It’s now official: midway through the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race, not just second and third, but even first place remains very much up for grabs, Mapfre’s current leaderboard position notwithstanding.
Indeed, with the exception of Dee Caffari’s Turn the Tide on Plastic, which seems to have a tendency to come up short when the pressure is on, you could make the argument that any one of the other teams could still win this thing.
Take David Witt’s rough-and-tumble Sung Hung Kai/Scallywag. When the boat’s less-experienced crew took first place in 5,600-mile-long Leg 4, from Australia to its home port of Hong Kong, many wrote the victory off as a fluke. However, after a solid second-place finish in recently completed Leg 6, from Hong Kong to Auckland, New Zealand, it’s beginning to look an awful lot like skill.
Then there’s the case of Leg 6-winner, Dutch-flagged Team AkzoNobel. Back in Alicante, Spain, the team appeared to be in a shambles when it’s skipper, Simeon Tienpont, was abruptly cut from the squad shortly before the start. The crew then continued to struggle in the wake of his equally sudden return.
Now, however, all that is beginning to feel like ancient history as the crew finds itself tied for fourth place overall with Vestas 11 Hour Racing (which did not take part in Leg 6 as a result of its collision with a fishing boat at the end of Leg 4) and just three points out of third.
Finally, there’s the manner in which these two teams managed to engineer their recent success: scratching and clawing their way down the New Zealand coast with the rest of the fleet marching up from behind and threatening to eliminate what only a few short days earlier had looked like an insurmountable lead. Talk about grit!
“It’s been a 6,500-mile match race, it’s unreal,” an exhausted, but elated Tienpont said afterward. “I’ve never sailed a race like this in my life. We’ve always been in each other’s sights. They were always there. It’s been neck-and-neck. Huge respect to Scallywag, they never stopped fighting, and we never stopped defending. I’m so proud of our crew. They never flinched.”
As for Scallywag, in the words of skipper David Witt: “Our team never gives up. We just didn’t pull it off this time. We had our chances, but AkzoNobel were just a little bit too good this time. But we’ve come a long way since Leg 1.”
In the end, AkzoNobel edged out Witt and company by just two minutes after 20 days of racing. Right behind them were Spain’s Mapfre, Chinese-flagged Dongfeng and Turn the Tide on Plastic, all finishing within a half-hour of the two leaders. How the crews are able to muster up the mental fortitude to continue sailing the way they do through these kinds of pressure-cooker conditions is still nothing less than incredible.
Looking forward, next up is another Southern Ocean leg, a 7,600 marathon round Cape Horn to Itajai, Brazil: one of the defining legs of the entire race, and a leg that includes both double points and a bonus for the first boat to double Cape Horn. In the past, Mapfre and Dongfeng have proved adept at grinding down the rest of the competition in the course of just these kinds of speed runs. But the rest of the competition now has plenty of sea miles under it belts as well, making running them down increasingly difficult.
As for Vetas 11 Hour Racing, one of the pre-race favorites, at the very least, the team is now fighting for its life following the disaster that was Leg 4. You can bet that, in addition to now being well rested, the crew will be pulling out all the stops as it tries to get back into the game.
Finally, this is the Volvo Ocean Race, in which the sea itself is as big a factor as the competitors themselves. A single bad gybe, a single broach in a nighttime squall, a single large wave, and the next thing you know someone has snapped a couple of battens or even lost an entire rig, which can throw the entire leaderboard into disarray in the blink of an eye.
In the final analysis: hard as it might be to believe given the dramatic VORs of the recent past, this one just might prove to be the most competitive yet. For the latest on the Volvo Ocean Race, click here.