While it may still be too early to say anything about the race having been broken wide open, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam is now clearly the team to beat in the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race, following a decisive victory in Leg 5.
Prior to the start of the 6,776-mile marathon around Cape Horn from Auckland to Itajaí, Brazil, Azzam and Chinese-flagged Dongfeng were neck-and-neck, having match-raced their way halfway around the planet. But then Dongfeng broke its mast deep in the Southern Ocean, opening the door for Azzam to jump ahead, something the veteran team was more than happy to do.
At Cape Horn itself, it was Alvimedica in the lead, with U.S. skipper Charlie Enright at the helm, but only by the slimmest of margins, and in the days that followed, Azzam skipper Ian Walker and company quickly jumped into first again as they headed north into the Atlantic. After that, they simply refused to give it up, ultimately coming in a half hour ahead of second-place MAPFRE—a relatively comfortable lead, given the razor-thin margins that have marked much of the race thus far.
“It’s awesome. We sailed very, very well, it was a very tight finish. It’s been such a monster of a leg,” an exuberant Walker said afterward. “The great thing about one-design [racing] is that if you sail well, you do well, and if you make mistakes or don’t sail well, you don’t.”
As evidence of just how well Walker’s crew did, they also won the leg’s IWC Speed Record Challenge, clocking an incredible 550 miles in 24 hours on March 30 (although the outright record of 596.6 miles, set by the Volvo 70 Ericsson 4 in 2008 remains in tact). Equally impressive, this is the second time Azzam has won an offshore leg in this year’s regatta, a first as the preceding four legs were won by four separate teams. As the fleets looks forward to Leg 6—which begins April 19 and stretches 5,010 miles from Itajaí to Newport, Rhode Island—Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing finds itself with a seven-point cushion between it and the rest of the pack for the four offshore legs remaining.
As for the rest of the fleet, the pressure cooker that is the 2014-15 VOR continues, with second through fifth place separated a mere three points. To illustrate just how close things remain, MAPFRE may have been over 20 minutes ahead of third-place Alvimedica at the finish, but Alvimedica crossed barely a minute ahead of Dutch-flagged Brunel.
“The result sucks. Of course, the entire leg was fun, it’s just the result was no good,” said Brunel skipper Bouwe Bekking, venting his frustration shortly after his arrival in Brazil.
Even more frustrating was the situation faced by the all-women crew of SCA, which damaged its fractional Code-0 headsail in an out of control gybe while still deep in the Southern Ocean. This, in turn, forced them to slow down appreciably as they nursed both the boat and rig the rest of the way round Cape Horn to the finish. Even then, the crew had a series of close calls, hitting not one but three different objects in fairly quick succession forcing them to pull out all the stops just to keep the boat in one piece.
Video of SCA striking a submerged object in the South Atlantic
“We were sailing downwind with our A3 up, in 22 knots of wind, we’d just done our final tack heading to Itajaí, and there was a big bang. The boat stopped, and we did a huge wipeout, because we lost control of our port rudder," skipper Sam Davies said of the last hit. “The port rudder was knocked out of its bearings, and we broke the steering arm off. Luckily we didn’t lose the rudder and didn’t damage the hull…. We also didn’t damage a sail, as that’s our other concern. We managed to get the A3 furled and down. I think we may have broken one batten on the mainsail so it’s quite a low damage toll given the wipeout.”
In the end, Davies and company were finally able to finish only about a day and a half behind the rest of the fleet on Tuesday.
As for Dongfeng, the coming weeks and days will be challenging ones to say the least if French-born skipper Charles Caudrelier and the rest of the Sino-European don’t want to fall even further in the standings. In the wake of the breakdown, the crew diverted to the Argentinean port of Ushuaia to the west of Cape Horn, where it formally withdrew from the race.
Since then the crew has created a jury rig and begun motorsailing the rest of the way to Itajaí where it will install a new mast. Even then, the crew has been bedeviled by contrary winds, which may force it to have to make a pit stop along the way for fuel. One way or another, the chance that this team will be rested by the time of the start of the next leg is a slim one.
Nonetheless, this is a team that has overcome adversity on any number of occasions before, and it would be unwise, at best, to count them out.