After living for 23 days in a space not much bigger than the average student room, it’s not easy for the Team Brunel sailors to acclimatise in China. Hardly anyone speaks English and the food is quite different to what we are used to in the West. While the crew enjoy a well-deserved rest in these extraordinary surroundings, skipper Bouwe Bekking looks back on a disappointing third leg.
“This was the leg that I dreaded the most,” says Bouwe Bekking as he takes a sip of his cappuccino. “Not just because of all the hazards, like the hundreds of fishing boats sailing without lights, the sandbanks, the plastic soup and the fishing nets, but most of all for the frustrating calms. Sometimes we didn’t sail more than 40 miles a day. And when someone happened to pick up a gust of wind, they were suddenly 20 miles ahead within a few hours. I don’t think that has much to do with ocean sailing anymore.”.
“The tactical decisions that you make based on the current weather and weather forecasts are in your own hands. Sometimes you make the right decision and sometimes it goes completely wrong. A good example is the beat upwind off the coast of Vietnam. According to our interpretation of the last weather forecast, the wind would turn within a few hours. We call that a windshift. In that event, after shifting, the wind would hit the sails at a wider angle, resulting in increased speed. We were the only one to decide to sail towards the expected windshift. Only the windshift never came. The other boats could sail on and we lost about 10 miles. This was not a good move but we’re not a team that just sails along behind the other teams.”
Sometimes Bekking and his men were plain unlucky. “We sailed reasonably well for the first week but we had no luck off the coast of Sri Lanka. We had no wind and were just parked there. Because the following boats did have wind, we watched our huge lead shrink to a few miles within a couple of hours. The gap between us and Dongfeng widened very quickly. In this case, that had nothing to do with a wrong interpretation of a weather forecast but simply the fact that the wind unexpectedly dropped for us.”
Apart from the fact that the boats are all identical, Bouwe also thinks that the teams are now sailing so close to each other because of the so-called Automatic Identification System (AIS) system. “Every VO65 is equipped with a device that transmits a signal indicating the position and speed of the boat. This system displays a little icon on a digital chart showing other vessels exactly where we are. The system works up to a distance of about 12 miles. You used to be able to switch off the AIS transmitter but now we have to leave it on all the time. Sometimes you execute a masterful manoeuvre but because of the AIS your opponents – who make not have considered this move – can see exactly what you’re doing. They then execute exactly the same manoeuvre. It’s mostly the less experienced teams that are making grateful use of this. You can see that when these teams are sailing alone, they drop behind pretty quickly.”
“It’s also possible now to keep a close watch on each other for days on end simply with the naked eye or binoculars. It’s regularly happened that after changing a sail we’ve seen our immediate rival change the same sail straight away.
Bekking believes that this is hugely frustrating for the younger sailors in particular. “The young sailors are quicker to get discouraged. As the skipper, it’s important that you keep telling these lads about why certain decisions have been made or why we are sailing slower than the boat ahead of us. For instance, there have been times when we’ve been sailing right behind another boat at pretty much the same speed. And here I’m talking about speaking distance, when you can even smell what they’re eating. And then, for no apparent reason, they just sailed away from us. The youngsters often immediately think that we’ve done something wrong but here too it was simply that the other boat happened to get more wind. It has become almost a game of chess.”
“We must always improve,” continues Bekking. “For example, upwind we were short of boat speed. On this course, there are pretty small differences in boat speed, which mean there are minimal chances of overtaking. It’s possible that we should adjust the sail trim when close-hauled. And the weight of the boat also plays a major role in this point of sail. We were a bit lighter than the other teams. We had fewer kilos of gear and food on board to use as counter-weight. This is a disadvantage when sailing close-hauled because you can’t sail the boat so straight then. The greater the boat heels, the less fast you sail.”
“Gerd-Jan Poortman, Pablo Arrarte and Andrew Cape have all gone home for a few days. The rest of the lads are staying in Sanya. After the daily gym session and talks with the team coach Anje-Marijcke van Boxtel in the morning, they’re free to do what they want and they can recover from the leg. We’re going to sail the next leg with the same group. There are no medical problems and nobody has lost excessive weight. So on the 8th of February we’ll be setting course for Auckland in good spirits.”