Leg 5 across Southern Ocean is ‘easily the most demanding’ of Volvo Ocean Race

Leg 5, which takes the Volvo fleet across the Southern Ocean, is the one sailors anticipate, and even fear, writes Osman Samiuddin.
Roiling seas are what Roberto Bermudez and his shipmates will be expecting across the Southern Ocean as Azzam crosses from Auckland, New Zealand to Itajai, Brazil. Matt Knighton / Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing
Roiling seas are what Roberto Bermudez and his shipmates will be expecting across the Southern Ocean as Azzam crosses from Auckland, New Zealand to Itajai, Brazil. Matt Knighton / Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing

All those scare stories about the Volvo Ocean Race being the toughest of examinations for the participants and how it is the Everest of sailing, or an extreme sport only in long form, are about to be tested.

It is the next leg from Auckland to Itajai in Brazil – set to start on Sunday – on which those tales were based.

At 6,776 nautical miles and traversing the Southern Ocean, it is the longest and most volatile leg, the one that terrifies sailors as much as it excites them.

“Originally, Volvo used to have several of these legs, but now this is the only big Southern Ocean leg we do,” said Simon Fisher, the navigator for Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s (ADOR) Azzam.

“It’s one that everyone looks forward to, with lots of fast, downwind sailing, but it’s also one that is pretty tough, because it is basically two weeks of heavy winds. It can get very cold. There’s a risk of seeing icebergs.

“Other legs can be tough in different ways, but this one is easily the most demanding, the hardest on the sailors. Just the fact that it is so cold, so relentless – it takes its toll on everyone. It’s the one everyone looks forward to doing, but also everyone is very relieved when you get to Cape Horn, turn left and start heading towards the sun again.”

Such is the nature of this ocean, as much as the winds that can reach 50 knots, it is the unending, unpredictable state of the waves that poses threats.

In the previous race in 2011/12, veteran sailor Neal McDonald, now the performance director for Azzam, described days where he felt like he was stuck inside a washing machine with waves buffeting the boat from all sides.

They are not small, either. McDonald called huge swirls, nearly half the height of the mast, the “controllable ones, nice, easy and marvellous to watch”.

The ones to keep a wary eye out for are rogue waves that can strike from any direction at any time. Hollywood special effects exaggerated the rogue wave in the movie The Perfect Storm, but to see a real one it is worth watching the VOR documentary of this leg from the 2011/12 edition.

One of the defining images of that race was McDonald’s boat Telefonica being hit by what he called “a one-in-20”. Such was its force, sailors were blown horizontal and had to hang on to whatever they could. They were lucky to survive. In the first round-the-world race, the Whitbread Race in 1973/74, three sailors died on two legs across the Southern Ocean.

Even surviving was often like a near-death experience, as Tracy Edwards recounted in her autobiography, Living Every Second.

On board the Atlantic Privateer in the 1985/86 race and sailing the same territory, but from Auckland to Punta del Este in Uruguay, Edwards wrote after their boat almost capsized: “The conditions were horrendous and I thought I was going to die. I’d be cooking and puking up into the sink at the same time.”

The toll on the boats has been bigger. Rare has been the Southern Ocean leg in which the weather conditions have not damaged at least one of the fleet.

That 1985/86 race was, in fact, the first in which the entire fleet finished that leg.

In the previous race, only one of the six boats completed the leg without having to stop for ­repairs.

Two, including Azzam, did not complete the leg, and Groupama, whose mast fell, finished fourth, 10 days after the winners Puma.

Azzam’s was an especially tortuous leg.

Within hours of the start at Auckland, in winds of up to 40 knots, they had structural damage to the bow bulkhead and were forced to return to Auckland for repairs.

After again setting off, there was “hull delamination”, a potentially disastrous situation. That meant they had to put in at a port in Chile, which ended Leg 5 for Azzam with the boat having to be shipped to Itajai.

Fisher was aboard then and knows that the key challenge will be finding a balance between pushing for speed and maintaining the boat, although the new one-boat design Volvo Ocean 65 may be better equipped to deal with this part of the world.

“As a team, our priority is about going fast but also being safe and keeping the boat in one piece, not damaging any sails,” he said.

“The boats are more robust this time and there should be fewer structural issues than we saw in the fleet last time. That said, one thing we have to be really careful of is to look after our sails.

“The way the rules work and with how many replacement sails we are allowed – it’s really not that many – it’s important we don’t wreck all our sails trying to push the boat really hard, because we might find ourselves without an important sail for the last bit of the leg.”


Tropical depression Cyclone Pam, is threatening to delay the start of the fifth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) this weekend.

The fleet are to begin the trek to Itajai, Brazil, one of the race’s toughest crossings, on Sunday.

But Cyclone Pam, with winds of more than 40 knots, could push the start from Auckland back by 24 hours.

High winds affected the start of the leg in the 2011/12 race, one in which Azzam had to return for repairs after starting.

“If the weather is really, really bad, they might consider delaying the start of the leg by a day,” Azzam navigator Simon Fisher said.

“That is on the cards at the moment. The downside is we may find ourselves having to wait a day before we leave. The good side is it should mean windy conditions, which will help us get into the Southern Ocean very quickly.”


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Published: March 11, 2015 04:00 AM


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