I’m writing this month’s column in the French port of St. Malo where I have just waved off the seven current Volvo Ocean Race teams on the final stage of “Leg Zero” – a four-pronged qualifying prelude to the notorious around the world race.
I have been chasing the fleet since the first part of Leg Zero – a rip roaring romp around England’s Isle of Wight during Lendy Cowes Week at the beginning of August. Winds were up to 35 knots with big seas and the Volvo Ocean 65s and their crews in their element as they tore around the coastal island course.
So fast were they in fact that the winner – Spanish team Mapfre skippered by Olympic medallist and America’s Cup sailor Xabi Fernandez – set a new record time for the 50-nautical mile course and all the top four crews finished well inside the previous record time.
Records are nice to break and of course the Volvo Ocean Race media team made the most of one of their often-maligned one design boats smashing this one during a high profile regatta like Cowes Week.
However, it was the high adrenaline helicopter footage of the boats sailing at full tilt around the southern side of the island that made a much bigger splash on social media around the world. Even actual real people at Cowes Week were glued to the TV screens in pubs and marina bars every time the footage played.
Next up for the VOR teams – which include returning entries Mapfre, Dongfeng Race Team (CHI), and Team Brunel (NED), plus first timers team AkzoNobel (NED), Turn the tide on plastic (tba), Scallywag (HKG) and Vestas 11th Hour Racing (USA) – was the 605 mile Rolex Fastnet Race.
After a spectacular exit to the Solent that saw the 65-foot canting keeled VO65s crossing and ducking each other like Megles 24s, the fleet settled down into a close formation coastal battle along the south of England.
Once they escaped a windless Land’s End, the tightly bunched group matched each other closely upwind at around 10 knots all the way to the craggy Atlantic outcrop of the Fastnet Rock just south of Ireland.
The intensity of the racing meant constant trimming and sail changes were the order of the day throughout – meaning little or no sleep for the sailors. After rounding the Rock just after dawn on the second day (Tuesday) they were rewarded with a much faster run home past the Scilly Isles and into Plymouth.
If Leg Zero gives us any indicator for the Volvo Ocean Race itself then Mapfre and Dongfeng could well be the two teams to beat. The battle these two exhausted crews slugged out between them in the dark just before dawn on Wednesday in Plymouth was a nerve-wrackingly close affair.
At the line, the Chinese boat (with French skipper Charles Caudrelier and navigator Pascal Bidegorry) held off Mapfre (navigated by legendary Spaniard Joan Vila) to claim victory by 58 seconds after two and half days of racing.
Brutally, Leg Zero stage three – a race through the English Channel from Plymouth to St. Malo – began the very next day. That meant a scramble for the shore crews to turn the boats around and scarce time for the zombified sailors to rest in their Plymouth hotel beds.
The cross-Channel race via a turn near the Needles lighthouse off the western end of the Isle of Wight turned out to be a light and fickle affair. Mapfre chalked up another win to begin to stamp their authority on the star-studded fleet.
Once the fourth and final leg that I watched start today in St. Malo concludes, teams will for the first time be allowed to train against each other. The rumour mill has it that Mapfre and Dongfeng are to become two-boat testing buddies for the next few weeks – a prospect that must be sending chills up the spines of their five rivals as the October 22 start day looms.
By Justin Chisholm – International Sailing Writer