So much for the match race between Dongfeng and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam.
In the run-up to Leg 7 from Newport, Rhode Island, to Lisbon, Portugal, it was pretty much assumed that, barring any kind of catastrophe, overall leader Azzam had the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race well in hand.
The one possible threat was the surging Sino-European team aboard Dongfeng, which seemed to have unlocked the secret to wringing out just a touch more boatspeed than the rest of the fleet—an advantage that could theoretically erase Azzam’s six-point lead, given the right set of circumstances.
And indeed, midway through the relatively short 2,800-mile transatlantic leg, it appeared skipper Charles Caudrelier and crew had managed to do just that: when Azzam sailed into a hole that not only sent it into last place, but put the entire fleet (and the all-important points those boats represent) between them and their Chinese rivals.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to a dramatic Chinese comeback—seven-time race veteran Bouwe Bekking aboard Dutch-flagged Brunel, and the scrappy young crew aboard the Turkish-American boat, Alvimedica.
The first to strike was Bekking and company, when they hooked onto a small system about a week into the race that propelled them to the head of the fleet, in front of Dongfeng. The Dutch team’s margin was never very great—typically under 10 miles—but Brunel still managed to hang on, even in the fluky winds at the finish, for the leg win.
Footage of first-place Brunel and second-place MAPFRE finishing in Lisbon
Worse yet for Dongfeng was Alvimedica, which represented an important point as the young, largely American crew remained between them and Azzam. Although Alvimedica had been stuck toward the back of the fleet ever since leaving Newport, it suddenly came on in the final hours, working the land breeze to thread its way through the fleet and then besting Dongfeng in a tacking duel right before the finish to take third behind MAPFRE. The final delta: a mere 55 seconds after nine and a half days of racing.
“We have been awake for the last 24 hours, so it’s still settling in,” Alvimedica’s exhausted but elated skipper, Charlie Enright, said of the close finish. “No one gave up, and we kept ourselves in touch so that we could make a play in the end.”
“Training here a year ago was a big part of it,” said watch captain Mark Towill. “We also did a lot of pre-leg preparation for the final 30 miles of the race, and it all came down to that. A big credit to [navigator] Will Oxley and the navigation team for the pre-race work: It was quite a grind-off and a physical challenge in the last few miles. It was a huge credit to the guys on the boathandling.”
Meanwhile, aboard Dongfeng, Caudrelier made no attempt to hide his disappointment after leading the leg for so long and seeing a podium place disappear in the final miles.
"I'm feeling very bad, very upset and very sad," Caudrelier said. "We deserved better, but I guess that's life. Most of all, I'm upset with myself, because my crew did a great job…. We really missed a chance in this leg with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing finishing fifth."
Although the boat came in ahead of Azzam, Dongfeng’s fourth-place finish means it still remains five points behind the overall leader. Worse yet, the crew also has to worry about Brunel, which is now nipping at its heels, just a single point back in third. Four points behind Brunel, MAPFRE remains in fourth, with Alvimedica just another point behind in fifth.
Further complicating things as the VOR heads into its final two offshore legs is the fact that Vestas Wind—refloated and repaired after running aground in the Indian Ocean last winter—is set to re-join the race for the leg from Lisbon to Lorient, France, and the bigger the fleet, the more opportunity for the teams to put points between themselves and their rivals.
Clearly, as the 2014-15 VOR enters the final stages leading up to its ultimate conclusion in Gothenburg, Sweden, this race is far from over.