With just two days to go until seven teams set out on Leg 1 of the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race, the uncertainty and even confusion that has marked the past couple of weeks seems to have finally passed. After months of preparation and thousands of training miles at sea, you can bet every single one of the men and women taking part will be happy to finally get started on what they’ve all worked toward for so long.
First the uncertainty: In contrast to past races, in which Leg 1 took the fleet directly down from Europe to Cape Town, South Africa, the 2017-18 includes a “stutter step,” as it were, in the form of a short leg from Alicante, Spain, to Lisbon, Portugal.
Not only that, but because of the fickle weather conditions marking the Strait of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean and North Atlantic this time of year, the actual course was only set a couple of days ago—a 1,450-mile out and back, with the fleet sailing directly west through the strait and then rounding Porto Santo in the Madeira archipelago before sailing northeast toward the finish.
"One of our course options was to send the boats east, through the Bonifacio Straight, around Sardinia, back out through Gibraltar and straight to Lisbon,” said race director Phil Lawrence, giving some idea as to how he arrived as his final decision. “However, the medium-term weather forecast is for a strong mistral, potentially 50 or even 60 knots, followed by an extended period of high pressure and light winds throughout the Mediterranean, so that wasn't very attractive.”
“There's a varied weather outlook for the course we’ve chosen, quite complex for the Atlantic, which will present some challenges for the crews, and we expect them to arrive in Lisbon after approximately a week," Lawrence added. (For the complete schedule, click here.)
Then there was the confusion: in the form of a leadership change aboard Dutch-flagged AkzoNobel. For a number of reasons (which seem to vary depending on who you ask: see the team’s official statement here. AkzoNobel parted ways with its skipper Simeon Tienpont less than two weeks before the start, throwing the entire campaign into confusion—a situation that was made all-too-apparent in a second-to-last-place finish in the first in-port race, which took place in Alicante last weekend.
Since then, however, the team has elevated New Zealander Brad Jackson to the top post—not a bad move given that the 49-year-old has already taken part in six VORs, won three of them and once did a stint coaching Sweden’s all-female Team SCA during the 2014-15 edition. If anyone can get the Dutch effort back on track it’s Jackson.
As of for the rest of the field, Spain’s MAPFRE is looking strong after winning both the prologue and last Saturday’s in-port event. However, China’s Dongfeng (which like MAPFRE is returning for a second-straight run at the VOR) has been nipping at MAPFRE’s heels every step of the way, and Dutch-flagged Brunel and the U.S./Danish effort Vestas 11 Hour Racing—with U.S. sailor Charlie Enright at the helm—have been right behind them. In other words, it remains anybody’s race. Let the adventure begin!