June 27, 2019

Malacca Strait hazards spell danger for Ocean Race fleet

ALICANTE, Spain (Reuters) – Volvo Ocean Race’s six-strong fleet enters one of the most hazardous phases of the nine-month, round-the-world event in the next 24 hours when it will reach the Malacca Strait on the third leg from Abu Dhabi to Sanya, China.

The 500-nautical mile (nm) stretch of water, which separates the Indonesian island of Sumatra and Malaysia, narrows to 1.5nm as it funnels past Singapore into the South China Sea and is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

It is notorious for the huge mountain of man-made debris that has been dumped there. The racing boats have had to dodge discarded washing machines and fridges in past editions of the 38,739nm, 41-year-old event, which is held every three years.

There are huge tankers to avoid plus dozens of slow moving or stationary fishing vessels to navigate around and their nets can easily become snagged in the boats’ keels.

“We’ve got to negotiate this really narrow passage with intense shipping and get out of that alive and in one piece,” Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Justin Slattery (Ireland) told Reuters on Saturday.

“There are loads of hazards,” added Britain’s Dee Caffari, of Team SCA, the only all-women crew in the fleet and the first to enter the male-dominated race for 12 years.

“Everyone always talks about the Malacca Strait. Tidal influences, land influences, fishing and shipping vessels. It’s going to be pretty full on,” she told reporters from the boat.

The 4,670nm leg is led by Chinese boat Dongfeng Race Team. At 0440 ET on Saturday, they led by 65.7nm from Spanish boat MAPFRE.

Victory in Sanya around January 27-28, the likely arrival dates of the leaders, would take Dongfeng top of the overall standings in the race.

No Chinese boat has ever won a leg in the event, formerly the Whitbread Round the World Race, despite an entry in both the 2008-09 and 2011-12 editions. Dongfeng nearly broke that duck in the first two legs, but finished a narrow runner-up in both.

A seventh boat in the starting fleet, Team Vestas Wind, was grounded on a reef in leg two and is currently being shipped to Italy for a rebuild ahead of a planned return to the event in June for the final two legs from Lisbon.

The race, which started on Oct. 4 in Alicante, Spain, is scheduled to finish in Gothenburg, Sweden on June 27.

(Editing by Toby Davis)

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Malacca Strait hazards spell danger for Ocean Race fleet

'Star Wars' Filming in Ireland Exposes Birds to the Dark Side

Conservationists fear the filming of the new Star Wars movie on a remote Irish island this week could create more than a phantom menace for thousands of nesting birds.

The island of Skellig Michael features stunning alien-like cliffs and landscapes, making it a great set for director J.J. Abrams’ ;Star Wars: Episode VII. Skellig Michaelis also home to six ground-nesting bird species that are currently in the height of their breeding season.

“Skellig Michael is internationally important for six seabird species,” said Stephen Newton, senior conservation officer at BirdWatch Ireland, one of the organizations that have criticized the plan to film on the island.

Three of those species—Atlantic puffins, Manx shearwaters, and European storm petrels—nest below the ground, where they can’t be seen. The shearwaters and petrels are also nocturnal, which makes them hard to observe and track.

“They nest in burrows, holes, and crevices and only visit their nests during the hours of darkness to feed their young,” Newton said.

That makes it hard to protect the birds’ nests because even locating them is a challenge. “How can the authorities safeguard these birds from disturbance when they do not know where they are?” Newton asked.

The Irish Naval Service is doing more to safeguard the film set from prying eyes than anyone appears to be doing to protect the birds. The navy has set up a two-mile exclusion zone around Skellig Michael, effectively sealing off the island from tourists and fans hoping to get a sneak peek of the movie. The Irish Examiner reported that even the ferrymen who were contracted to shuttle the film crew back and forth needed to get special security clearances.

The United Nations has also wondered about the production’s impact on the island. Skellig Michael is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a designation established nearly 20 years ago to protect the island’s seventh-century Christian monastery.

A UNESCO spokesperson told The Irish Times that the organization has requested information on how and why permission was granted to film on the island. The Irish National Monuments Service said it would provide a report to UNESCO “later this week.” Filming is only scheduled to take place for three days, and the crew will be on to its next location by the end of the week.

None of the six bird species nesting on the island are endangered, but all face declining populations, and Newton pointed out that the Skellig Michael is critical to their future.

“Skellig has at least 10,000 pairs of storm petrels and is one of the largest colonies in the world,” he said.

BirdWatch Ireland had requested information on how the production company would safeguard the birds, but it has not yet been provided.

For its part, the Irish Film Board, which approved the shoot, said the crew’s week on Skellig Michael “has been designed to specifically avoid disturbance of breeding birds on the island.”

All the same, conservationists are definitely feeling a disturbance in the Force, as the production’s long-term impact on the island remains to be seen.

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'Star Wars' Filming in Ireland Exposes Birds to the Dark Side