Ken Read went to bed last “night” (if there is such a thing in Sweden during the solstice) with a smile on his face. It wasn’t because he won the Volvo Ocean Race — that explained the smile on Torben Grael’s face — but because Puma Ocean Racing finally won their first leg of the 2008/2009 Volvo Ocean Race (VOR). And what a leg it was! Leaving the docks in Gteborg, spectators worldwide sat poised to watch a serious yacht race between Puma’s il mostro and Telefonica Blue. Going into this leg, a mere one point separated the black-and-red cat from T Blue, with the two teams leap-frogging each other for command of the number-two spot.
But then Bouwe Bekking’s T Blue found “the rock”, which they hit at 15 – 18 knots, impaling themselves on said stone for several hours — while the boat got the stuffing knocked out of her, broke a daggerboard and its housing, sheered a rudder, and took on serious water — before limping back to port. Heaven can only imagine what poor Simon “Sci Fi” Fisher, T Blue’s navigator, went to bed thinking that night.
But the fleet charged forward on the 525-mile contest. il mostro had been directly astern of T Blue when they hit rock bottom. Thankfully, Kenny Read and navigator Andrew Cape were on top of the situation. The helm spun and il mostro’s bow swung to weather at the last second, avoiding calamity and essentially securing second place before the leg had even begun.
For Bekking, the yacht race was over (they hope to rejoin the fleet in Stockholm for a last in-port race and then the final 370-mile leg to the finishing line in St. Petersburg, Russia), but for Read it had just begun. While he might have added security to his second-place overall standings by dodging the rock, he still found himself the proverbial bridesmaid (his term); close, but no cigar. With T Blue out of the picture, Read set his sights on sending his cloud of so-so luck back across the pond.
Of course, the two Ericsson boats proved his biggest challenge. These two finely prepared and fantastically developed boats and programs have proven to be the model for future VOR campaigns: Hire the world’s best VO70 designer (Juan K — he’s won the last two VOR’s), start designing and building early, build several boats, fund two teams, and populate them with the some of the world’s best sailors. Check.
Which brings us back to leg 9, from Gteborg to Stockholm. Call it a photo finish — you’ll search harder to find a 525-nautical mile race with a closer finish — but il mostro’s bow pierced the line before Ericsson 3’s,, thus snatching a hometown win from the all-Nordic crew aboard E3 and catapulting Puma Ocean Racing into the honeymoon suite, at least for this leg.
But why did Torben Grael go to bed smiling? A third-place finish for Ericsson 4 isn’t typically cause for too much celebration when you are used to winning these legs…unless that third-place finish all but cements your place in the record books as the overall winner of the 2008/2009 VOR. Which was Torben’s experience, as he commands a 13-point lead, with a total of 12 points still left for grabs.
For VOR pundits, Leg 9 was a bit of a let down. Yes, il mostro stood on the top spot on the podium, but their real competition — T Blue — self-vanquished themselves before the first fisticuffs were exchanged. Torben has popped his champagne bottle, Kenny no doubt chugged his, and Bouwe Bekking — one of the most-storied sailors in the VOR — is likely walking around with a permanent hangover…at least until the next round-the-world grudge match begins.
So is it worth watching the rest of the race, given the fact that the leader board has been all but determined? Ask Bekking: Anything can happen. So, until the fat lady sings, you can bet your last bit of carbon fiber that VOR junkies will be glued to their monitors, waiting to “join” the fleet for the real party in St. Petersburg.