As the seven crews competing in the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race fight their way through the Southern Ocean, past VOR winner Ian Walker looks at the state of the competition so far. On one hand, Walker says, things are panning out much as he expected, with the veteran teams quickly jumping into the overall lead. However, he emphasizes that the very nature of Southern Ocean racing is such that the seven teams are all pretty much living on a knife’s edge all the time.
1. Legs 1 and 2 have served up some very competitive racing and exceptionally close finishes, especially coming into Cape Town. Have the results gone how you expected? Any surprises?
Pretty much, yes. I think my prediction was for a Dongfeng win, Mapfre to come second and a tough fight for third between Vestas 11th Hour Racing, Brunel and AkzoNobel. Vestas 11th Hour Racing nailed Leg 1 tactically to take a deserved win. AkzoNobel has actually been reasonably competitive considering their shambolic preparations, but Brunel was the biggest disappointment until they found their mojo halfway through Leg 2.
2. The start of Leg 2 provided the teams with some epic conditions and created some of the most iconic footage of the boats, racing half-submerged down the Atlantic. How do sailors cope with these conditions so early on a 20-day leg? Do they hold back knowing that they need to preserve the boat for such a long leg?
What stunning images! That was the first time I was missing being out there! In those conditions, the main concern for me would be sail damage at the start of a long leg. The boats are pretty robust and unlikely to have problems downwind. The mast is always a worry in the back of your mind, but there’s not much you can do about it. That would have been a baptism by fire for the rookies, but it’s good to get some of that before having to deal with it down South.
3. One of the critical strategic decisions was how far west to cross the doldrums. Did the teams tackle this how you’d expect and what would have been the secret to a fast Doldrums crossing?
We have such accurate models and satellite pictures now, it seems to be getting easier to predict where best to cross the Doldrums. Everyone pretty much went through in a line, and they hardly slowed down. You always need a bit of luck with the clouds. Starting from Lisbon also made it far easier to get west, and took out the tactical dilemmas of how to deal with the Canaries or Cape Verde Islands.
4. As the teams were nearing the Southern Ocean, the leader board was chopping and changing as teams were gybing almost in the opposite direction to Cape Town before gybing back and gaining miles, despite sailing farther. Can you explain the reason for this and did it pay off in the long run?
This won’t be the last time the teams have to sail around a high-pressure system in this race, and it is one of the hardest things to judge correctly. We had a similar issue with the Bermuda High when sailing from Brazil to Newport in the last race. You get drawn in toward the center of the high looking for a favourable wind shift to gybe on, but all the time the wind speed drops. In my experience, the routing software underestimates the importance of wind speed relative to the shift downwind, and it is easy to get sucked into the high as Dongfeng did. Clearly, in this instance, the key was to sail a longer distance in more wind, even if that meant sailing 180 degrees away from Cape Town. A tough thing to make yourself do!
5. Leg 3 is set to be an epic with the return of a Southern Ocean leg to Melbourne. What challenges are the teams going to face and what will be the key strategic decisions?
Cape Town is a tough place to leave in terms of not wanting to leave such a beautiful place and knowing what lies ahead. The rough plan is to get south into the westerly winds as quickly as possible, even if it means sailing west for a period, before turning left across the Southern Indian Ocean. I think this is one of the toughest sections of the race, and I have had some bad experiences there, especially on Green Dragon in 2008. I suspect teams will stay as far south as they can (limited by any ice gate rules) to sail the shortest route to Melbourne. Much will depend on the weather that is dealt. Southerly winds can be biting cold and very squally. This is particularly hard to manage at night.
7. Now the race is entering the Southern Ocean, what kit are the sailors going to have in their kitbag? Likely to be much different to the last leg?
On Leg 2 they had to be prepared for extreme hot and cold weather. Leg 3 will be all about keeping warm. The key to this is lots of layering, and an excellent waterproof and breathable outer layer. I am a big fan of merino base layers and GORE-TEX waterproof clothing. Everyone will have their own tricks for hands and feet. Personally, I wear diving gloves when it gets really cold, and mittens are the warmest of all. But not the easiest on deck. If you have my hairdo, a hat is also pretty important!
8. Going on the form of the first two legs are you expecting a similar leader board for Leg 3? Who’s your money on for the top three and why?
I would like to see Vestas 11th Hour Racing win, but it is really hard to look beyond Dongfeng and Mapfre at this stage as they have started the race so much better prepared. I think third place will be between an improving Brunel and Vestas. Turn the Tide on Plastic should be pleased with their race so far, despite finishing last in both legs. They have been very much in the race, and I hope they can pick off some boats this time. It is still early in the race, so the top teams need to be mindful of protecting their equipment and minimising long-term risk.
For the latest on the fleets progress on Leg 3, click here.