If you’re into Celtic punk, you’re familiar with the Dropkick Murphys song, “I’m Shipping up to Boston”, a tune that twangs many sailor’s heart strings for a bygone era of wooden ships, men of steel, and onboard accommodations that defined the term “lacking.” In this song, written by Woodie Guthrie, a fictitious sailor loses his leg climbing the topsails while sailing up to Boston. Fittingly, the lone U.S.-flagged entry in this year’s Volvo Ocean Race (VOR), Puma Ocean Racing, chose this tune as their official ship’s song. Fitting because Puma’s U.S. headquarters is in the Boston area; fitting because their mighty steed, il mostro was christened in Boston on a blustery May night last year by actress Selma Hayek; fitting because the Dropkick Murphys are a Boston band; and fitting because right now the entire Volvo Ocean Race fleet is making tracks for Beantown on Leg 6, which is also the lone U.S. stopover in this year’s race.
The fleet left Rio de Janeiro on April 11, after a marathon leg of 12,300 miles from Qingdao, China, that took them north of 40 days to complete. If you haven’t tuned in to the VOR in a while, the biggest piece of info you need to know about this leg was the heroic tale of Ericsson 3. This boat sustained serious structural damage on Leg 4, from Singapore to Qingdao, and had to stop for serious repairs before carrying on to the finishing line at Qingdao. The team, led by the venerable Magnus Olsson, arrived at the dock several hours after the rest of the fleet had already pointed their bows towards Rio. Thanks to some impeccable work by E3’s shore team, the all-Nordic crew departed Qingdao a mere 90 minutes after arriving; giving the team just enough time to on-load sails, people, equipment, provisions, and to install an additional fuel tank. Then, they began what many pundits believed would be a follow-the-leader game all the way to Rio.
Flash-forward on Leg 5 and the fleet is approaching the start of its high-latitude sailing. Historic wisdom from past Whitbred and VOR’s dictates that the fastest way to Cape Horn is to head south quickly, get into the big breeze, and then transition east towards the Horn. Aksel Magdahl, Ericsson 3’s navigator, had a different idea. After carefully studying the weather forecasts, Magdahl, Olsson and the E3 lads veered east early, staying far to the north of the rest of the fleet, a gambit that would either pay dividends or keep the team solidly in the red all the way to Rio. Lady luck smiled on the road-weary Nordics and their strategy paid off, allowing them to take command of the leader board and retain it all the way to the finishing line. [Note to junior sailors: This is exactly why it’s imperative to finish every race that you start, irrespective of how miserable your start may have been. Racecourses are full of surprises and challenges, but out of challenging times opportunity is born.] So, as the E3 crew races up to Boston, there’s no question that they are feeling strong after the big win, but, like all of the teams, they are also likely a bit worn down at this point in the race.
“The last two stopovers have been very short, Qingdao by design and Rio by virtue of our extra long voyage on Leg 5,” wrote Stu Bannatyne, one of Ericsson 4’s watch captains, in an email from the boat en route to Boston during Leg 6. “This has put a lot of pressure on shore crews to complete job lists and the sailors are given precious little time to recover before putting to sea again. Particularly in Rio there was barely enough time to regain weight (although four trips to Porcao [a Brazilian barbeque joint] helped in this department!) let alone any conditioning or strength lost on the previous leg. This means that most of the sailors on leg 6 will still be at sub optimum physically, add to this the traveling for the guys that flew home from Rio and it makes for a tough turn around. This leg will also be tough as we make many sail changes in hot weather and then at the end will likely be in freezing cold temperatures again as we approach Boston.”
Jump back onto Puma’s il mostro during the early stages of Leg 6 and the hometown boys are currently a few hundred miles past the scoring gate at Fernando de Noronha, no doubt blaring their theme song and “smelling the clam chowder” as skipper Ken Read recently wrote in an onboard email. While the current leader, Telefonica Blue, has a slight lead over overall leader, Ericsson 4, the total separation between Tele Blue and Green Dragon (currently in last place) is only 60 miles, with five boats in between and some 3,650 miles of sailing before the fleet arrives in Boston. Plus the doldrums, plus the Gulf Stream, plus a few other idiosyncrasies of sailing along the New England coast that will hopefully give the il mostro boys a leg up (pun intended) on the rest of the fleet. So while Ken and the gang are rocking out to their theme song, and while the fleet is no doubt exhausted from their sailing-marathon lifestyle, with luck the VOR sailors will all arrive in Boston in late April/early May in better shape than the Dropkick Murphys’s fictitious sailor.