For years the Volvo Ocean Race has been synonymous with images of boats blasting their way through the Southern Ocean smothered in foam. This time around, though, a new kind of image has come to define the race—crews locked in battle within sight of one another for days on end, sometimes finishing mere minutes apart after weeks of racing.
It started at the end of Leg 1 in Cape Town, South Africa, when Chinese-flagged Dongfeng finished just 12 minutes behind Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam after 6,500 miles of racing. And things only got tougher after that, with nail-biting finishes that would have been inconceivable in ocean racing only a few years earlier quickly becoming the new norm.
The result was a new kind of “extreme” sailing, which was surely as exhausting for the sailors as it was thrilling for race fans, who could watch every move in real-time thanks to the race’s cutting-edge online coverage. Kudos to Azzam skipper Ian Walker for winning the race overall and for also taking the inshore series in an incredible display of organizational ability and seamanship. That having been said, to see the fatigue clearly written across Walker’s face within 72 hours of the start of each of the nine legs, there were times when you had to wonder whether it was worth it.
Beyond that, Volvo Ocean Race CEO Knut Frosted seems to have finally figured out how to stage an exciting, sustainable race by going with the new Volvo Ocean 65 one-design, as opposed to letting the teams build their own boats to a design rule.
Not only did the boats prove incredibly competitive, they were also refreshingly durable. In contrast to the 2011-12 race, when the rigs and hulls of the six Volvo Open 70s taking part began disintegrating within hours of the start of Leg 1, the seven boats in the 2014-15 race made it around the world relatively unscathed. A couple of teams had to repair or replace their rudders after hitting submerged objects, and there were the usual systems and hardware problems. But that’s to be expected. Even when Dongfeng broke its rig in the heart of the Southern Ocean, most of the mast remained intact.
Indeed, so tough are the boats that it seems they will more than fulfill their intended purpose of running in the next race. This means more boats on the market, which in turn will bring the cost of a campaign down to where the VOR may attract as many as 10 teams in 2017, a number organizers have said would be ideal.
Finally, there was the excitement of seeing such evenly matched crews in action. For much of the race, the all-women SCA team seemed like also-rans, but they came through in the end by winning Leg 8 and finishing third overall in the in-port series. Despite all of Azzam’s strength, it finished first in only two of the nine offshore legs and in only one of the inshore races. Even Vestas Wind, knocked out for most of the race after running aground in the Indian Ocean in late November, managed to salvage some measure of self-respect by taking second place in Leg 8 after rejoining the race in Lisbon.
Bottom line: it would be hard to image a more exciting regatta, and we can hardly wait for the next one to begin in 2017. For complete VOR coverage, go to sailmagazine.com/racing.