After a 12-year absence, the Cape Town to Melbourne leg is back. No more diverting north toward the bathtub-warm waters of the Persian Gulf to keep a bunch of sponsors happy: just a 6,500-mile straight shot through some of the roughest ocean waters on the planet in a stormy downwind passage that recapitulates the glory days of the old Whitbread race.
To this end, on Sunday, December 10, the fleet of the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race will jump off from Cape Town and, after a few laps back and forth for the sake of the fans onshore, set out into what, even today, remains in many ways the great unknown. True, the boats are much better equipped these days to handle the conditions, and the combination of satellite communications and state-of-the-art forecasting means there will be few, if any surprises weather-wise. However, none of this changes the fact that every crew taking part knows there are inevitably going to be at least one or two big Southern Ocean graybeards out there with their name on it.
Then there’s the matter of the sheer stamina involved in keeping up weeks of nonstop racing against some of the best sailors in the world.
“In the last race, when we got off the boat in Brazil after Leg 5, I remember saying to one of our shore crew that if I ever talk about doing this race again the answer is no,” says 38-year-old Team Brunel crewmember Annie Lush with a laugh. “But here I am, back again. Sometimes you love it and sometimes you absolutely hate it, but there is no more extreme thing to do.”
“At the end of the day, it is the best sailing in the world, diving into the Southern Ocean,” says Donfeng’s Stu Bannatyne, who has come to be known as the “King of the Southern Ocean,” in recognition of his having spent a major part of the last two decades racing through the area. “It’s worth coming back every time just to get those days of really fast downwind sailing. Those times when you get to settle in with a nice sail combination in some big waves, it’s pretty hard to find that kind of racing in any other area of the sport. One thing about this race is that the memories of the bad times seem to fade a lot faster than the memories of the good times."
Beyond that, for the entire fleet, Leg 3 will likely prove to be a major factor in the overall standings in the months to come. Currently, the leaderboard reflects the dominance of the more veteran teams, with Mapfre, Vestas 11th Hour Racing and Dongfeng separated by a mere three points in first, second and third. However, all seven teams have now theoretically had a chance to both get their sea legs and fine-tune their programs during legs 1 and 2, which means the race is now comprised of all “veterans,” so to speak.
In addition, because of the challenge involved, Leg 3 is worth double points. And of course, we all know how unforgivingly competitive the VOR is these days. A single breakdown due to a knockdown or failure to hook onto a weather system correctly and the first could easily become last, allowing the last to become first.
Tactically, Leg 3 remains the same as ever in terms of Southern Ocean racing. On the one hand, there is the age-old question of how far south you should steer after leaving Africa. The closer to the pole, the stronger the winds, but farther distance sailed since Melbourne is essentially due east of the Cape of Good Hope. On the other, there’s watching the weather and doing your best to hook on to one of the series of low-pressure systems that continually make their way west to east along what is known as the “Westerly Storm Track.” Back in the day, when the boats rolled along at 8-10 knots they were sitting ducks for the weather systems that would roll up behind and then overtake them. But now the boats are fast enough to just about keep pace with the storm systems and a lot of smart strategy is required to both position the boat correctly and then sail the correct heading to stay in the strong winds of each low for as long as possible.
Then, of course, there’s the matter of keeping your boat in one piece. This is a stretch of water that in past races has seen everything from major hull failures to near-total dismastings. Bottom line: in heavy weather, in particular, the crews are continually having to make a judgement call as to just how hard and fast to push themselves. The goal is to venture right up to the breaking point, but never beyond. And where exactly is that breaking point? That’s the $64,000 question.
Good luck to all the crews, and here’s to the start of one of the world’s last great adventures!