After days of rain, calms and fog, the Volvo Ocean Race Race fleet enjoyed perfect sailing conditions for the start of Leg 9 in Newport, Rhode Island, on Sunday. It then promptly plunged back into yet more fog as it headed offshore toward the finish in Cardiff, Wales, a little over 3,000 miles away. Although the fleet could now be described as entering the home stretch, the intensity level couldn’t be higher, as this last oceanic leg is for double points, and all three podium spots remain very much in play. The Atlantic, as any veteran bluewater sailor will tell you, can also be as treacherous as any other body of water out there, even in late spring.
At dawn, the first day out, China’s Dongfeng Race Team, in second place overall, had built up a 20-mile lead over arch-rivals and overall race leader, Spain’s Mapfre. However, the lead remains a precarious one, especially given the many obstacles ahead.
“We are happy to be back racing, and so far, we are doing quite well,” said Pablo Arrarte from onboard Mapfre. “Speed-wise we are OK, so we just have to concentrate and not make bad decisions. Dongfeng seems to have good speed and did a great job last night. They are a few miles ahead, but there is a long way to go…and hopefully we can catch some miles.”
Complicating matters is the fact that a split has already developed, with Dongfeng gybing to the north early Monday while Mapfre continued with the bulk of the fleet charging out to the southeast before finally gybing as well as few hours later. Presumably, Dongfeng’s French-born skipper, Charles Caudrelier, is looking to separate himself from the Spanish and leapfrog into the overall lead again, although the opposite could very well happen as well, with the moving sending him to the back of the fleet.
Frustrated after his team plummeted from what looked to be a secure podium position to fourth in the closing miles of Leg 8, Caudrelier has stated unequivocally that he and his team will be holding nothing back as they strive to take first in Leg 9. In other words, no matter happens, the Franco-Sino effort will be giving it everything they’ve got.
As for the surging Team Brunel, which is now in third overall after winning Leg 7 and which led the fleet out of Newport, it has now fallen back to fourth position in the fleet in what must be a bitter disappointment to skipper Bouwe Bekking, who has deemed the current leg a “must win” for his campaign.
Nonetheless, with well over 2,500 miles to go to Cardiff (the currently expected ETA for the fleet is overnight on May 28-29) there will be plenty of chances for Brunel to get back out front as well. In addition to such variables as the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic High, the fleet will also have to deal with an ice exclusion zone east of the Canadian Maritimes and, of course, the madness that is the tides, currents, shoals and heavy commercial traffic that is part and parcel of sailing in UK waters.
“We know we have to beat the red boats,” Bekking said shortly before the start, referring to Mapfre and Dongfeng Race Team. “Ideally, we would win the leg, and they would finish sixth and seventh, but we can’t control that part. All we can do is sail our best and work to get a good result.”
The skippers from the Volvo Ocean Race fleet reflect on the challenges and what’s at stake in Leg 9 from Newport, Rhode Island, to Cardiff, Wales
As for the start back in Newport, Sunday dawned with a thick fog cloaking the Fort Adams race village and start area. However, it burned off just in time, making for a spectacular afternoon, with huge crowds along the Fort Adams shoreline and hundreds of spectator boats chasing the fleet around Narragansett Bay.
“It’s been an unbelievable stopover here in Newport with all the support we’ve had,” said Vestas 11th Hour Racing skipper Charlie Enright, on the last day of his hometown stopover. “Newport has shown its true colors this week, it’s been astounding.”
“It’s a treat to be here,” agreed team AkzoNobel skipper Simeon Tienpont shortly before casting off. “Everyone is so into the race. The whole town is built around sailing. But as good as it is here, we’re getting that feeling that it’s time to get out on the water again. So we’re happy with the good reception we had here in Newport, but as a Dutch team, we’re getting closer to finish and looking forward to getting there as well.”
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