Volvo Ocean Race Back on Track

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And the winner of the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race is…the Volvo Ocean Race!

In the days and weeks following the conclusion of the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race there were some serious doubts as to whether the race was viable anymore, due to the seemingly prohibitive cost of mounting a campaign and the fragile nature of the custom boats competing under the Volvo Open 70 design rule.

Not only did a mere six boats turn out for the event, but for much of the way around the world there were substantially fewer than that actually competing, thanks to a seemingly endless series of breakdowns.

The carnage began only hours after the start, when current champion Ian Walker and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing lost their boat’s rig only a few miles outside of Alicante, Spain. Immediately after that, Chinese-flagged Sanya also withdrew before it even had a chance to exit the Med as its hull started disintegrating in rough seas off southern Spain.

By contrast, this time around seven healthy teams boasting an almost incredible depth of offshore experience signed on, a small but nonetheless significant upturn as VOR CEO Knut Frostad and his team work toward their ideal fleet size of eight to 10. Not only that, but the new Volvo Ocean 65 one-design sloops performed magnificently, fighting their way through all kinds of conditions with hardly a scratch.

In many ways, the fact that Frostad was willing to scrap the decades-long tradition of custom-designed boats was a sign of just how desperate race organizers had become. And indeed, there were howls of outrage from some quarters as race aficionados decried what they believed was the loss of a vital aspect of the overall competition.

Now that the 2014-15 is over, though, Frostad’s decision seems nothing less than prescient. Despite Dongfeng’s dismasting midway through Leg 5 in the Southern Ocean, the breakdowns this time fell well within the acceptable range, with the biggest problems being rudders damaged by collisions with floating debris, the usual ripped sails and broken minor rig hardware, and the occasional watermaker problem. Even Dongfeng’s dismasting saw most of the rig remaining upright as the crew nursed the boat back to shore, as opposed to the entire mast going over side in mere seconds, as was the case when Ken Read’s Puma team lost its stick midway through Leg 1 the last time around.

Then, of course, there’s the incredibly close competition engendered by the new boats—competition so close there were times the 2014-15 VOR had the feel of a 38,000-mile-long, nine-stage buoy race. At one point midway through, seven-time VOR veteran Bouwe Bekking, skipper of Dutch-flagged Brunel, complained that the boats were overbuilt, dull and sluggish (criticisms he might not feel so strongly anymore after winning Leg 7 across the Atlantic and the final in-port race in Gothenburg). But no matter what their absolute boatspeed, there’s no denying how evenly matched the boats were out on the racecourse.

It all started at the end of Leg 1 in Cape Town, South Africa, when Dongfeng finished just 12 minutes behind Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam after 6,500 miles of racing. And it only seemed to get extreme as the race progressed, with nail-biting finishes of the kind that would have been inconceivable in ocean racing only a couple of years earlier becoming almost routine.

For much of the way around the world, the teams remained in visual contact with one another from start to finish, and even when they couldn’t actually see each other, they remained well aware of where each other was thanks to AIS and regular position reports.

In Newport, Lorient and Gothenburg there were tacking duels between boats right up to the finish line to see who would cross first, and every sailor in every boat knew that a single bad watch, a single miss-timed course change or a single bad cloud could spell the end of their leg. It goes without saying that the strain on the sailors must have been nothing less than incredible. During the Newport stopover French-born Dongfeng skipper Charles Caudrelier said he’d heard at least one of his competitors, a multi-race veteran, say this would be his last VOR ever. By the time his boat reached Gothenburg, Azzam’s Ian Walker looked like he’d aged 10 years.

Of course, for race fans, such close racing is the stuff of dreams. The fact that any crew could pull ahead on any given day meant you never knew what would happen next. Indeed, if there’s anything more impressive than the race’s close finish times, it’s the way in which every single team managed to come out on top at some point in this race, with every one of the six boats that competed in all nine legs winning at least one of them. On its way to the overall win Azzam only managed to come out on top two times. Despite the fact that all-female SCA team spent much of the time trailing the “boys,” sometimes by as much as 100 miles, the crew still managed a third-place overall podium place in the in-port series in addition to its Leg 8 win. Talk about parity!

Even Vestas Wind and skipper Chris Nicholson managed to salvage not only their boat but their self respect following their grounding on a remote reef in the Indian Ocean last November when they were able to both get back into the race and finish in second place on Leg 8 behind SCA. “I’m over the moon,” Nicholson said afterward, a feeling undoubtedly shared by Frostad and the entire Volvo Ocean Race organization. After years of trying to fine-tune their now four-decade event so that it meets the needs of the 21st century sport of grand prix, professional sailboat racing, it looks like they got it right.

I think I speak for a lot of race fans when I say I can’t wait for the next edition.

Overall 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race results

  1. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing – 24pts
  2. Team Brunel – 29pts
  3. Dongfeng Race Team – 33pts
  4. MAPFRE -34pts (and in-port race tiebreaker)
  5. Team Alvimedica – 34pts
  6. Team SCA – 51pts
  7. Team Vestas Wind - 60 pts

Overall In-Port Race results

  1. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing – 31pts
  2. Team Brunel – 32pts3. Team SCA – 35pts
  3. MAPFRE – 37pts
  4. Team Alvimedica – 37pts
  5. Dongfeng Race Team – 40pts
  6. Team Vestas Wind – 73pts

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