Friday, February 24, 2012

Volvo Ocean Race - Leg 3

                        13 Days of Non-Stop Mayhem

           Team Sanya at the start of the second stage of Leg 3.
                                                IAN ROMAN/VOR

When we last checked on The Volvo Ocean Race, the 15-ton, 70-foot-long boats were safely in Abu Dhabi — after hopping a stealth freighter to avoid pirates in the Indian Ocean. Leg 3 begins with the usual in-port race in Abu Dhabi, home of the boat in second-to-last place, and continues to Sanya, China, home of the boat in last place.

An Arabian fairy tale came true as British Olympian Ian Walker skippered hometown favorite Team Abu Dhabi to victory in the Etihad In-Port Race. Walker’s risk paid off in the shifty winds of the Persian Gulf, earning his boat its second in-port victory in three races so far. The next day, the Shamal Winds came rolling in from the desert.
                                        Abu Dhabi Sails to Stage 1 Victory
                                                                           Paul Todd/VOR

Race leader Telefonica looked to continue its winning ways, dominating the 106-mile race along the coast of the Arab Emirates. Then, with only two miles to go, the crew of old hands of Abu Dhabi pulled another rabbit out of the hat. Abu Dhabi’s black, falcon-crested boat known as Azzam (Determination) — a radically designed racer by Bruce Farr of Annapolis — sailed to a one-minute victory over the hard-luck boys on Puma, taking the first stage of Leg 3 to Sanya, China.

                                      A Fisheye View aboard Sanya                                     
                                       Andres Soriano.Team Sanya/VOR

Then it was back into the box.

The fully rigged boats were reloaded at Sharjah onto the yellow security freighter and transported to a mystery isle deep in the Indian Ocean (the Maldivian port of Male). Unloaded, they sailed away without fear of capture by pirates.
Snake-bit Team Sanya rejoined the fleet for the second stage. While the fleet was resting, racing and retooling in Abu Dhabi, the Chinese boat had been re-rigging in Madagascar since early in Leg 2. Bad luck throughout the fleet had been such that all six Volvos were now reunited for the first time since the race began in Alicante, Spain.

Let’s Put Leg 3 in Perspective
Each leg of the Volvo Ocean Race is a long-running drama of complex acts. Leg 3 was no exception.

Act 1 was a 1,000-mile straight line, sweltering burn-run on port tack, sailing south of Sri Lanka and across the Bay of Bengal toward the waypoint at Pulau We, off the coast of Indonesia. The first night out, Telefonica’s Code Zero headsail ripped and the boat fell to the back of the fleet. Having nothing to lose, Telefonica went north while all the others sailed east. Puma and Camper traded leads daily — only to see Telefonica scream in from the north a few days later and steal the show.

After damage in the first two legs forced Team Sanya to withdraw, the crew of the Chinese boat hoped to make a good showing in Leg 3, which ends in its home port. But it’s clear their boat, Telefonica Blue from the last Volvo Ocean Race, simply cannot compete with the latest generation of Volvo boats. That doesn’t mean Team Sanya can’t get lucky and have a gamble pay off. But over the long haul the Chinese boat is way over-matched.

Act 2 restarted near the entrance to the Malacca Strait at the northern tip of Sumatra. Lead boats hit light winds while the boats at the back rode a stronger breeze to catch up. No lead is ever safe. That’s one of the maddening aspects of long-distance sailboat raciing.

                          Patching the sail on Abu Dhabi                   
                                    Nick Dana/VOR

Malacca Strait is a narrow, 500-mile-long channel filled with freighters, fishing boats, drift nets, uncharted reefs, unpredictable winds and a surreal assortment of floating debris. Puma hit a big tree that busted a dagger board. After clawing back into the lead, the boat snagged a fishing net and dropped to third. It was like sailing through a video game where everything is out to get you.

Puma’s navigator Tom Addis set the stage. “There’s plenty to hit, sandbanks and wrecks, the weather is really unstable — and through all of that you still have to rest so you can remain sane and make good decisions.”

In three days of dueling lead changes, Team Abu Dhabi tore a sail and Camper got parked under a windless cloud. Thus ended both of their chances to win Leg 3. Act Two ended as it began, with Telefonica pin-balling out the Singapore side of the Malacca Strait in first, followed 20 minutes later by Groupama, sailing with the rest of the fleet this leg. Puma followed, seven miles back.

Gales and Jackhammer Waves

Act Three began with a bang as the fleet battled the 35-knot, gale-force winds and the 12-foot jackhammer waves of the South China Sea. Leaving Malaysia to starboard, the fleet began the dangerous 1,000-mile upwind odyssey, dodging rocky reefs and floating landfills.

The original plot line, based on the winning strategy of the last Volvo Ocean Race, was to hug the coast of Vietnam and use it as a shield from wind and current. This final stage of Leg 3 was all about survival and sailing as fast as possible without breaking the boat.
But after a few days of playing catch-up in third, Puma tested the fates by sailing east into an area known as the Dangerous Ground, daring the rest of the fleet to come out and play. No one took the bait, and the wind gods hit Puma with a granddaddy header that pushed the boat back to Vietnam and into a disappointing fourth position.
After 13 days of non-stop mayhem, Leg 3 ended with a bone-crushing tacking duel across Sanya Bay that pushed the exhausted crews to their limits.

