Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam and skipper Ian Walker made it official today by clinching the overall win in the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race following a fifth-place finish in the ninth and final offshore leg from Lorient, France, to Gothenburg, Sweden.
Azzam’s victory ends a decade-long quest for Walker, a two-time Olympic silver medalist from Great Britain, who has run three consecutive Volvo campaigns, including a disappointing 2011-12 race with Abu Dhabi in which his team trailed the rest of the fleet much of the way around the world.
From the outset, Walker said his goal was to finish well, ideally in the top three, in every leg, and in the end the team did just that: sailing the most consistent race of the fleet over the 40,000-mile course, finishing in the top three in seven of the nine legs and winning two legs, including Leg 5 around Cape Horn from Auckland, New Zealand, to Itajai, Brazil.
"I said at the start of the race that I was confident, but there are a hundred ways to lose this race and only one way to win it. It just all came together for us perfectly," a jubilant Walker said afterward.
Taking second overall was Dutch-flagged Brunel followed by China’s Donfeng, and then Alvimedica and Spain’s Mapfre, which are tied for fourth. Saturday’s in-port race will decide the fate of the latter two, with the in-port series being the deciding factor in all ties.
Currently, Alvimedica and U.S. skipper Charlie Enright are ahead by just two points in the in-port series, which has proved to be just as competitive as the offshore portion of the event. As a testament to the team’s strength, Azzam is leading the in-port series as well.
“We built up a pretty nice lead coming into the Hague,” said Alvimedica watch captain Mark Towill of the team’s offshore win—its first in the 2014-2015 VOR, and a somewhat unique one given the 24-hour pit-stop the fleet made in the Netherlands halfway between France and Sweden. “But during the re-start the fleet compressed based on the weather…. Luckily the breeze filled in from the east a little quicker than we were expecting. We held on and protected our lead to the finish. It was a little bit crazy coming up the river but we are happy to be here with the win.”
Ironically, among the most disappointed sailors in the fleet are surely those comprising the crew of third-place finisher, Dongfeng. Despite having a mixed Sino-European team that included a number of relative newcomers to sailing, not to mention a number of setbacks—like a broken rudder in Leg 1—the team sailed remarkably well. Indeed, the greater the adversity, the better French skipper Charles Caudrelier and company seemed to sail. Coming off a heartbreaking dismasting in the heart of the Southern Ocean in Leg 5, for example, the team not only re-stepped its rig in record time, but won the following leg from Brazil to Newport.
Unfortunately, it was at this point that the wheels seemed to fall off, as Dongfeng blew what appeared to be a solid lead midway through Leg 6 across the Atlantic to not only finish fourth, but incur a one-point penalty for sailing into a shipping lane off the U.S. coast. The team then finished a disappointing fourth in Leg 7 from Lisbon, Portugal, to Lorient, France, bringing an end to any talk of a dramatic comeback and possible overall victory. After that a fourth-place finish in the final offshore leg to Gothenburg very nearly pushed the team off the podium altogether, with Alvimedica and Mapfre both being only a single point behind.
Obviously, a third-place finish in an event like the VOR is nothing to sneeze at, and it clearly signals that China is now a country to be reckoned with. Nonetheless, given Caudrelier’s competitive nature—not to mention drive that’s been exhibited over the last nine months by the rest of his crew—you can be sure that the “what ifs” will be playing through their minds for some time to come.