Azzam lead wide-open Volvo Ocean Race amid treacherous Leg 2 conditions

Stranding of Team Vestas Wind a reminder of dangers inherent in round-the-world race, writes Osman Samiuddin
From left, Luke Parkinson, Simon Fisher and Roberto "Chuny" Bermudez aboard Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's Azzam on November 22, 2014, during Leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race. Matt Knighton / Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing
From left, Luke Parkinson, Simon Fisher and Roberto "Chuny" Bermudez aboard Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's Azzam on November 22, 2014, during Leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race. Matt Knighton / Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing

We had been warned. A day before the seven boats set out from Cape Town to work their way through 6,125 nautical miles to Abu Dhabi, the seven skippers were unanimous – a state that does not come readily in sailing.

This was going to be a wild, unpredictable, even treacherous second leg, vastly different to the more sedate obstacles of the first.

Bouwe Bekking has seen more Volvo Ocean Races (VORs) than most, a six-race veteran.

Asked about his expectations for the leg, the Team Brunel skipper acknowledged he was not really looking forward to it.

“On the one hand, it is actually quite a tough one,” the Dutchman said.

“Not a leg we’re really looking forward to because there are not a lot of certain battles involved in it.

“You can go very quickly from last to worst and vice versa.

“If you come last, bad luck; sixth, at least you say not last; fifth, you are probably OK; fourth, just out of the podium positions; third, fantastic; second is a bonus and first is lucky. That’s how I see this leg.”

Charlie Enright, the young skipper of Team Alvimedica, spoke of “heinous” sea states in some stretches of a leg nobody had traversed in full.

Forget the ocean, just getting out of Cape Town, with its moody wind patterns orchestrated by Table Mountain, was difficult enough.

So nearly two weeks into the leg, it has proved a crazy journey, as impossible to ignore as it is to predict. Race organisers send out a position report every three hours for the duration of a leg and they have painted a compelling picture.

The lead has changed 14 times, averaging roughly one lead change a day.

Six of the seven boats have led the race, including, briefly but momentously, the all-female crew of Team SCA.

Apart from a moment a few days ago, when Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam built up a 68 nautical miles lead, there has been little space between the leaders.

Until yesterday morning, an average calculation of what the distance between the front two boats has been during the leg came to only 5.25 nautical miles.

A degree in sailing is not needed to appreciate the competitive qualities of a race that, more than 3,000 nautical miles in, produces only that tiny gap between the leaders.

Over the past couple of days, the top three boats – Azzam, Team Brunel and the Chinese boat Dongfeng Race Team – have been separated by less than 10 nautical miles.

The front three broke away after about nine days of the entire fleet having sparred within a distance of 32 nautical miles from leader to last place.

It has been said before that, because of the one-design Volvo Ocean 65, this year’s race carries the explosiveness of a 100-metre sprint, except that it is stretched out over a marathon distance.

Even as Azzam held the thinnest lead as The National went to press, nobody can confidently say which will be the first vessel to arrive in Abu Dhabi this month. Dongfeng had reduced the lead of Azzam to 5.4 nautical miles, with Team Brunel also in tow close behind.

The tropical cyclone was mostly avoided, but the Double Doldrums – and the strange, low winds they bring – still have to be negotiated.

The bungee effect, whereby a gain of 50 nautical miles across a stretch is just as likely to be followed by the loss of 100 in the next phase, is still in play for this leg.

It is the message Bekking had been drilling into his crew, that responding to the inevitable volatility of this leg is the key.

“Don’t be surprised if all of a sudden you lose 100 miles. The bungee effect will come into effect again, so just chin up and go and get them back. That will happen a few times,” Bekking said.

Though it is desperately disappointing for the boat, the crew and the race, the fate of Team Vestas Wind has in a way accentuated the drama of the leg, a reminder of the dangers inherent in what these men and women are ­doing.

Once they have moved on from the exhilaration of their safe rescue, there will be, observers have said, deep repercussions for Vestas.

First and most urgently, it will be asked how a crew of professional sailors with their expertise, nous and technology missed the reef they ran aground on?

The extent of the damage to the boat is also not known, and it is not outlandish to wonder whether Vestas can continue in the race.

The drama exposed the warned-for reality of this leg and race, a reality that cannot be manufactured and may be difficult to match.

Stranded Team Vestas Wind receive a lift

Chris Nicholson’s stranded Team Vestas Wind crew are finally on their way back to civilisation after two days sitting on a remote “sand pit” in the Indian Ocean.

The team dramatically grounded their boat after ploughing into a reef on Saturday at 19 knots and were forced to abandon it, before wading through knee-deep water to a dry position.

They were then picked up by a coast guard boat from Ile du Sud, a near-deserted islet with no communications with the outside world. The islet is serviced weekly by a fishing vessel, called Eliza, from Mauritius, which is about 430 kilometres away to the south-west.

Australian skipper Nicholson’s nine-strong team finally were on their way after boarding the Eliza on Tuesday. From there, they plan to fly to Abu Dhabi at the end of the week.

Neil Cox, the team’s shore crew chief, told “We’ve had nine guys sitting on a sand pit in the middle of the Indian Ocean. You’d think it’s a bad movie. You sit there and talk to the coast guard and they’re telling us about everything we’re dealing with on the technical side, then they’re asking me to warn the guys that the reef is riddled full of sharks and barracuda and God knows what.”

The team arrive in Mauritius today with just the clothes they have on their backs, Cox said.

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Published: December 3, 2014 04:00 AM


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