By Richard Crockett
The Easter weekend was anything but peaceful for the Volvo Ocean Race fleet, and in fact was drama filled.
Vestas lost her mast, MAPFRE stopped just short of Cape Horn for repairs, and Brunel has been reeled in at the head of the fleet by Dongfeng.
So while Brunel and Dongfeng go hammer and tongs at each other, the rest of the fleet plays catch-up as they have simply fallen off the back of the leaders in dramatic fashion.
MAPFRE is in an unusual position being the back marker by a long way, as she has always been a pace setter throughout the race – that was until she suffered from mast and boom damage which caused a massive tear in her mainsail. She resumed racing on Friday morning (UTC) following her Cape Horn pit-stop.
While the team had prepared for the possibility of a stop to repair the mast track by having shore support on stand-by near Cape Horn, the pit-stop became mandatory when the mainsail split into two pieces, torn from luff to leech, just before the Horn.
“We’ve been lucky in a way that we broke it so close by and that we can repair it now with the shore team,” said watch captain Pablo Arrarte.
“The repairs always take longer than you would like,” acknowledged skipper Xabi Fernández. “It is not so easy because the repair of the mainsail has to dry well, but we will start sailing towards Brazil, not at 100% but working as hard as we can to lose the shortest time possible.”
Up ahead, the fleet charges on, pushing east-northeast, and passing just south of the Falkland Islands, where conditions remain fierce.
“The Southern Ocean just doesn’t want to let us off the hook and keeps us fully in its grip,” wrote Brunel skipper Bouwe Bekking.
“The wind direction is such that we are still not really heading north, we’re tight reaching in 28-35 knots in very cold water.
“It is also painful to see we will lose in every position report, with the boats behind getting better breeze. There is one routing forecast where MAPFRE would even win this leg! But that is yacht racing, not always fun, never predictable and that is what makes it special.”
Team AkzoNobel navigator Jules Salter agreed the weather was far from ideal.
“Not great for tired people and boats,” Salter said. “But we can use these conditions for some quick miles to the northeast as we await the low pressure that chased us down into the Horn to cross Patagonia and eventually
catch us as we sail past the Falklands.
“That will give us downwind conditions again, probably with a tricky sea state but at least warming up for each mile north.”
Vestas 11th Hour Racing Dismasted
The team reported that the mast broke and they were forced to cut it away to avoid damage to the hull.
The boat was approximately 100 miles southeast of the Falkland Islands when her dismasting occurred, and they were motoring towards Port Stanley.
At the time of the dismasting, Vestas 11th Hour Racing was sailing in a 25 to 30 knot northerly wind with 3 metre waves.
“I was driving at the time,” said navigator Simon Fisher. “There was a big bang and the rig broke just above the first spreader… The top of the mast landed in the water with the stump sticking up… To protect the integrity of the hull, we had to cut everything away.”
The Battle for Victory
The battle for victory in Leg 7 took a new twist on Friday as Dongfeng Race Team moved to within striking distance of long-term stage leaders Team Brunel.
Bouwe Bekking’s Brunel have seen their lead of 80 miles in the Southern Ocean and more than 30 miles at Cape Horn slashed to just 2.8 miles as Dongfeng pile on the pressure in the Atlantic.
The teams might have been hoping the weather gods would go easier on them in the South Atlantic following one of the most testing Southern Ocean passages the race has seen in recent history, but their wishes have yet to be granted.
As the Volvo Ocean 65s punched north-east at speeds of up to 20 knots, the already exhausted sailors were being tested even further towards their physical and mental limits.
Compounding the challenge is the closeness of the racing. An easterly-moving front swept across the back of the fleet first, allowing them to turn towards the north (and the finish in Itajaí, Brazil) much sooner than leaders Brunel.
Dongfeng and third-placed team AkzoNobel profited massively from Brunel’s misfortune, shaving huge chunks off their lead in just a few hours.
Turn the Tide on Plastic was pushing ahead with a reduced sail plan, after finding that a starboard side spreader root, a component used to attach the spreader to the mast, had moved. At one point, the team was assessing whether it would need to stop. But after consulting with the mast supplier, who modelled various scenarios, the current plan is to keep racing.
Skipper Dee Caffari said, “We are back in the game with double points on the scoreboard. Keep your fingers crossed.”
On 1 April, with 700nm to the finish, Charles Caudrelier’s Dongfeng actually passed Brunel for a brief period overnight, profiting from the inside track as the two boats battled each other around 700 miles east of Argentina.
But a slightly better angle on the wind and well timed gybe gave Bouwe Bekking’s Brunel the advantage, and the yellow Dutch boat was back in front with a slim 13-mile buffer.
“Capey (navigator) was like a hawk last night, drinking one coffee after another,” said skipper Bouwe Bekking. “You gybe too early, you lose to Dongfeng. You gybe too late, you lose as well. It was a bit of trade off, further to the east potential better pressure for us, but being further to the left like Dongfeng, you get a better shift as the wind rotates anticlockwise around the high pressure system.
