Popular for so many reasons, but also often underestimated, Leg 7, one of the longest of the circumnavigation, is made up of two races. The first is down the West Coast of North America and the second back up its East Coast. This edition sees teams race from Seattle to Panama, then up to Washington, DC, with mileage around 7,200nm and 40 days at sea.

On the conclusion of Race 11: #Stayconnected with SENA, the professional sailing team reflected on the first stage of this leg. Celebrating the tactical racing as well as basking in the memories of the wildlife sightings, starlit skies, and abundant sunsets.

Image: Stargazing on board Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam

“Leg 7, the US Coast to Coast Leg, can be seen by some as an ‘easier’ leg, but actually it isn’t. There aren’t any easy legs on the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. Each brings their own individual test of personal endurance.” says seasoned Race Skipper, David Hartshorn, who has trod this path before and on this edition is leading the Bekezela team.

He explained: “This leg is mentally challenging, firstly with the demands of the body going from cold to heat; I am talking serious unrelenting heat from the high tropical sun – which also makes it hard to sleep. Then working in a watch pattern, you are concentrating on light wind spinnaker helming, which demands huge focus and attention to detail.”

Image: Sunset on board Bekezela, looking out for the green flash

Race 11 started where the previous race finished, back out in the North Pacific. A Le Mans start, led by lead skipper, James Finney of Zhuhai, got racing underway. With challenging conditions over the first few days, the fleet was tightly packed before the first tactical decision of the race, to stay more inshore or to go for the lure of Scoring Gate bonus points.

Ryan Gibson, skipper of Dare To Lead reported: “Upwind conditions trying to push the fleet against the coast was tricky but once the wind changed to a better angle it was fantastic sailing, quickly south with some very strong winds, at times reaching 50 knots and boat speeds hitting 20 knot surfs fairly often; record finally standing at 23.2 knots. Routing became important early on splitting the fleet in three groups with the Scoring Gate positioned well offshore, current along the coast or generally more wind offshore were the big factors making it a very tactical race.”

Image: Clipper Race fleet after the Le Man start

The first to pass through the Scoring Gate was Zhuhai which blasted across at 19:44:20 UTC on 7 May and picked up the top three points up for grabs. An incredible battle ensued between the next two yachts to cross through the gate, with only a 34-second margin separating the two teams. Our Isles and Oceans crossed approximately 26 minutes after Zhuhai with a time of 20:10:09 UTC, and then 34 seconds later, Ha Long Bay, Viet Namcompleted the bonus points scoring.

With spinnakers aloft, the race south was heating up in more ways than one. Leaderboard positions changed frequently, though Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam and Qingdao once again took to leading the fleet.

The Ocean Sprint was the next opportunity to gain much coveted bonus points, though as the temperatures rose the wind died and many were left floundering rather than sprinting, and opted to try to maximise positioning for the first of the Mandatory Finish Gates over results. Who fared best was just announced yesterday.

After narrowly missing gaining Scoring Gate points, crossing in fourth, Yacht Club Punta del Este decided to take the inshore route and chose to abandon the challenge of the Ocean Sprint after seeing other boats making better speeds. Its Skipper, Nano Antia Bernardez, said: “It was a tricky Ocean Sprint as going for the points involved sacrificing too much.”

“After realising that, we put another gybe inshore to position ourselves closer to the coast, we were in third, maybe fourth by then. We decided to really commit to take the inshore route as the forecast was completely unreliable and full of wind holes, At least near the coast you would expect more wind caused by the sea breeze and some random land breezes at night.”

Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam took the top spot and the full three points in the Race 11 Ocean Sprint. Qingdao was second fastest and has received two points and taking the last available bonus point was Perseverance.

This race is unique on the circuit in that there were six Mandatory Finish Gates in place along the race route in the run up to the Finish Line.The further south along the route, the winds get lighter approaching the Intertropical Convergence Zone, and can shut down completely. To avoid yachts getting stuck if the wind should cease, any of these Mandatory Gates can be used as the finishing point of the race.

Image: Spinnaker sail trimmer on Qingdao

On 22 May, the decision was made by the Race Committee that Mandatory Gate 2 would be the finish line for Race 11. The decision took into account the weather forecasts, distances to go, fuel and motoring capabilities, and likely Panama Canal transit dates. Whose positioning would pay off?

After a closely fought battle once the gate had been declared, it was Qingdao which took first place, closely followed by Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. It was an intense battle between the two which left Race Viewer addicts gripped in the final few hours.

Said Qingdao Skipper, Philip Quinn, on what made the difference in the final few miles to win Race 11:“When the wind is so light, there is a bit more luck involved. Of course, there’s skill as well, lots of sail changes, course changes and spotting any wind shift and localised weather early.

“But the good or bad luck falls to who has the best, and makes use of, localised weather. For our last night of the race before getting to the finish, we were lucky enough to surf a couple of squalls meaning at times we could well have been doing two or three times the boat speed of Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam. This could well have made all the difference.”

Image: Team photo on board Unicef

Third place was hotly contested with Zhuhai, Perseverance and PSP Logistics all well positioned for what was the final 60nm and 24hrs of racing, and with Yacht Club Punta del Este also making good speeds close to the shore.

However, it was PSP Logistics’ tactics which paid off, Skipper Mike Miller said: “A call to go further out to catch the wind paid off handsomely, as we dodged many of the ensuing windholes, and we ended up in third. Back on the podium after seven months, a smashing result for the team.”

Reflecting on the race overall he said: “Race 11 has always been my favourite race of the Clipper Race adventure, and this edition proved no exception. The enormous variety of sailing conditions, the changing weather, the incredible wildlife and the spectacular sunsets are a proper test for the crews and a tactical lottery for the skippers.”

Image: Pod of dolphins cruise past Unicef

Despite a disappointing result, which will see them move off the top of the overall leaderboard for the first time since Race 3, Ineke van der Weijden, Skipper of Perseverance is proud of her crew, what they have achieved and all they have enjoyed so far:

“We did not get the results we wanted, but the crew really made the most of the adventure. They worked hard, both in the 35-40 knots of upwind as well as in the 0.6 knot wind holes, to make the boat go fast and in a straight line. We had setbacks and successes and in the end they each walk away with an amazing set of experiences and stories.”

Another close race in the Clipper 2023-24 Race circumnavigation shows how competitive the fleet is, but there has also been so much more to this race. Says Tom Newman, First Mate on Our Isles and Oceans: “The scenery; flat glassy seas, towering cumulus, and large big sky sunsets. The fauna; jellyfish, squid, dolphins, turtles and brown boobies. The crew; to teach, to find new stories about, helped uplift morale on board and made this race meaningful. It is a real pleasure to be part of this race and the Our Isles and Oceans team.”

Image: The now infamous booby, taking up residence on the bow sprit

Though the heat can be excruciating and the trials of racing 24 hours a day exhausting Punta del Este’s leader, Nano exclaimed: “We humans many times forget the simpler things of our life, those privileges that look normal, we give so much for granted and I think sailing around the world and this leg in particular teaches you to value the simple things of life. How to endurance against adversity without having the possibility of escape. What a lovely skill to develop!”

There is still much for the crews to enjoy as the fleet makes best speeds motor sailing towards Panama for the upcoming canal crossing. Time to relax, make some repairs, and reflect on their time so far. From Panama City the teams will make the preparations to traverse the engineering marvel, back into the Atlantic Ocean, the final ocean of the circumnavigation, for Race 12.

Read the final blogs in full for all the Leg 7 reflections here.

You too could be navigating by the stars, find out more about Leg 7 and if you have what it takes to race round the world by signing up to the latest webinar here.

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