For Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) pundits the world over, this weekend was a mixed bag. On the upshot, the 2008/2009 VOR closed with fireworks for Telefonica Black, the Spanish flagged B-team skippered by Fernando Echavarri, who finally won their first leg victory in a nail-biter finish with Puma. The two VO70’s were mere boatlengths apart as the two sleds sprinted towards the St. Petersburg finishing line, but ultimately Echavarri proved to have the faster hand on the helm, nosing in front of Puma’s il mostro by a few scant boatlengths.
Great news for Echavarri, less-than-ideal news for Puma skipper Ken Read (but not a game-altering outcome, as the podium positions were determined while the fleet was still in Stockholm), but for VOR pundits, many of us woke up Saturday morning (in the U.S. at least) to a nagging morning-after question: What now? Since October 4, 2008 the VOR has provided countless opportunities to waste employer’s time the world over, with updated race results every three hours, daily emails from the boats, and a fantastic photo gallery. Unfortunately, this is one hangover that’s likely to last until 2011 when the next edition of the VOR kicks into high gear.
For those of you who are checking in to the race for the first time in a while (and thus likely have a clearer head these days), Torben Grael’s all-conquering Ericsson 4 made their final climb of the race onto the top flight of the race podium where they were awarded overall honors in this year’s event. While Grael and the lads certainly looked happy in the prize-giving ceremony, their victory was all but cemented while the fleet was still in Boston during the middle of May so convincing was their performance during the first half of the race. Moreover, Grael can now add another accolade to his already-rich resume (he’s won more Olympic medals than any other sailor, five), that of the skipper who has sailed the most miles in a 24-hour period in one day aboard a monohull: 596.6 (that’s an average pace of 24.85 knots!). Impressive, but not nearly as impressive as their level of preparation, training, and trail and error that went on prior to the Alicante, Spain start in October. Like many other writers have penned before, this race is typically won before the starting gun fires, and the 2008/2009 edition proved no exception.
The battle for second place proved a lot hotter, with two strong comers, Puma Ocean Racing and Telefonica Blue, Bouwe Bekking’s Spanish-flagged A-team entry. This battle was raging, with Bekking ahead for the first section of the race, then Read, then Bekking again. This flip-flop on the leader board only got hotter as the boats wound their way around the planet. Unfortunately for Bekking, Read’s men continued to get faster and faster, finally seeing their first few first-place outcomes in the penultimate ocean leg and in the last two in-port races. Even worse for T Blue was a navigational mishap just after the start of Leg Nine, which saw the Spaniards aground on a rock which they tagged while sailing at roughly 18 knots. The boat was hard aground for almost two hours before she wiggled free and limped back ashore as water poured through her destroyed daggerboard trunk. Some serious overtime from T Blue’s shore team got the blue boat sailing again, but without the necessary runway to catch Puma’s il mostro. While this disappointment must have been acute for Bekking, this was in fact his team’s second grounding, as the team also found a rock prior to starting the long leg from Qingdao to Rio.
Other teams also had moments of brilliance. Green Dragon, Ian Walker’s under-funded and off-pace Irish/Chinese entry, found her feet towards the end of the event, with a strong showing in their home waters. Delta Lloyd, the only boat to be racing in a first-generation VO70 (the former ABN Amro One) sailed well in several in-port races, specifically in Boston. Telefonica Black earned a trip to the top of the podium in the final leg, earning them some serious winner’s pride. Ericsson 3, Magnus Olsson’s All-Nordic Ericsson-sponsored B-team, pulled off the win of the race by screeching into Rio ahead of all other boats, and this after starting the 12,300 nautical-mile leg several hours after the rest of the fleet. In fact, the only team in this event to not see the limelight of victory on some level was the ill-fated Russian entry. While Team Russia hobbled into their home waters of St. Petersburg under sail, they were not an official entrant in this final leg as they ran out of funding and dropped out of the fleet in Rio; they had hoped to race in this final leg but in a mad-dash effort to meet all measurement requirements the team ultimately came up short and were not deemed legal to race.
So even if the suspense was lacking for the final results of this year’s race, the competition was fierce up until the last seconds for each sailor. And while the next year or so appears a bit dry for those of us addicted to VOR fixes multiple times a day, the early reports regarding the rules changes for the next edition (more “under-30” sailors, fixed bulb weights, increased boat weights, no more stacking, and the possibility of a women’s team) promise exciting action. It’ll just be a little while.
But thankfully we still have the America’s Cup to keep us all fulfilled, content, and strife-free until the next VOR.