I’m writing this month’s column from the Brazilian port of Itajaí where over the past week I have watched the five teams to complete the seventh leg of Volvo Ocean Race arrive here after a tumultuous passage through the Southern Ocean and around Cape Horn from Auckland, New Zealand.
There are so many stories to tell about this classic leg – one of the windiest and most testing Southern Ocean stages for many editions of the 45-year-old around the world marathon.
Not least of those stories is the masterclass performance put on by Bouwe Bekking’s (until now) under-performing Team Brunel crew who dominated throughout to take maximum points in the double-scoring leg.
Bekking’s crew – which includes master navigator Andrew Cape (10th time around Cape Horn) and America’s Cup-winning wonder-kid Peter Burling – barely put a foot wrong during their 16 and a half days at sea on the 7,600-nautical mile leg.
A smart headsail combination choice as the fleet entered the Southern Ocean storm track enabled them to make the turn to the east towards Cape Horn faster and more efficiently than their rivals and once ahead they put on an impressive show of heavy weather sailing that saw them make steady gains every day on the way to the Horn.
The Dutch-flagged crew had to hold their collective nerve right to the end though to resist a prolonged challenge over the final week at sea from Charles Caudrelier’s Dongfeng Race Team.
The French skipper had to settle for second ultimately, but Caudrelier’s disappointment will not have been too intense after now taking the overall race lead by one point from the unfortunate Spanish team Mapfre who damaged their mast and blew apart their mainsail on the approach to Cape Horn.
Mapfre did well to complete the Leg 7 at all.
Some smart foresight to station a handful of shore support personnel close to Cape Horn paid dividends and enabled the pre-race favourites to make a 12-hour repair stop – allowed under the rules – before pressing on around the Horn.
Hopes of catching the fleet in the forecast light airs around the St. Helena high pressure system quickly evaporated after the high switched position directly in their path leaving them drifting for days with nothing else to contemplate than the tantalising thought of what might have been.
Mapfre were the last team to finish the leg, following home third-placed team AkzoNobel and Turn the Tide on Plastic in fourth. Meanwhile, what had looked like a glorious return to action for Vestas 11th Hour Racing –who were forced out of the leg from Hong Kong to New Zealand after a collision with a non-racing vessel on Leg 4 – turned sour when their newly repaired yacht was dismasted east of the Falkland Islands.
The crew cut away the broken rig and motored to the Falkland Islands where they spent a week preparing the boat for their shore team to deliver under engine and a jury-rigged sail plan to Itajaí. As I write this the verdict is out on whether they will make it here in time to fit a new mast before the start of Leg 8 to the USA.
However, overshadowing all of these Leg 7 stories is the tragic loss overboard in the Southern Ocean of British sailor John Fisher from the Hong Kong yacht Sun Hung Kai Scallywag.
Fisher went over the side in strong winds and big seas on Monday March 26 and despite an exhaustive search by his crew mates was never found.
After several hours of searching and faced by a serious deterioration in the weather conditions the shell-shocked crew made the devastating decision to give up their search and reluctantly turn downwind ahead of a fast-moving storm system.
Scallywag later retired from the leg and the crew made landfall at Puerto Mont, Chile a week later. The team has recently announced on its Facebook page that they intend to continue with the race and as I write this a crew of friends and supporters is delivering the boat to Itajaí.
I didn’t know John Fisher, best known simply as “Fish”, very well – hardly at all in fact – but since the start of this edition of the race I had heard a lot about him from other people. Chiefly what I heard was about his geniality, approachability, and his remarkable beyond-what-was-required kindness and generosity with his personal time.
Team AkzoNobel watch captain Chris Nicholson knew him a lot better and paid this tribute to him in an interview in Itajaí when I asked for his memories of Fish:
“In this sport you meet a few people who are the ones you go to when you need things sorted out,” Nicholson told me.
“Fish was one of those – the sort of person you want with you, quite often because you think they are better than you.
“Reliable and trustworthy – that’s how I would describe Fish’s character. You could see that within the Scallywag team he has a presence – not many people have that sort of ability to have an effect, an influence like that, but Fish was one of them.
“It’s a terribly sad loss to his family and friends and the Scallywag team. He will be missed by everyone in the Volvo Ocean Race and the wider yacht racing community.”
By Justin Chisholm
International Sailing Writer