“I think we dropped the ball when we had a bad night—some clouds, which we didn’t sail too well,” said SCA’s Annie Lush of her crew’s last-place finish in Auckland. “As a result the competition gained some miles, and I think that shows what this race is like. It is relentless, it is tough, you let up for one minute and that’s it.”
Clouds. A single bad night. A single bad watch, even, or an otherwise minor breakage. That’s all it takes to send you to the back of the fleet in the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race, which will be stopping over in Newport, Rhode Island, this month.
The competition for the 12th installment of this offshore classic, first held in 1973 as the Whitbread Round the World Race, is not just unbelievably tough, but unbelievably close as well. Two boats crossing the line within hours of one another in an ocean race was once considered a photo finish. Now it’s routine for boats to finish within minutes of one another, with teams trading positions almost until the moment they get a gun.
Not convinced? At press time, the combined deltas between the first- and second-place boats in three of the four offshore finishes was a mere 22 minutes. At the close of the first leg in Cape Town, South Africa, for example, it very nearly looked like China’s Dongfeng would pip Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam at the post as the two chased catspaws within a mile of one another at the entrance to Table Bay. On the second leg, it was a three-way contest both for first and to see who could survive the highest blood pressure as Dutch-flagged Brunel, Dongfeng and Azzam all maneuvered to be the first to battle their way through the puffs in the bathtub-warm Strait of Hormuz.
Leg 3 proved to be a “runaway victory” for Dongfeng—the first-ever win for a Chinese-flagged boat in the Volvo Ocean Race—with the finish-time delta between the Chinese and second-place Azzam coming in at a fairly “safe” three hours and change. But in Leg 4 it was right back into the pressure cooker, with the first three boats—Spanish-flagged MAPFRE, followed by Azzam and Dongfeng—finishing within nine minutes of one another, and Alvimedica, with U.S. skipper Charlie Enright in charge, crossing a little over an hour after that. The time difference from first to last for the six-boat fleet after 5,260 miles and 20 days of all-out racing? A mere seven hours.
On the eve of Leg 5, the classic 6,776-mile Southern Ocean bash around Cape Horn from Auckland to Itajaí, Brazil, Azzam and Dongfeng were in a dead heat for first overall, with Brunel, Alvimedica and MAPFRE all battling for third with 14, 16 and 16 points respectively. Over the course of the first four legs, not a single team had finished first more than once.
As evidence of just how close things are, the inshore races—scored as a completely separate series in this installment of the VOR—are beginning to loom large as possible tie-breakers should any two teams have the exact number of offshore points when the fleet finally arrives in Gothenburg, Sweden, for the finale in late June. It doesn’t get much closer in offshore racing than that.
Given these razor-thin margins, the combination of stress and sleep deprivation has been brutal. Once the greatest danger to a typical VOR crew was the threat of icebergs in the Southern Ocean. Now you’ve got to seriously wonder about these poor sailors’ sanity.
Midway through Leg 4, when Dongfeng fell from first to last in the space of a single night after problems with its mainsail, onboard reporter Sam Greenfield captured the boat’s otherwise even-keeled French skipper Charles Caudrelier smashing the helm in anger. “It’s been a long trip, because Dad took a wrong turn. Then we got a flat. The radiator overheated, and now we’re praying Mum will do something miraculous, like calm Dad down,” Greenfield quipped afterward.
“I am frustrated. The consequences have been disastrous for us,” Caudrelier admitted. “These mistakes have cost us a lot of miles and since the breakages it’s been hard to get back into our rhythm.”
Even worse was the case of VOR legend Bouwe Bekking, skipper of Brunel, which found itself scores of miles ahead after separating from the fleet early on in the same leg only to have its lead disappear mere days afterward.
“We feel gutted, not only myself, but everybody on the team,” Bekking told reporters soon after stepping ashore in Auckland in second to last place. “We made one mistake [gybing to the east when the boat was in the lead near the Equator], and we paid for it. We had some sickness on board, but that was no excuse.”
As for the all-women crew aboard Swedish-flagged SCA, they have the unenviable job of having to continue to up their game against a fleet of hardened veterans that continues to improve with every passing mile as well.
“The results haven’t changed, but we’re improving,” said British-born SCA skipper Sam Davies, shortly after her arrival in Auckland. “We’re almost in contact with the rest of the fleet. We’re learning as we sail next to them.”
