Abu Dhabi has prevailed in Leg 1 of the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race edging out Dongfeng by the slimmest of margins in the opening chapter of what is looking to be one of the most competitive VOR’s ever. Indeed, right up to the very end, it was a battle royal for first and second, with Abu Dhabi throwing in a number of defensive gybes to fend off Dongfeng in the light airs just off Cape Town.
Ultimately, the finish delta was a mere 12 minutes after some 6,500 miles and 25 days of racing. Coming in third was Team Brunel, with more than 160 miles separating the three podium finishers from the rest of the seven-boat fleet.
"It's quite emotional actually,” said Abu Dhabi’s British-born skipper, Ian Walker, just minutes after crossing the line. “I didn't think I would be, but that last couple of hours, they threw everything at us. We've had people ride on our heels for the last 10 days or so. I must congratulate Dongfeng, an absolutely fantastic performance."
Prior to the start in Alicante, Spain, there had been a lot of speculation as to what the 12th edition of the race would be like with the switch from custom, box-rule boats to one-design Volvo Ocean 65s. But it didn’t take long for it to become evident that the race would be a slugfest from start to finish.
Not only that, the event has become brutally unforgiving, with the fleet quickly punishing one another for the slightest mistakes. No more hoping for a lucky break in the form of conditions that favor a particular boat or sail wardrobe, because the boats and sails are now rigidly identical. In the words of the 44-year-old Walker: “It’s all done on the merits of what’s going on, which puts a lot of pressure on the decision making….Trimmers and drivers are key.”
One thing most race observers didn’t expect prior to the starting gun was how competitive the Chinese-flagged Dongfeng Team would be, even in the face of serious adversity. Early on, the boat hit a submerged object in the middle of the night, which required one of the crew to go over the side to ship a replacement rudder. Then toward the end of the race, a spinnaker block let go as the boat reefed down in the Southern Ocean, causing the sheet to sweep across the stern of the boat, ripping away a number of critical gear items include the portside wheel.
Raw footage of Dongfeng’s spinnaker block breaking loose
Nonetheless, the mixed crew of European veterans and Chinese newbies soldered on, seemingly coming out of each disaster with more boat speed than ever. A good two weeks after the October 11 start in Alicante, Spain, the seven boats remained neck and neck after having spent nearly the entire time within sight of one another from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Doldrums. However, Abu Dhabi began to break the race open following an effortless and remarkably quick passage through the Doldrums, with Team Brunel and Team Vestas Wind in hot pursuit.
Continuing into the South Atlantic Dongfeng managed to close the gap with the three leaders as the fleet skirted west of the light in the St. Helena High. After that, the rich just kept getting richer as the four lead boats were the first to hook into the strong westerlies and steadily pulled away from Alvimedica, MAPFRE and Team SCA at the tail end of the fleet.
Not that this meant they had any kind of opportunity to relax: on the contrary, the final week of the leg consisted of a round-the-clock drag race through often brutal conditions at speeds of 25 knots and more. Worse yet, in addition to being sleep deprived the crews also found themselves living on shortened rations as a result of the slower than expected pace early on to the fluky trades in the North Atlantic.
Abu Dhabi in the home stretch, eating up the miles in the Southern Ocean
Still, an exhausted Walker was clearly thrilled with his team performance following its successful finish in Cape Town. Not only did the team sail well front start to end, the win represents a dramatic turnaround from the 11th edition of the race when his Abu Dhabi team was in the unenviable position of trailing the rest of the fleet from start to finish. To say the team’s performance in Leg 1 has put the rest of the fleet on notice is putting it mildly.
Once all the teams are in it will be rest and repair until the next in-port race on November 15. After that it will be stock on provisions in preparation for Leg 2, which jumps off November 19 and will take the fleet another 6,100 miles to Abu Dhabi.