Ski Yachting – Commonwealth Bay, Antarctica

Extract from Sports the Olympics Forgot

The windiest place in the world is on the continent of Antarctica. Commonwealth Bay is about 48 km (30 mi) wide at the entrance between Point Alden and Cape Gray and was discovered in 1912 by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition.

The wind regularly exceeds 150mph and the average annual wind speed is around 50mph. The winds are katabatic in nature and flow along the steep surface of the ice shield towards the sea. The air flow is accelerated by the increasing gradient of the surface of ice and by the Cape Denison cliff monolith.

However, in the summer there are periods when the wind abates sufficiently for the Christmas Ski Yachting race to take place. The race has been held since 1948 and now attracts teams from 20 countries. The race takes place over a distance of 10 miles starting in the interior and finishing a mile from the sea cliffs.

Each yacht is crewed by four people. The boat has to be a minimum of 20 feet long and be fitted with at least six skis. Each yacht must be fitted with three anchors each of which must be strong enough to stop the yacht on its own in a 75mph wind. Two guide ropes are stretched across the ice at the finish line and are designed either to stop the yacht or allow the crew to bail out if the yacht isn’t stopping. As an emergency the crew also have to wear life-jackets just in case the wind proves too strong and the yacht heads over the cliff with the crew still on board.

When the forecast shows the winds for the following day are going to be relatively light, the yachts are towed to the start line in the interior by tracked vehicles.  This towing allows the organizers to see that all the skis on the yachts are correctly aligned and are functioning accurately. Once the yachts arrive they are placed on the starting line downwind. The starter checks the wind speed and if it’s under 60mph he waves a wooden seal in the air. This is the indicator for the teams to rig their yacht and put up the sails.

As soon as the sails are raised the yachts head to the coast, sometimes to the consternation of the more inexperienced crews who aren’t always ready for the initial burst of speed generated by the wind. The race is not about pure speed as the teams have to tack across the wind to round six separate penguin-shaped markers in the ice; there is approximately 1.5 miles between each marker.

Accidents are quite common as the wind speed leaves little room for error. The most accidents are at the first ‘Emperor Penguin’ marker where all the teams are bunched together and at the sixth and final ‘Rock Hopper Penguin’ marker where the teams are jostling for the best line to reach the finish ahead of the rest.

The biggest accident was in 1983 when 15 of the 16 yachts in that race crashed at the Emperor Penguin. A gust caused the leading New Zealand yacht, ‘Frank Oliver’, to veer across the path of the other yachts who all tried to take avoiding action, but this only resulted in skis becoming entangled and yachts capsizing on to the ice. This general misfortune did allow the Moroccan yacht, ‘Sahara Moon’ a surprise late entrant, to win the race although their winning time of 14 minutes 16 seconds was the slowest ever.

Another bad accident, which almost caused an international incident, occurred in 1985 when the US yacht ‘Reagan Forever’ was leading going into the Rock Hopper turn. The Soviet yacht, ‘Potemkin’, was taking a very sharp line and as the wind picked up effectively torpedoed the American boat, knocking the crew on to the ice. One of the crew’s legs was broken when an anchor from the yacht fell on his knee. The Soviet yacht was immediately disqualified – a black seal was waved in the air by the Umpire – allowing the British yacht, ‘Blue Peter’, to sail to a straightforward victory.

The quickest winning time was 10 minutes and 16 seconds in 1997 when the Australians nosed ahead of the French in the final four hundred yards. The wind at the finish was nearly 80mph, which meant that both guide ropes and all the anchors had to be deployed to stop the yachts. Even then the Greek boat disappeared into the sea although thankfully the crew had bailed out already.

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