Following the adventure that was Leg 3 through the heart of the Southern Ocean, the seven teams making up the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race must now be dreaming of such wide-open sailing as they ghost along, often within sight of one another, around the mid-point of Leg 4 from Australia to Hong Kong. In recent days, a mere 30 miles or less has typically separated the entire fleet, with less than six miles separating the top three and no one going over 5 knots, if that. Oh, and in addition to there being over 3,000 miles to the finish, it’s hotter than Hades out there.
“It’s probably a really nice, comfortable 50 degrees Celsius downstairs (122 degrees Fahrenheit) and about 47.8 degrees up on deck,” said Vestas 11th Hour Racing’s Phil Harmer. “The sea temperature is 32 degrees (89F). It’s just a pleasure. Even the off-watch guys don’t want to be down below.”
Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag’s Ben Piggott, the youngest sailor in the fleet at just 21 years old, said: “It’s refreshing being able to sit up on deck and not wear five layers of clothes, but at the same time it’s so frustrating because we’re just not going anywhere.”
“Desperation is probably the only word to describe how we feel sailing through these doldrums,” said Mapfre skipper Zabi Fernandez. “Anyway, things are going OK, sailing at speeds around 2 knots and happy when the heading is inside 45 degrees from course. It is the same for all of us, though, so we are trying not to complain too much and try to move forward. But we have to say, these doldrums are being seriously painful.”
In stark contrast to the fleet’s first encounter with the Doldrums on Leg 2, which proved to be an easy passage with the air rarely if ever completely failing, this time around things went light with a vengeance, leaving the fleet chasing puffs across an often glassy sea.
As things went light, the standings were also thrown into complete disarray and it has become anybody’s race again, the leading boats having been reeled back in by the rest of the fleet. A few days ago, Dongfeng and AkzoNobel managed to separate themselves from the rest of the fleet by following a course that was farther offshore in the vicinity of Melbourne, Australia. But it all proved for naught as first Mapfre and then the rest of the fleet came barreling up from behind as the leaders were the first to lose their wind.
“Everyone’s had their chance at leading in this front pack,” Vestas 11th Hour Racing crewmember Tom Johnson said of the recent racing. “You’ve just got to make the right tactical call, get the right cloud, take the shift and it’s all up for grabs.”
As for Dutch-flagged Team Brunel, at one point it also found itself having to contend with a violent electric storm. “The stable breeze instantly changed, and before we knew it we were becalmed,” skipper Bouwe Bekking said. “Then a huge lightning strike hit, so close the sparks were flying off the mast and runners. Rome [Kirby], who was driving, was lying flat on the deck, just from the shock of the massive sound as well.”
None of the sailors were injured, and miraculously the boat’s electronics survived intact too. Whether the nerves of the sailors across the fleet survive as well over the coming days is an open question. For the latest position reports from the fleet, click here.