As temperatures rise and strong winds give way to localised storm activity on the approach to the Doldrums, the Volvo Ocean Race fleet is picking its way through the cloud systems, attempting to connect the dots, joining the wind pressure cells.
It’s exhausting work for navigators and skippers in terms of decision-making, and for the crew moving the stack of sails on each gybe. At least some if not all of the teams have elected to ‘split the stack’, piling half the weight on each side of the boat, sacrificing righting moment for the ability to quickly gybe on each wind shift.
In what has become a familiar refrain from several teams, gains and losses are coming quickly, with spirits rising and falling just as fast.
“Yesterday, we had AkzoNobel 12 miles behind us, and we saw them catch a cloud and in two hours we lost like 20 miles, it’s crazy,” said Dongfeng skipper Charles Caudrelier.
His team has gybed more than any other, in an effort to stay on the shifts and retain their grip on the lead.
Blair Tuke on MAPFRE, sailing neck and neck with team AkzoNobel for much of the morning gives his perspective on the changing fortunes: “The last 24 hours have been pretty bad for us, we’ve lost to Dongfeng and Vestas 11th Hour Racing. But then this morning we gained on them quickly and suddenly they’re right here in sight.”
Five-time Volvo Ocean Race veteran Tony Mutter, on Vestas 11th Hour Racing, describes the dilemma facing his team as they try to position themselves best for the weather and tactically around the other teams challenging for the lead: “At the moment we are trying to get around this light air patch that is coming out off the coast of Africa. There’s two ways… we can go west, or we can race south as fast as possible. Currently we’re heading south. We have Dongfeng directly ahead of us and then we have MAPFRE and AkzoNobel going west right now. It’s a bit of a split, so it’s a hard one. With the wind direction, we can‘t really go west, so we have to let it play out… It’s really hard…”
While the clouds are creating a nightmare scenario for the navigators, they are also making for some incredible photo opportunities. The view from on board Dongfeng last night was especially poignant.
This Race Will Be Super-stressful – Caudrelier
Charles Caudrelier, the skipper of Dongfeng in the Volvo Ocean Race, has been around the planet a few times but five days into the first big offshore test of this race, he has already seen enough to know it is going to be a hard nine months of racing.
“This race will be super-stressful, we knew it,” said the Frenchman as Dongfeng held the lead in the seven-strong fleet of Volvo Ocean 65s after five days of intense racing on the epic 7,000-nautical mile stage from Lisbon to Cape Town.
“The boats are close with four a little more at the top level,” added Caudrelier in a reference to MAPFRE, AkzoNobel, Vestas 11th Hour Racing and Dongfeng. “It’s played out metre-by-metre – every mistake is expensive.”
After finishing third in Leg 1, Caudrelier led his team to an impressive start to the second leg from the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, as they led out of the Tagus River.
After a wild first night in the Atlantic when the crews saw more than 30 knots of wind and up to 37 knots of boatspeed, the opening phase of the race has seen the fleet rampaging downwind in front of a strong northeasterly trade wind.
Dongfeng has been leading for much of the time and has also often been the most westerly boat – an important strategic element in a race where picking a fast lane through the Doldrums is likely to be critical to the final outcome.
A key moment came when Dongfeng gybed to pass west of Madeira, leading the way as she did so and then finding better angles and better wind conditions than her rivals on the righthand side of the course. Since then the red and white Volvo Ocean 65 sponsored by Dongfeng Motor Corporation has always been at or near the front.
Right now Caudrelier and navigator Pascal Bidegorry are concentrating on trying to pick their way through a weakening easterly breeze as they head towards the Doldrums, now less than 600nm due south of them.
In light winds, Caudrelier explained, helming Dongfeng is not as much fun as when she is fully powered up. “When you have been going faster it is really hard to drive in the light air and the swell is still here, so we have waves which are stronger than the wind. Driving is not the (best) part of the job today – it’s quite boring and you need a lot of concentration. The weather has become very hot, so nobody is fighting to drive now.”
Earlier, much of the credit for Dongfeng’s blistering downwind speed was being heaped on veteran Volvo Ocean Race sailor Stu Bannatyne who is taking part in his eighth edition of this marathon classic.
The crew on the Chinese-sponsored one-design have dubbed Bannatyne “Magic Stu.” “When its heavy weather downwind sailing – that’s the man you want on the wheel,” said trimmer Carolijn Brouwer. “Yeah, the boat just smokes when he is driving.”
Bannatyne explained his method: “There’s definitely a lot of technique to driving well in heavy airs, especially at night,” he said. “It’s mainly about trying to be accurate with small movements. It’s a bit like driving a car really fast – you just use small movements on the wheel.” He added that in the darkness he has been using the stars to help him steer.
Caudrelier is delighted to have Bannatyne’s skills at his disposal and to help Dongfeng stay right at the front of the fleet on this key leg. “I think (his speed) is because he spent hours and hours sailing the Volvo and it’s the best school to learn,” Caudrelier said.