Fortunately for Davies and the other boats at the back of the fleet, if there’s one thing that is certain about the VOR, it’s that it’s never over until it’s over. Who, for example, would have ever thought Franck Cammas and Groupama would end up winning the 11th running of the VOR in 2011-12, when Spain’s Telefónica seemed so strong early on as to be nearly unbeatable?
Something to look out for in the coming weeks is the dilemma faced by the two leaders, Azzam and Dongfeng. In the run-up to Auckland, Azzam skipper Ian Walker made no secret about the fact he thinks Caudrelier and his Sino-European crew are the ones to beat. But that kind of thinking can ultimately prove to be a liability. Spend too much time covering the “competition,” and the rest of the fleet can split and end up eating your lunch: much the way MAPFRE did when it leap-frogged into first place by playing the sea breezes off the New Zealand coast while Azzam and Dongfeng match-raced each other in the darkness. Don’t ever be fooled by the fact that this race consists of nine legs spanning 39,000 miles. Because the boats are so closely matched, the crews are engaging in buoy-racing tactics every step of the way.
Then, of course, there’s the question of breakdowns. During the first four legs, the Farr-designed Volvo Ocean 65 one-design proved remarkably robust, especially compared to its predecessor, the Volvo Open 70 (check out more on these new boats at sailmagazine.com/racing). Nonetheless, all it takes it a single failed fitting or a weak patch of laminate to bring down a mast or compromise a hull. That, of course, could turn the leader board upside down in the blink of an eye.
Bottom line: each and every one of the teams will have to bring its A-game every step of the way right up to the final gun if they hope to prevail in this incredibly close regatta.
Not Dead Yet
The latest on the grounding and rebirth of Vestas Wind
Despite the fact that the Danish-flagged Vestas Wind looked to be a total loss after running aground on the Cargados Carajos Shoals in the Indian Ocean, skipper Chris Nicholson isn’t giving up.
After being salvaged from the reef on which it grounded November 29, the boat was shipped to Italy’s Persico Marine, near the mountain town of Bergamo, where it is being rebuilt.
At press time, the team’s goal was to rejoin the race in Lisbon, Portugal, this June, something Nicholson admits is not just logistically challenging, but emotionally challenging as well. “It’s not just a matter of getting back on a boat and going sailing again,” he says. “We want to be a strong team. We want to make sure everyone in the team understands what we’re trying to do …. It’s foreign territory. Everyone normally races to win the overall race, but we can’t do that anymore. People need to work out for themselves what their motivation is.”
As for the grounding itself, a review committee that included VOR veteran and Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Stan Honey, former West Marine Advisor author Chuck Hawley and Rear Adm. Chris Oxenbould, a former deputy chief of the Australian Navy, determined there were “deficiencies” both in the use of charts aboard Vestas Wind and in “the cartography presenting the navigation dangers on the small and medium scales” of the electronic charts themselves.
For more on the report, including the complete text and video of the actual grounding, visit sailmagazine.com.
Experience the VOR firsthand
Although following the Volvo Ocean Race is getting easier and easier with the advent of satellite video feeds and other digital wonders, there’s still nothing like meeting the crews and seeing the boats firsthand.
At press time, the fleet was expected to arrive in Newport, Rhode Island, around May 5-7, with the finish line for the 5,010-mile leg from Itajaí, Brazil, to be set off Fort Adams State Park.
Fort Adams will also serve as the site of the stopover “village,” which is free to the public, with the entire fleet tying up at the marina there for the duration.
The inshore race is scheduled to take place Saturday, May 16, with Leg 7 starting on Sunday, May 17. In both cases, the action will be taking place just off Fort Adams, providing spectators there with a front-row seat. Of course, given the geography of Narragansett Bay, great “seating” will abound all along the shoreline, in places like Fort Wetherill in Jamestown, Castle Hill and Brenton Point.
Other events scheduled to take place during the stopover include everything from free daily sailing tours of the bay hosted by Sail Newport to youth team racing in Optis.
Some other dates to put on your calendar:
May 5: Race village opens
May 8: Volvo Ocean Academy Umpire Clinic
May 9: Exploration Zone Grand Opening
May 12: Combat Wounded Veterans Challenge Regatta
May 14-15: Pro-Am Racing
Oh, and Volvos park for free! For more stopover details, visit volvooceanracenewport.com.