An upset, an incredible comeback and what looks to be the crowning of a new champion: Leg 8 of the Volvo Ocean Race may have been a short one, but there was certainly no lack of drama.
First and foremost, the 647-mile sprint from Lisbon, Portugal, to Lorient, France, provided a kind of vindication for the all-women crew aboard Swedish-flagged SCA, which finally secured a leg win after trailing the rest of the fleet most of the way around the world.
"It's a reward for all the hard work we have done. It's a great confidence booster. It's going to be huge for us. We've had a mountain to climb to get here," said skipper Sam Davies, whose team had yet to even finish in the top three in the seven preceding offshore legs, and typically found itself last.
Adding to the sense of accomplishment was the fact that the leg was no cakewalk—being a largely upwind slog in what was often a confused and difficult sea state. Key to the victory was a gutsy move in which the team split with the rest of the fleet by going offshore while the competition hugged the Spanish coast before setting out across the Bay of Biscay.
Equally improbable, given the level of competition in this year’s VOR, was Vestas Wind’s taking second, despite having been land-bound for repairs ever since running aground last November midway through Leg 2 on a reef in the Indian Ocean.
As little as 72 hours before the start in Lisbon, skipper Chris Nicholson and the rest of the crew were literally holding their breaths as they sail-trialed the boat and hoped things would hold together. As soon as the starting gun fired, though, it was game on as the crew pulled out all the stops to show they still belonged among sailing’s elite.
“When I look at what we had to get through to get the boat on the water, if I have to be honest I was kind of hoping we would do fourth or fifth,” Nicholson said shortly after stepping ashore in France. “Second: I’m over the moon!”
Finally, there’s Abu Dhabi’s Azzam and skipper Ian Walker. After years of trying, and a disappointing 2011-12 VOR, William appears to have the overall victory in the bag following a third-place finish that put another two points between them and their closest competition, Brunel and Dongfeng.
Early on, the team made public that it’s basic strategy was to secure a podium finish in every leg, and it has subsequently managed to do just that in all but one leg—a truly incredible accomplishment given the vagaries of a race of this magnitude. At press time, only a highly unlikely last-place finish in Leg 9 to Gothenburg combined with at least two penalty points can knock Azzam off its pedestal.
"It's not really sunk in yet," Walker said upon reaching the dock in Lorient. "When we passed the finish line we all went quiet and asked ourselves, 'Is that it?'"
Of course, for every winner there must be a loser, and in this case, the crew feeling the most pain is the Sino-European one aboard Chinese-flagged Dongfeng. As recently as mid-May, following a Leg 6 win from Itajaí, Brazil, to Newport, Rhode Island, it looked like skipper Charles Caudrelier and crew were poised to stage an incredible comeback of their own, having seemingly figured out a boatspeed advantage over the rest of the fleet.
But then everything started to go wrong.
First, in Leg 7 Dongfeng not only gave up the lead it had held almost from the start, it fell to nearly the back of the fleet and was then penalized after the finish for violating a shipping-lane restriction off the U.S. coast.
After that the team came in dead last in the in-port race in Lisbon, a blow that, while it didn’t affect the overall offshore standings, clearly hurt the team’s confidence.
Finally, in Leg 8 Dongfeng sealed its fate by finishing dead last again. In doing so, it not only gave up any reasonable chance of overtaking Azzam in the standings, but fell from second to third place behind Dutch-flagged Brunel and veteran Dutch skipper Bouwe Bekking.
“We had a great fight with Ian, he’s been very strong,” a gracious Caudrelier said after the finish, although it was evident things did not turn out as planned. “It’s not easy when you’re leading and you’re the favorite to win a race, but he deserves it. If we can’t win, I’m happy that it’s him, rather than someone else.”
Looking ahead, the fleet has only a couple of days rest before the next in-port race Sunday, June 14. After that, the start for the final offshore leg to Gothenburg, Sweden will be Tuesday, June 16, following by another in-port race to close out the competition.
In other words, while Azzam may be in control, there’s still plenty of good racing to come.