Volvo Ocean Race Dogfight

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Although Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam appears to have pretty much wrapped up the overall win for the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race following the penultimate leg from Lisbon to Lorient, France, the battle for second and third is set to continue right up until the bitter end.

As the seven-boat fleet jumps off today on the final 960-mile offshore leg from Lorient to Gothenburg, Sweden, home of the race’s title sponsor, a mere six points separate second-place Brunel from fifth-place Alvimedica. In other word, the other two podium spots remain very much up for grabs.

Indeed, given the ups and downs the individual teams have been experiencing of late in this hypercompetitive fleet, only a fool would place big money on any kind of a favorite. As recently at mid-May, for example, it looked like a surging Dongfeng was set to possibly overtake Azzam for the overall lead, and yet a crushing series of disappointing finishes has now relegated the boat to fourth.

Brunel, on the other hand, which seemed to struggle during the race’s middle stages, is now looking very strong following an impressive win on the transatlantic leg from Newport to Lisbon. That having been said, Alvimedica absolutely crushed the rest of the fleet during Sunday’s in-port race in Lorient and is clearly looking to avenge its recent sixth-place finish—the team’s worst offshore finish of the entire race thus far.

“A podium finish would be a great accomplishment, certainly,” said Alvimedica skipper Charlie Enright. “We’ve thrown a lot into this, and it would mean a lot to us. We’ve learned so much along the way. If only we knew when we started what we know now.”

Then there are the two potential spoilers of the fleet: the all-woman SCA team and Vestas Wind, which only returned to the race a couple of weeks ago after running aground on a remote reef in the Indian Ocean last November.

After trailing the men almost the entire way around the planet, SCA finally got its act together midway through the extremely rough and tricky leg to Lorient, ultimately holding on for the win. As for Vestas Wind, despite not having sailed the boat for half a year as it underwent extensive repairs (and wondering if their boat would hold together after having barely had a chance to sail trial it) skipper Chris Nicholson and company took second in that same leg.

Should these two boats—which had previously only served as a sideshow to the main event—continue to sail well on Leg 9, there could be some seriously reshuffling among the five boats toward the middle of the leaderboard by the time the fleet re-assembles in Gothenburg.

Finally, there’s the course itself, which will be a tricky and unconventional one, to say the least.

First, there will be a planned “pit stop” in The Netherlands, a concession to the sponsor of Dutch-flagged Brunel. Basically, the boats will pull into The Hague, cool their heels while the Dutch sailing public gawks at their boats, and then restart on June 20 in the same order and separated by the same times in which they arrived. What this will do to the fleet tactically and strategically is anybody’s guess.

Then there’s the route itself, a congested, tide and current-riddled passage with a series of twists and turns. “There will be a lot of coastal sailing, traffic lanes, strong currents, and light and rough weather,” says VOR meteorologist, Gonzalo Infante. “First you have to sail along the Brittany coast and try to be in phase with the tide. Next you have to manage the traffic in the English Channel.”

And that’s just the part before Holland. After the re-start, Infante says, comes the North Sea with its oil-rigs and wind farms, then the extremely variable weather and confined waters of the Skagerrak leading to Gothenburg, on the western coast of Sweden.

It’s almost enough to make a crew wish they were back dodging icebergs in the Southern Ocean. Clearly, as commentators have been predicting for some time, the incredibly competitive 2014-15 VOR is going to remain largely up for grabs right up until the very end.

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