A test of resolve on the water, a logistical nightmare on shore — Leg 1 turned into two distinct races for a fleet ravaged by bad weather and worse luck.
Team Telefónica are the new front-runners in the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12 after scoring a commanding victory in the first of nine offshore legs.
CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand pushed them hard over the closing days but even the best 24-hour run of the leg could not get them close, while Groupama sailing team’s offshore debut saw them finish third, three days behind the winners.
There was drama aplenty during the racing but nothing compared to the tales of those forced out during the 6,500 nautical mile first leg.
The 2011 start was reminiscent of the debut of the Volvo Open 70s just six years ago.
Then, the opening night saw the fleet lashed by a storm that resulted in the retirement of former race-winner Paul Cayard’s Pirates of the Caribbean, resulting in them having to be airlifted to Cape Town.
The winners of the leg were Mike Sanderson’s ABN AMRO ONE, who had finished last in the opening in-port race.
Telefónica were in the same situation, having finished rock bottom in the Iberdrola In-Port Race in Alicante. Like Sanderson, Iker Martínez was able to inspire a great comeback to take full marks in Leg 1.
“For me it’s a great feeling,” said Martínez. “It’s the first regatta I’ve sailed as skipper and it’s a big responsibility. Everything has gone well and we have a great machine. It’s run smoothly and quickly and that’s down to the enormous amount of work the team has put in.”
Sanderson was less fortunate this time around. Not even 24 hours after the start, Team Sanya were forced to retire from the leg with massive issues in the bow section of their second-generation Volvo 70 sustained in heavy seas off Spain’s Mediterranean coast.
Ian Walker’s Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team had already dismasted by then and though the team briefly got back in the Leg 1 running they reluctantly decided they would be better working on their rigging and shipping the boat on.
Incredibly, the queue to find suitable shipping options to Cape Town would only get longer as the leg progressed.
Once out of the Mediterranean, the survival contest turned to more traditional competition and an open ocean race southwards.
A high of the meteorological kind took over, the first of several to act as governors for this leg.
Gone were the usual trade winds north of the equator, blocked from forming by a low-pressure system further north west. Navigators pondered the GRIB files but were faced with a dilemma.
Shortly after the fleet cleared the Strait of Gibraltar they had to choose between heading west into an area of light and shifty headwinds in search of the trades or instead diving south along the West African coast, also in light conditions, but pointing almost directly at the course turning mark at Fernando de Noronha off the coast of Brazil.
The outcome of the decision would be the key to the entire leg.
Franck Cammas and Groupama 4 opted for the African option but in doing so, sailed away from the fleet and into different weather. Once committed, there would be no turning back.
Ken Read on PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG led into the west, closely shadowed by Martínez and his Telefónica team.
Hesitation by Chris Nicholson’s CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand over which side to cover while sailing around the windless centre of high pressure near the Canaries would prove costly.
“Although we make these things as a group decision, I feel that the responsibility is mine for the fact that at the time, I initially promoted that the easterly option was still on,” said CAMPER navigator Will Oxley.
A week later, the outcome was clear. Those in the west gained and the well-worn sailing cliché of the ‘rich get richer’ was being wheeled out in regular parlance.
Read had edged into the lead but had been lured into a match-race with Martínez while Nicholson paced 150 miles astern and Cammas could only hope for a passing-lane opportunity as the leg progressed.
Officially around 15 miles apart, the two leaders were effectively in a dead heat until within days of passing Fernando de Noronha, the Spanish crew rolled the Americans who had been snared by a patch of light wind. Read admitted the following day: “We had our butts handed to us.”
On Monday, November 21, the Newport, Rhode Island native had bigger issues to worry about as PUMA’s Mar Mostro dismasted in conditions that were far from extreme.
With PUMA out of the running for the first leg, the stage was set for the closing act. All hope of the running-order being over-turned rested on the St. Helena high-pressure system and whether or not a passing cold front along its southern border could offer a sleigh-ride to Cape Town and perhaps deliver a passing-lane along the way.
Telefónica’s 100-mile lead over CAMPER and a partial ride on a cold front, however, enabled them to ride out the rest of the leg into Cape Town where 40 knots of wind delivered a tempestuous finale for the leg winners.
Telefónica lead the standings with 31 points, followed by CAMPER on 29 and Groupama on 22 and all three are in good condition.
As for the others, Abu Dhabi and Sanya welcomed their boats to Cape Town off container ships on November 30 and after days of no-stop work hope to be back sailing by December 7 – just three days before the second in-port race.
PUMA face a huge task to reach Cape Town, step a new mast and be ready in time.
The boat and crew remain for the moment in Tristan da Cunha, the most remote settlement on earth, in the middle of nautical nowhere, as one commentator put it.
Ken Read’s crew are waiting to be collected by ship, with the best they can hope for being to arrive in Cape Town some time on Monday evening.
The team can do a lot of preparation en route but they will be up against the clock to be ready for the Cape Town In-Port Race on December 10 and the start of a second leg that has seen the plans re-drawn because of the threat of piracy — and that will be a whole other logistical story.