After months of battling tropical calms, and bouncing back and forth across the Doldrums in no less than three different oceans, it’s time for the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race to return to its stormy roots.
As in races past, Leg 5, which stretches 6,776 miles from Auckland to Itajaí, Brazil, will push the six competing crews to the limit and then some as they battle their way through the Southern Ocean and around Cape Horn.
Indeed, as a kind of precursor to what lies ahead, the scheduled start date this Sunday has been pushed back to Tuesday, March 17 at the very earliest, because of tropical cyclone Pam, currently spinning through the Pacific to the north of New Zealand. (The inshore race is still scheduled to take place in Auckland harbor on Saturday the 14.)
Further complicating things is the fact that the standings couldn’t be tighter. Once upon a time, two boats crossing the line within hours of one another in an ocean race was considered a photo finish. Now boats finishing within mere minutes of one another has become routine, with teams trading positions almost until the moment they get a gun.
At the close of the first leg in Cape Town, South Africa, for example, it very nearly looked like Donfeng would pip Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam at the post as the two chased cats paws within a mile of one another at the entrance to Table Bay. After that, it was a three-way contest between Dutch-flagged Brunel, Dongfeng and Azzam as they all maneuvered to be the first through Strait of Hormuz on the way to Abu Dhabi.
Leg 4 Finish Highlights
Then there was Leg 4 with the first three boats—Spanish-flagged MAPFRE, followed by Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Donfeng—all finishing within nine minutes of one another, and Alvimedia, with U.S. skipper Charlie Enright in command, crossing little over an hour after that. The delta from first to last for the entire six-boat fleet after 5,648 miles and 20 days of all-out racing? A mere seven hours.
It’s fast reaching the point where, the inshore races—scored as a completely separate series in this installment of the VOR—are beginning to loom large as possible tie-breakers should any two teams have the exact number offshore points when the fleet finally arrives in Gothenburg, Sweden this summer.
Looking ahead, one of Leg 5's most dangerous elements is the presence of ice, which means you’ve got to stay north of the 40 degrees south latitude. But of course, that means having to deal with tropical systems like Pam. This can make for especially dicey conditions, because low-pressure systems travel so fast in the South Pacific they have a big impact on the sea state. The swell has no fixed direction and it’s difficult to direct your boat to keep it from being damaged. Of course, temperatures are freezing down in the Southern Ocean and relative humidity is close to 100 percent, so everything is cold and wet for days on end.
Approaching Cape Horn—which is separated from the northern tip of Antarctica by a mere 500 miles—the worst-case scenario is a ripping northwesterly, because the nearby Andes Mountains can increase its strength creating true survival conditions. After that, in the relatively tame waters of the South Atlantic, the goal is to stay close to the Argentinean coast, hooking onto the westerlies as long as possibe, before getting into the variable weather caused by South Atlantic High. After that, look for another grueling, sleep-deprived dogfight (or dog fights) to the finish if any of the boats are still in contact with one another at this stage in the leg.
Of course, in a leg like this there’s always the question of possible breakdowns. In preparation for the Southern Ocean, a number of teams are loading up on some extra veteran talent. Alvimedica, for example, has brought on New Zealander Stu Bannatyne, who’s already doubled Cape Horn seven times, while Dongfeng Race Team has brought aboard Irish sailor Damian Foxall, who was part of the winning Groupama crew last time around. Nonetheless, all it takes it a single failed fitting or a weak patch of laminate to bring down a mast or compromise a hull. The overall standings could look very different from how they look now in a few weeks.