By Stefan Coppers:
The permanent smiles have vanished from the faces of the Team Brunel crew. Eighteen hectic hours and a roller-coaster of emotions later, Bouwe Bekking’s men have gifted their fantastic lead to no less than three opponents. “What a drama,” sighs Rokas Milevičius who is trying his best to show fighting spirit in spite of the setback. “We’ll catch up with them, whatever it takes.”
Yesterday evening, 1900 hrs: Team Brunel is sailing into the night. There’s no beautiful sunset this evening – only a gloomy, ominous light. “You should steer clear of this sort of rain cloud,” grumbles Pablo Arrarte, as the threatening storm cloud races towards us. “Ocean racers prefer to avoid anvil-shaped clouds like that one.” But the cloud in question seems not to understand Spanish, because it is looming over us within a few minutes. As the first drops of rain hit the deck, the wind drops completely. The crew on deck work with might and main to move the boat forwards, but the pouring rain and lack of wind continue for another four hours. “A thirty-mile lead, eh? Whispers Pablo, softly. “I wouldn’t like to think that the others have had plenty of wind for the last four hours. That’ll have brought them pretty close to us at any rate.”
2330 hrs: Jens Dolmer wakes Pablo Arrarte, who is sleeping in the fo’c’sle. “All hands on deck. We have to gybe. Quickly! We can see Alvimedica on the radar.” “You’re kidding!” is the Spanish sailor’s indignant reaction, as he drags on his trousers in the darkness. “They were still lying fourth not so long ago – a few tens of miles behind us. I don’t even want to know where the others are.” More than 30 minutes later, the men are waiting for the next position report with bated breath. It hits us like a blow from a sledgehammer. All of the teams have swept on and caught up with us, but not the ladies. In only six hours, the Dutch boat has gifted no less than 40 miles to the other teams.
0130 hrs: The storm has now turned out to be our friend because suddenly a strong wind blows in our direction! From nowhere, there is suddenly a 25-knot wind and the course is perfect. We are sailing straight towards Auckland. The other teams are 40 miles to the east of us. Of course, we hope that they have no wind. Team Brunel is ploughing at full speed towards New Zealand! Jens Dolmer is laughing again: “At this speed, we’ll be there in four days.”
0600 hrs: And the next position report is great indeed! We’ve built up a substantial lead again. From the update, our navigator Capey sees that the other teams have only a 10-knot wind, while a glance at our meter shows that we have double that wind speed. The disappointment of yesterday evening, when completely disheartened men were standing on deck and pulling at lifeless sails, is soon forgotten. At this rate, the next six hours could see another massive gain for us.
1200 hrs: Nothing could be further from the truth. Once again, Team Brunel receives another huge sledgehammer blow. Although we have certainly covered the most distance, we’ve sailed straight into an area where the wind has suddenly dropped. And the rest of the fleet, a few miles to the east of us, is benefitting from a strong wind. Reluctantly, skipper Bekking has to take a hard decision. We gybe towards the other boats! In exactly the opposite direction to Auckland. “From the penthouse to the shit-house,” says Bekking, laughing on the wrong side of his mouth. “But we have to do it, or come in last. Now we’ll be joining the queue at the back, but we still have every chance.”
1800 hrs: We’ve lost a lot of ground. 35 miles behind the leader, Team Brunel starts again from the beginning. But the men are full of fighting spirit. “It’s a shame, but this decision means that we’re still going for victory,” say Jens Dolmer and Gerd-Jan Poortman in chorus.
The next day, 14:00: The men were right, because less than a day later, we are in fourth place, just 3.1 miles behind the leader.