A week and a half into the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race, the competition has been even tighter than anticipated as the fleet continues to make its way south in a tight bunch. Although the all-women SCA team was the first to exit the Mediterranean via the Straits of Gibraltar, the other boats quickly reeled them back in as SCA sailed into a calm.
After that, for all intents and purpose, a third of the way to the finish in Cape Town, South Africa, the race remained a dead heat as the seven teams closed with the doldrums on Tuesday. Since then, things have begun to thin out as the teams started picking their separate lanes through that notoriously quirky stretch of water—playing every cloud and puff in an effort to cross over into the South Atlantic. Nonetheless, with little more than 100 miles separating the front and back of the fleet, it remains anyone’s race.
In stark contrast to the 2011-12 VOR, there has yet to be any kind of serious carnage in the form of broken hulls or fallen masts, despite some heavy weather as the boats made their way along the Spanish coast in the first couple of days after the Oct. 11 start in Alicante.
On day seven, China’s Dongfeng hit a submerged object that destroyed its port rudder, causing the team to stop and effect repairs, a twist of fate that was especially bitter given that the boat held the lead at the time.
Video of Team Dongfeng repairing its rudder at sea
However, in a gutsy move, navigator Pascal Bidegorry elected to split with the rest of the fleet afterward as it threaded its way through the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa, a move that propelled Dongfeng back into the lead.
The other teams have also had their share of close calls after sailing in so close to the African coast in search of breeze that they could see the distant sand dunes of the Sahara. Team SCA, for example, snagged a fish net at one point, and Dutch-flagged Team Brunel had to send a crewmember overboard to free a strip of plastic from the boat’s keel. But for the most part, the fleet has been able to enjoy a trouble-free, albeit anxious race.
Dongfeng was lucky that conditions were fairly calm when it broke its rudder, which allowed the crew to install a backup in a little over two hours. Nonetheless, the fact they were able to do so in the dead of night was an impressive bit of seamanship, to say the least.
“At 0210, [crewmember] Thomas Rouxel was driving when we hit something,” said the team’s onboard media crew, Yann Riou. “The impact was violent. We didn't know what we hit. We checked the windward runner, we started to check the keel, and we wiped out.”
According to Riou, the crew had two options: install the boat’s emergency rudder and continue sailing, or remove what was left of the old rudder and put in a replacement the boat was carrying. After a brief debate, skipper Charles Caudrelier decided to go with the latter option.
“We prepared the rudder, we furled the A3, took it down and dropped the mainsail,” Riou said. “At that moment, we saw Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing passing next to us…Thomas put the diving suit on. He jumped into the water. Bowman Kevin Escoffier was in the aft compartment, and the rest of the crew on deck. We removed what was left from the old rudder (not much), and we put the new one in place…. We hoisted the main and the A3, we gybed, and we unfurled the A3. We are now sailing at 20 knots.”
Impressive, to say the least!