Lionel Lemonchois and his nine-man crew are beating to windward, slowly making their way to the tip of South America which they hope to round this evening. After 16 days at sea, the ten sailors onboard Gitana 13 had their first day of rough weather yesterday. Sailing close-hauled into a wind blowing at 40-45 knots in rough seas—3-4-meter swells—the maxi-catamaran had to force its way forward toward Lemaire Channel. “The past day was really tough! We had gusts up to 50 knots, and on deck the crew had to drop the mainsail. We plugged along at around 10 knots flying only the staysail...it was really blowing out there. The wind calmed a bit at the end of the day, falling to 30-35 knots. Gitana 13 was then flying the main alone with 3 reefs, under a beautiful cloudy sky,” said Dominic Vittet.
It looks as though conditions will also be blustery in the channel separating Staten Island from Tierra del Fuego. Even though the wind has eased to around 25 knots, Lemonchois and his crew will have to deal with rough seas pushing 7-meter swells. “After Lemaire Channel, we should be able to make it the rest of the way to the Horn on a reach. We don't have any time to lose, because the window that we're targeting to make the rounding this evening is narrow. We're going to try to slip through a mouse hole,” said Vittet, the onboard navigator. Renowned for its western storms that can crop up daily, Cape Horn is never an easy obstacle to surmount, particularly when doing it against the grain, i.e., against the prevailing westerly winds and the big swells from the Pacific that roll freely through this southern latitude.
While the crew prepares and hopes to round the famous South American promontory this evening, Gitana 13's skipper is celebrating his birthday today. Making this legendary rounding would sure be a great gift for a sailor.
Historically, sailing crews hired to make this passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans needed equal parts courage and stubbornness. In the early years of the 20th century, two stories of attempts at rounding Cape Horn show the difficulty of this exercise.
In 1904, American four-masted “Edward Sewall” encountered such bad weather that it took nearly three months, from March to May, to get past the “rock.” Five years later, the three-masted “La Rochejaquelein” from Nantes spent more than two months getting past the Chilean cape. But it wasn't rare at the time that sailboats, meeting persistently bad weather, turned back and opted for the round-the-world route to San Francisco via the Indian Ocean.
For seven of the ten crewmembers onboard Gitana 13, this rounding of Cape Horn will be their first. Lionel Lemonchois, Nicolas Raynaud and Florent Chastel had the good fortune of rounding the Horn during past record attempts on the Jules Verne Trophy. None of the other crew has ever ventured to 55°56 S before. But of the three Cape Horners onboard, only Lemonchois has ever done this rounding from east to west. He did this same route from New York to San Francisco in 1994 and 1998 with Isabelle Autissier and her crew.