“But I think we nailed it perfectly, and when we gybed we could see far on the horizon behind us a small masthead light…The ‘enemy’ was behind us, a big relief.”
Third-placed team AkzoNobel was just 70 miles back, keeping them firmly in contention for a podium position.
Onboard Brunel, Bekking’s crew are hoping that they can make it to the finish line not
only in first place, but in one piece.
“Everyone’s really willing the finish to be here, especially hearing about some of the damage the other boats have sustained,” boat captain Abby Ehler said.
“We’ve had a slight issue with our rudder which we fixed, but there’s still a long way to go. It would we amazing to win this leg. We haven’t had a sterling performance in the race so far, so to win would be exceptional. Fingers crossed nothing goes wrong with the boat between now and the finish.”
Caution is running through the fleet as the exhausted teams nurse their Volvo Ocean 65s north towards Itajaí, trying to find a balance between speed and safety.
“The more experienced guys onboard have been saying to take it easy on the boat and on the rig,” AkzoNobel bowman Brad Farrand said.
“So we’ve been going a bit more cautiously to make sure we don’t come a cropper. We’re constantly looking up the rig, making sure there’s not too much movement or too much bend.”
Two days after having to stop near Cape Horn for 13 hours to make repairs to their torn mainsail and damaged mast track, overall race leaders MAPFRE finally have a full suit of sails up.
Xabi Fernández’s team had been forced to sail with only headsails for the past 48 hours to allow for their repairs to bond, but easing winds gave them the chance to hoist the mainsail once more.
“We’ve been pretty lucky with the weather, it’s been mostly downwind, but now it’s getting lighter so hopefully we can sail with the full mainsail and it keeps in one piece,” MAPFRE boat captain Antonio ‘Neti’ Cuervas-Mons said. “It looks pretty good, the guys did a great job fixing it. The track looks perfect too. Now we have to be a bit conservative to make sure it’s not under too much load.”
By day 16 Bouwe Bekking of Brunel was predicting a photo finish to Leg 7 as his Team Brunel leads Dongfeng Race Team into the final 36 hours of what has been a massively challenging leg.
Less than six miles separate the two boats yestrady (Monday), and with 400 miles to the finish line in Itajaí, Brazil, Bekking says they are only going to get closer.
Aside from a small window where Dongfeng passed them temporarily 36 hours ago, Brunel have led Leg 7 for more than 3,000 miles through the Southern Ocean and into the South Atlantic.
But Dutch skipper Bekking, the race’s most experienced sailor, knows better than to assume he has the leg wrapped up, and as such is rallying his team for one last battle with Dongfeng.
“The good news is that we have been eating the miles towards the finish quickly,” said Bekking. “Over the last five hours we averaged just under 24 knots!
“You think you will be making big gains but no, only two miles on Dongfeng. They are pushing hard for the oh-so-important difference of the three extra points gained by coming first in this leg.
“You’d think we would have a healthy lead, but the bungee cord gets shorter again, in fact it doesn’t exist anymore, as the routing has the two of us finishing within a minute!!
“It will be a battle between the yellow and the red bus for the next 36 hours.”
As water and air temperatures rise, Charles Caudrelier’s sailors on Dongfeng are just starting to allow themselves to put memories of the brutal discomfort of the Southern Ocean conditions behind them as they sail north.
“We have just passed the high pressure today and our world has completely changed in the last 24 hours,” he said.
“The water temperature has climbed from 9 degrees to 20 and the air from 3 degrees to 18 in 48 hours.
“I think our bodies and our minds are just relieved to be free of the pressure and the fears of the south and we can relax. When you sail in this area you have to disconnect your brain to forget your fears, the cold and the humidity.
“Now we have 48 hours left to try to pass Brunel, but first we have to finish the leg without breaking our boat. Most of the fleet have had issues and our priority now is to finish.”
Team AkzoNobel remain in a comfortable third place, 200 miles from the leaders but also with a gap of around 240 miles to fourth-placed Turn the Tide on Plastic and MAPFRE in fifth.
The back markers were today both trying to escape the clutches of the high pressure system, whose light winds are slowing their progress towards Itajaí. So a break from the relentless conditions of the Southern Ocean has been welcomed.
For the Turn the Tide on Plastic, the lighter winds and flat sea meant the team was able to make a significant repair to the rig, and the team is back up to 100 per-cent, flying masthead sails again.
On the other hand, the lighter conditions mean they’ll be at sea for longer and both teams could end up more than three days behind the frontrunners by the time they reach the finish line.
“From one extreme to the other – here we are trying to sail north with no wind through a high pressure,” MAPFRE skipper Xabi Fernández said. “It is ok though, I don’t see the people complaining yet as we are happy to have a few quiet days.
“We’re still fighting to get one more position, so we still have the motivation to sail properly and the watches go quick.
“Since we hoisted the repaired main we keep looking up and it looks like it is going to hold so it is good news for us. The track in the mast looks fine too and we are following the timings of the routing more or less ok. This is giving us five more days of sailing!”
It’s going to be a spectacular finish in Itaji when the front-runners get there later today.