Short But Rough Atlantic Leg Ahead
It seems the six-boat 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race fleet only arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, yesterday, and already the sailors are getting ready to set out on the2,800-mile seventh leg to Lisbon this Sunday. By VOR standards this one will be a quickie—only eight to nine days, compared to the weeks it took to get from China to Auckland, New Zealand. But of course, this is the Volvo Ocean Race, and nothing is ever easy, especially this time around.
First and foremost, it’s still early spring, which means a fast passage ahead, but also a chance of some seriously rough weather. According to race meteorologist, Gonzalo Infante: “The winter in the North Atlantic is quite dramatic, and spring is more feasible. But you have to be careful when trying to find a good way below the northern storm track.”
As in the Southern Ocean, Infante says, “you’re in for a bit of rough-weather sailing, riding low-pressures to go fast. At some point you also have to dive south to head toward Portugal [to make] another tricky connection to the Portuguese Trades.”
“The North Atlantic is dangerous, it is rough and anything can happen,” agrees SCA skipper Sam Davies.?“We had structural issues with our boat last time [during training] so it is a reminder that the North Atlantic can throw up some challenges and I am sure this time it will be no different.”
And of course, the VOR crews can never forget that it was on this leg that Dutch Sailor Hans Horrevoets died when he was swept overboard during the 2005-06 race.
Then there is the continued closeness of the competition between a sleep-depriving, nerve-shatteringly well-matched fleet in which every crewmember knows that even the simplest mistake can lead to a loss of places at the end.
The fact that photo finishes, with boats crossing the line mere minutes apart after crossing thousands of miles of ocean, have become “routine” makes them no less extraordinary. Were this any other event, the light-air duel between Dongfeng and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam, at the end of Leg 6 from Brazil, would have been a story for the ages. (In the end the two finished roughly three minutes apart off Newport’s Fort Adams, to cheers of thousands of patient spectators, both on water and land.) But in the 2014-15 VOR, in which the boats have spent much of the time within sight of each other the entire way around the world, it’s just another day’s racing.
In terms of the standings, with just three more offshore legs to go until the race’s end in Gothenburg, Sweden, it’s now clearly become a two-boat race. On the one hand you have Azzam, which appears to have any insurmountable six-point lead. On the other, you have Dongfeng, which appears to be getting faster and faster with every passing mile—despite a series of breakages, ranging from a lost rudder in Leg 1 to a dismasting midway through Leg 5 in the Southern Ocean to a broken watermaker in Leg 6.
“Things have changed and we can feel that everybody considers us a dangerous team,” saidDongfeng skipper Charles Caudrelier. “Before we broke the mast I could feel that Azzam was completely under pressure. I could feel that, in a way, we were taking the lead in their minds, you know. I can sense that Ian Walker has a lot less pressure on his shoulders now than before, but I could see then that he was wondering whether he could win this race.”
As for the current six-point gap between Dongfeng and Azzam, Caudrelier admitsit’s a pretty hefty margin, but emphasizes he is far from giving up.
“If they don’t have any trouble or a really bad leg, it’s going to become complicated for sure,” he said. “They are a strong team. But you know, anything can happen. Remember the last Volvo. Telefonica was fighting for first place and ended up finishing fourth, so anything can still happen.
“We broke our mast for no apparent reason, so that could happen to someone, or they could just damage their sails. Without the fractional sail or a spinnaker, for example, your race is compromised. So we are going to fight to the finish to keep the opportunity to win. But if they don’t make any mistakes or have any problems, it is going to be hard for sure.”
Finally, for VOR fans on the U.S. East Coast, don’t forget that that party this time is taking place right in your own backyard. Unlike the Miami stopover during the last running of the race, the Newport stopover has proved a runaway success, with tens of thousands of race enthusiasts turning out to see the boats and sailors—and the next two days promise to be the best of all.
On Saturday, the fleet does battle on an inshore course up and down Narragansett Bay, with the crews boarding their boats around noon and the start scheduled for 2 p.m. Then on Sunday, comes the start of Leg 7, also at 2 p.m., which includes a series jogs up and down the bay before the six boats head out onto the open Atlantic.
Narragansett Bay, of course, serves as a kind of natural amphitheater for an event like this, and good “seating” along its shores abounds. The race village on Fort Adams is also filled with interactive events and other activities, so come on down—admission is free—for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.