historic military fort on Ipanema point, under the 2nd "A" in "Ipanema" on the map. The other end of the line was on one of the islands south of that point, out in open water. It gave a long line without excessive current and well clear of the mountains that so affect wind strength and direction. We were able to choose where we wanted to cross that line, depending on wind and current conditions.

Now the finish line is also run from an historic military fort but it is on a tiny island right in the mouth of Guanabara Bay, with a short line defined by the island and a buoy. The line is right in the area of strongest current, with massive volumes of water rushing into this very large bay and back out again six hours later, twice in each 24 hours. Add to that the proximity of this finish line to the famous Sugarloaf mountain that guards the western side of the entrance and we find that the winds may be light to non-existent in this area. Any boat that is unlucky enough to arrive on an ebbing tide may find that they don't have the breeze needed to fight against the strong current, while another boat might have arrived 6 hours earlier or later and found that the flooding tide carried them very speedily down the middle of the channel and across the finish line.

In the map image above you can judge quite well which boats arrived on a flooding tide or slack water and which ones arrived on an ebbing tide. These tracks are not a continuous record of the path that a boat sailed, they are updated at 30-60 minute intervals, so the lines link the spots that each boat was at the times that the tracking system communicated with their tracking transponder. You can see which boats had an easy passage and which had to fight all the way to the line, tacking through the moving water and looking for the areas of least contrary current.

The fortune or misfortune attached to the time of arrival can make a difference of hours to the finishing time, with some boats rushing through the bay entrance and finish line in less than 30 minutes and others taking hours to negotiate the same short distance. Two boats can fight fairly against each other all the way across the ocean, separated by hours on the water but nose-to-nose on handicap. Then they reach the mouth of Guanabara Bay and one has a flooding tide and the other arrives on the next ebbing tide, which cancels out all of the good racing of the previous 2-3 weeks.

We can deal with the vagaries of wind speed and direction, that is part of yacht racing. However, I don't understand why the organisers would add the much more damaging potential of strong currents into the final few miles of a 3500 mile trans-ocean yacht race when there appears to be a perfectly acceptable alternative just a few miles away. It is such an illogical choice that I have to think that there is some reason that I don't know. If the reason is a matter of convenience for those who crew the finish line, that really is not good enough. This race attracts many boats, crewed by hundreds of people and costing millions of dollars in total outlay for the race. Everything possible should be done to make the race as fair as possible for every boat that jumps through the many bureaucratic hoops and negotiates the financial obstacles that are always involved in an international race of this stature. Nobody can do anything about boats of such varying speeds sailing in different weather systems along the course but the start and finish are very visible aspects that contribute to the overall feel of the race and the level of satisfaction of the people involved. Moving that finish line to a less contentious position will help elevate the satisfaction level for those who participate in competing across this massive piece of water.