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Volvo Race Set to Cross Bay of Biscay

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In Volvo Ocean Race terms, the upcoming 647-mile leg from Lisbon, Portugal, to Lorient, France, looks like little more than a daysail, especially when viewed in the context of the course as a whole. However, the sailors themselves know that Leg 8, which begins this Sunday, will be anything but a cakewalk.

First, the fleet will have to contend with what will likely be a beat up the Portuguese and Spanish coasts. Then it has to traverse the Bay of Biscay, one of the most notoriously stormy bodies of water in the world. In fact, in the last edition of VOR the fleet encountered some of the worst weather of the entire race right near the finish in these very waters.

Of course, given the right set of circumstances, the bay can also go frustratingly light, creating a tactical nightmare for the fleet’s already exhausted navigators.

Either way, race organizers expect the fleet to complete the sprint by June 12 at the very latest.

Meanwhile, as the sailors and shore crews set about their final preparations, they also find themselves dealing with a radically altered leaderboard after SCA, Dongfeng and MAPFRE were all penalized for sailing the wrong way through the Traffic Separation Scheme shipping lanes off the U.S. coast shortlyafter the start of Leg 7 out of Newport.

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The crews of all three boats said the violations were honest mistakes and the result of unclear directions on the part of the race committee. Nonetheless, an independent jury decided some kind of redress was necessary and added a point to each of their overall scores.

The result is that Dongfeng not only falls back to six points behind overall leader Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam—the same position it found itself in at the start of leg 7—but now finds itself tied for second with the surging Brunel, winner of the leg to Lisbon. Similarly, further back in the standings, MAPFRE’s penalty drops the team back down to where it is tied for fourth with Alvimedica.

Obviously, the decision comes as a blow to those penalized, especially skipper Charles Caudrelier and the crew of Dongfeng, who saw an opportunity to take a big bite out of Azzam’s lead throughout much of Leg 7 only to have it vanish in the final hours of the race. However, it also poses an interesting dilemma for Azzam skipper Ian Walker, who now finds himself having to cover two strong rivals as opposed to just one.

Finally, Leg 8 will see the eight-boat VOR fleet at full strength for the first time since Vestas Wind ran aground in the Indian Ocean last November. Since then skipper Chris Nicholoson and the rest of his team have been working round the clock to salvage the boat, ship it back to the boat’s Italian builder and get it race ready again—a task made that much more complicated by the need to keep the boat class legal.

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In fact, the pressure wasn’t off until only a few days ago, when the boat launched on the May 31 and team was able to check out all the systems under actual sailing conditions. Luckily, the boat has reportedly done magnificently and is ready for the challenge ahead—matching up against its seven now fully seasoned rivals.

“It’s a massive hurdle to have overcome. It’s something we don’t have to think back to anymore,” said shore manager Neil Cox. “Now it’s about enjoying the future…. It’s no longer a boat building race, it’s a boat race.”

Not that the pressure is off—it never is in the Volvo Ocean Race. Anybody who thinks the rest of the fleet is going to cut Vestas Wind and skipper Chris Nicholson any slack because of what they’ve been through is dreaming. Whether or not Vestas Wind is truly ready to race remains to be seen. All the smiles in Lisbon could very easily be ancient history by the time the blue boat arrives in Lorient.

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