I’m writing this month’s column from Auckland, New Zealand where the Dutch entry team AkzoNobel has been celebrating an epic victory in the sixth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race from Hong Kong to New Zealand
The 11,000-kilometer leg from the northern to the southern hemisphere was a true classic with more twists and turns than an Oscar-winning Hollywood movie.
The team AkzoNobel sailors looked dead and buried just a couple of days into the leg after a failed tactical gambit to tack away from the fleet saw them engulfed by a wind hole off Taiwan.
Somehow though they pulled off the comeback move of the century to not only catch back up with the leading pack but in fact to slip smoothly past into a pretty significant lead – all in the space of about three days.
I sat down with AkzoNobel’s British navigator Jules Salter to get the inside track on how this critical part of the leg played out.
“It was a constantly changing scenario so there were plenty of decisions to be made all throughout the leg,” Salter told me.
“The weather scenario was very dynamic. The tropical storm season runs all year round in the northern hemisphere because the water is so warm there, and in the southern hemisphere although even though the season was over there were several storm systems roaming around down there – including a super storm.
“The climatological studies we did prior to the race threw up some very varied routing possibilities but mainly down the same path. In the end though it was one of the outliers that we have looked at that became the optimum route.
“That analysis and preparation we did was definitely what helped us get back into the race and in fact back into the lead all in one manoeuvre after three days. The work by Clouds and Aksel pointed out to me in no uncertain terms that this was a critical point of the whole right there.
“Before the start we had identified the transition between the front and the trade winds as being a key part of the first bit of the leg and once we were behind we saw we had the perfect opportunity to catch up almost straight away.
“It’s fair to say that the leading pack normally sails with a bit of sheep mentality where you just try to stay with the pack. But because we were behind we were able to focus solely on making the most of the opportunity.
“We could see that the others were going to have to sail further north and east and that would give us the chance to cut the corner. Basically, there was a virtual point on the ocean that we knew if we hit at the right time would enable us to pass from one weather system to the next with no slow down.
“From that point I was solely focused on establishing exactly the right angle we needed to sail and having the right sails up all the time to make this opportunity come to fruition. I spent a lot of time with the watch captains and the trimmers making sure everyone understood the plan and what we needed to do to achieve it.
“The trimmers and drivers did a great job of sailing the boat at pretty close to 100 per cent for several days and we also pulled off a series of well-timed sail changes to keep us motoring along.
“The end result was that we managed to catch up and even get into the lead and pull ahead. A nice feeling to be able to do that.
“As it happens though, that was the easy bit of the race for us. The way we manged to somehow be ahead at the finish – by just two minute and 14 seconds after nearly three weeks of racing – you could write a book about!”
By Justin Chisholm