The Volvo Ocean Race yachts are marvels of modern engineering, but, alas, they share a common flaw. They have to have wind. Granted, wind isnt normally in short supply on the open oceanuntil you hit the doldrums.
For centuries mariners have feared this equatorial region for its tendency toward sailor-stopping calms. The first leg of the race runs right through it, and what happens there could conceivably determine the victor.
Its incredibly frustrating. It's the worst thing, says Kevin Shoebridge, captain for the Tyco team, a competitor in the 2001-02 race, of being stymied by dead wind in the doldrums.
The region is also prone to violent weather shifts, and Shoebridge says hes seen calm winds turn to 30-knot gales in a matter of minutes. At other times hes sailed through without noticing a thing.
Cooking Up Trouble
The trouble starts with the suns concentrated pounding at the Equator, which bakes air near the oceans surface, making it lighter and causing it to rise. Sailors are picky about wanting their air movement to be generally horizontalrising air offers little wind for the sails and can stop boats dead.
While heating the air, the sun also cooks ocean waters, soaking the rising air with evaporated water, which can result in violent storms. There was one particular instance where it was just a huge black wall of cloud from one horizon to the other, says Shoebridge.
To top off the doldrums troublemaking, the suns beating does a bang-up job of heating Volvo racers as well, who can find their bunks well over 100°F (38°C).
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