Telefonica took line honors for the third consecutive Leg. The only other boat to win the first three legs of the Volvo Ocean Race is Sir Peter Blakes’ Steinlager 2 in 1989-’90.

                         Telefonica Powers to Leg 3 Victory                                       
                                                Paul Todd/ VOR

Next Stop: Auckland, New Zealand.

Between my reports, follow the race at

                                                        © COPYRIGHT 2010 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Volvo Ocean Race - Leg 2

Leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race

Battling rough seas and evading pirates

                       Ian Roman/Volvo Ocean Race

On a perfect day for racing in Capetown, South Africa, Telefonica tightened its stranglehold on first place by winning the in-port race. But the real winners were the three boats that had made it to the starting line after withdrawing from the first leg because of equipment failures.

The following day, all six of the boats began Leg 2, a 5,000-mile slog to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Hundreds of spectator boats came out to watch that country’s boat, Abu Dhabi, lead the way out of Capetown.
                      Ian Roman/Volvo Ocean Race

The usual strategy of heading south to catch the strong northerlies was blown out the window when a giant high-pressure system parked to the south. Instead, navigators charted a course along the coast of South Africa.

The strong breeze vanished with nightfall. Drifting along at about two knots within sight of one another, the sailors wondered what they had done to anger the wind gods. Telefonica was forced to drop anchor to keep from going backwards.

         Yan Riou/Groupama Sailing Team, Volvo Ocean Race

For the next two days, the boats took turns leading the way along the African coast. Battling a 10-knot headwind, the crews tacked and stacked toward the Indian Ocean without sleep.

Africa had one more trick up its sleeve. The Agulhas Bank, a stretch of shallow water where the warm southerly Agulhas current meets the cold Beneguela current just east of the Cape of Good Hope, stirred up a maze of boat-busting waves.

Groupama helmsman Charles Caudrelier explained the scene: “We had waves from every direction, and the boat didn’t stop slamming.”

Yan Riou/Groupama Sailing Team, Volvo Ocean Race

Once free of the African pile driver, the race essentially restarted. Sailing east, the fleet split along a north-south axis to find the quickest route through a low-pressure trough of light air. Telefonica took the northern route, while the French on Groupama sailed 200 miles to the south. The other boats split the difference.

Abu Dhabi media crew member Nick Dana described near madness: “Try this on your brain: three to four knots of wind, sails brutally slapping the rig. Within seconds it shifts 60 degrees, gusts 15 to 18 knots and tips the boat over. The strong pressure lasts two minutes maximum and requires moving tons of sails. Then the breeze dies again in a matter of seconds and sends the boat upright and the sails against the rig, sending chills down everyone’s spines. Put that on repeat for 15 straight hours and see how you come out the other side.”

Torture and Misery
The teams endured four days and nights of this physical and mental torture. Finally, Sanya couldn’t take it anymore and banged a hard left due north into the jaws of a fearsome storm. The Chinese boat quickly went from last to first. Then disaster struck for a second time. The masthead rigging came apart at the spreaders, forcing the crew to suspend racing and head to the Madagascar Port of Ehoala.

            Andres Soriano/Team Sanya/Volvo Ocean Race

Groupama’s gambit to head south paid off. On day five, as the rest of the Volvos finally punched through into fresh wind, the whole fleet turned in tandem to the northeast. Meanwhile, the French power-surfed into the lead.

Christmas Eve, the 11th day of the maddening leg, found the tight pack just north of Madagascar, with Groupama leading toward yet another sweltering windless wall. At The Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, the boats compressed together for the third restart. Now Camper and Telefonica guessed right on the shortest wind line through the doldrums. The pair spent the next two days within sight of one another match-racing.

Into the Stealth Zone
Then the fleet mysteriously vanished into the Stealth Zone.

Piracy is a major industry in the Indian Ocean. Capturing a Volvo boat would bring a pretty penny. The race hired Dryad Maritime Intelligence Service to keep the teams out of harm’s way. Their solution — a first in the race’s 38-year history — was to electronically cloak the fleet as it secretly sailed to a secure, prearranged port. There the 15-ton Volvos were loaded onto a razor-wire garlanded freighter.
                           Paul Todd/ Volvo Ocean Race

After 15 days of insane racing, Telefonica reached the still top-secret safe haven first. Finishing a mere 1:57 seconds ahead of Camper, Telefonica took 80 percent of the points for the leg.

The fleet was then shipped to an undisclosed spot off the coast of the United Arab Emirates where the boats were unloaded for stage two and the mad dash to Abu Dhabi.

Groupama snagged the remaining six points by rolling Telefonica at the last mark of the wind-whipped, 98-mile sprint through the Persian Gulf, winning stage two of Leg 2 by 52 seconds.

Paul Todd/ Volvo Ocean Race

Next Stop: Sanya, China.

© COPYRIGHT 2010 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.