Ready for the Doldrums

Conrad Colman blogs from Spirit of Hungary

"The Doldrums are an infamous area for sailors, especially those in a hurry like us. This is typically the zone of scorching sun, pitiful wind, fried nerves and parched scuttlebutts."

Emails from the boats MAR 31, 2015 14:01

Position 7 Degrees 04 S 029 Degrees 46 West. 

The Doldrums are an infamous area for sailors, especially those in a hurry like us. This is typically the zone of scorching sun, pitiful wind, fried nerves and parched scuttlebutts.* Unfortunately our luck with the weather is holding true, meaning that we are lining up for a challenging crossing of a wide band of light to no wind, from 5 degrees south of the equator to 1 degree north. In a classic case of the rich getting richer, or at least getting home sooner, the leaders made it through with barely a slow down when they were here a couple of weeks ago.

The main engines of the Doldrums are the high pressure areas in the Atlantic Ocean, the Azores High in the north and the St Helena high in the south. Spinning clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anticlockwise in the south, these wheels drive the stable “trade winds” and push pretty reliable winds onto the equator, north easterly winds from the Azores high and south easterlies from the St Helena. The collision between these winds, and the immense heat from the direct sun create the famously temperamental weather, although things generally smooth out the farther west you go.

Sadly this is not the case for our passage, as the high pressure wheels are broken. In the south, a cold front at the unusually high level of Rio has obliterated the high, and in the north, a compact low off the coast of Guinea is wreaking havoc. Instead of two gear wheels meshing, now imagine who hose pipes with their jets of water directed at each other. The flow from both the north and the south is split by its confrontation with the other and each spurts its energy to the east by Africa and to the west by Brazil. In the middle there will be almost no wind at all. Our goal now is to stay just on the western edge of this mess of nothingness, far enough west to find some semblance of wind but far enough east so to help our angle northwards after we have escaped.

This kind of meteorological formation is rare and maybe due to the fact that we are late in the season. The Vendee Globe leaves France for its nonstop loop of the globe in November. The Volvo Ocean Race has to leave more time for their extra legs and stopovers so they leave in October, although in its early days it left at the end of the summer! In contrast, the Barcelona World Race leaves Europe on the 31st of December, allowing more energetic autumnal storms to upset the balance of power in the southern Atlantic on our return.

So, with my shoulder getting stronger by the day, we’re braced for a long battle with marauding squall clouds, fitful winds, a stupidly powerful sun and endless sail changes. Mental preparation is key for the coming days, as it’s possible to either give up the drive to push ahead or scream oneself hoarse with frustration. What’s needed is a delicate blend of “que sera, sera” and one of my favourite quotes “when you’re running through hell, don’t stop!”.

*Scuttlebutts were the barrels of drinking water placed on the deck of old ships where sailors could get a drink or congregate for a chat. The wood and iron version of the modern water cooler as centre for conversation.