Azzam and Dongfeng neck-and-neck Leg 6 finish another chapter in relentless duel

Osman Samiuddin writes of his this Volvo Ocean Race sixth-leg finish, Dongfeng in just 3 minutes 25 seconds ahead of Azzam, illustrates how the two boats are 'as close as a shadow and infinitely more threatening'.

Dongfeng Race team is chased by Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in the sixth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race near the Newport, Rhode Island, US finish on Wednesday. Dominick Reuter / AFP / May 6, 2015
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All through the race they have gone at each other and given no quarter. So intense has the rivalry between Dongfeng Race Team and Azzam been that it has become the race within the race.

On Thursday, it was the turn of the Chinese team to celebrate, arriving early morning, UAE time, in Newport, Rhode Island to win the sixth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR). Three minutes and 25 seconds behind them, however, was Azzam. Just over 200 seconds, that is, separating two teams after 5,010 miles, the 11th-closest finish in the history of the race.

There is a wider gap between the two in the overall race, Dongfeng's win cutting Azzam's lead to six points. But with three legs remaining, the race is still Abu Dhabi's to lose. Dongfeng are certain to push them all the way, because that is what they have done until now; the pair have two leg wins each so far in the race.

The two put on a relentless duel over the final 24 hours, Azzam cutting the lead Dongfeng established on Saturday morning to a few hundred metres.

"We were within a couple of lengths of getting over them at Block Island - literally three or four boat lengths from rolling them - but they held on and dug deep," said Azzam skipper Ian Walker. "Very well-deserved win."

Only 12 minutes separated the two boats in the first leg from Alicante to Cape Town, Azzam edging away after an enervating last-day battle. Dongfeng finished the next two legs ahead by two and three hours respectively, winning the third leg from Abu Dhabi to Sanya.

Azzam sailed into Auckland next, in second place, less than four minutes ahead of Dongfeng. Only in the toughest leg of the race, from Auckland to Itajai, was there distance between them – and that because Dongfeng could not finish the leg after breaking their mast.

Otherwise, wherever each boat has gone, the other has been right behind, as close as a shadow and infinitely more threatening.

In different ways this leg bore testament to the same attribute in both boats: resilience. Dongfeng almost did not make it to the start, only a superhuman rush to replace their mast before the leg began allowing them to participate.

Then, two days into the leg their electronic water-maker, which converts sea water into drinking water, broke down. Had it not been repaired by the crew, it would have entailed at least a 12-hour stop, which would effectively have killed off their chances in the leg.

“For this leg, the goal was to be ready in Itajai and the (shore) crew did a fantastic job,” said Dongfeng skipper Charles Caudrelier. “I’d like to give them the victory. I’m very proud of them and very happy to take this first place. They worked very hard to get this boat ready. I’m really, really happy.”

Azzam, meanwhile, made a tactical error early in the leg, getting on the wrong side of an Atlantic cloud line. That saw them slip to last place and preparing to finish well behind the leaders.

But a remarkable surge over the last week saw them claw their way back, briefly taking the lead over the weekend. It was not a tight enough grip but their comeback was enough to please Walker.

“I think we sailed better in this leg than any other one in the race so far.”

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