Photos by Ian Roman / Volvo Ocean Race.
The six competing teams in the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12 are facing their toughest challenge yet as they return to racing tomorrow on the second stage of Leg 3 to Sanya, China.
The delicate and nerve wracking process of unloading the boats from the ship started at first light and was completed successfully this afternoon.
The 3300 nautical mile (nm) Leg 3 second stage to China sees the fleet return to more familiar ocean passage racing after the unusual stop-start schedule resulting from the race organisers’ anti piracy course changes.
Cited by all the skippers as one of the most challenging of the race, Leg 3 takes the fleet across the Indian Ocean to the north west tip of Sumatra, down through the congested waters of the Malacca Straits before turning north east for a final gruelling slog through the South China Sea to the finish on the Chinese island of Sanya.
In the last edition this section of the race saw some of the most brutal conditions with the fleet forced to shelter from storm force winds and several boats sustaining major damage.
Despite a faltering performance from race leaders Team Telefónica during the Abu Dhabi stopover which saw them finish last in the Etihad In-Port Race and fourth in the Leg 3 first stage to Sharjah, Iker Martínez’s tightly knit crew nevertheless take a healthy seven point margin into the second stage of Leg 3.
While not always the fastest in the fleet, the blue Telefónica boat has consistently proved not been the slowest and with no major breakages to date and some smart navigational performances in the opening legs, the Spanish team have been far and away the best all round performers to date.
Telefónica boat captain Pepe Ribes said the Spanish crew did not feel any extra pressure as race leaders but were conscious of the increasing threat from the other teams.
“There is a lot of racing left,” Ribes said. “I don’t think anyone will feel pressure as the leaders until Lorient. Some of the teams have improved a lot, such as Groupama and Abu Dhabi.
“It looks like a good leg for Groupama but with the conditions it will be easy for the fleet to stay grouped and any of them could win.”
Ribes agreed that Leg 3 was set to be a close fought challenge. “Based on previous experience this next leg is going to be quite difficult and could be very close,” he said. “I hope it will be a speed race for all the boats from here to the Malacca Straits and then after that it will be a question of luck, a lottery – little wind, windless periods, currents against us.
“Then there is a difficult area to pass through alongside Singapore with the shipping lanes and we have to pass through required waypoints.
“After Singapore we have 1,100 miles left of tight racing to China. We may see 30-35 knots of wind but hopefully it might be a little less.”
Second placed CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand have been working hard to close the performance gap they believe exists between them and the other front runners.
New Zealand based coaches Joey Allan and Rod Davis, who normally focus on the Emirates Team New Zealand America’s Cup squad, have been working with the CAMPER crew to “help them lift their game”.
Third placed Groupama sailing team are looking to build on their Leg 2 Stage 2 victory in Abu Dhabi when they showed blistering reaching speed on the 98 nautical mile sprint from Sharjah.
Watch captain Damian Foxall said that despite their strong showing recently their impressive offwind performance may count for little on what is expected to be a predominantly upwind second stage of Leg 3.
“We look back over these last two short legs and the in-port race and we have a first, a second and a third so we can’t complain about that,” he said. “In the last few short legs we’ve gained momentum again and it’s important to maintain that momentum now.
“Basically we’ve got to go upwind to Sanya. Here we are in the middle of the Indian Ocean looking upwind right into the middle of the monsoon which blows down the east coast of Asia and down along the Pacific coast.
“Then we’re off towards the Straits of Malacca which aren’t very windy. It’s very light, reaching downwind I’d imagine. We have a fairly narrow band of water to get through.
“Then we’re really into the upwind stuff as we come past Singapore and towards Sanya on the southern side of China. Then we’re into the proper monsoon stuff with building breezes as we get closer to Sanya.
“We just have to go in the right direction and hopefully keep the boat in one piece. It’s nothing too extreme, but we’re expecting winds of around 30 knots or more as we get up towards Sanya,” Foxall concluded.
PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG go into the Leg 3 second stage in fourth place having bounced back from a lacklustre in-port race in Abu Dhabi by snatching second in the final stages of the Leg 3 opening sprint to Sharjah.
Having broken their mast on Leg 1 from Alicante, Spain to Cape Town the PUMA crew have since had to play catch up as they tuned their new rig on Leg 2.
After reaching Sharjah in second PUMA skipper Ken Read said he was glad to be able to put the stop-start racing caused by the risk of piracy and get back into a more normal rhythm of ocean racing.
“We’re pleased with the adjustments we made, but there’s a long way to go,” Read said. “Clearly there are some improvements we need to make for the short courses. But, we’ve had enough bad fortune, and we’ll take a little good fortune and hopefully build upon it.”
Fifth placed Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing claimed maximum points in the last two scoring opportunities, winning both the Etihad In-Port Race and the Leg 3 sprint out of Abu Dhabi.
Having been unable to complete Leg 1 due to damage to their bow and missing the second stage of Leg 2 with rigging damage, Mike Sanderson’s Team Sanya crew have been revitalised by the prospect of a Leg 3 homecoming in Sanya.
“I don’t think I have ever been so amped up to get back out and go racing,’’ he said. “We owe it to everyone, and ourselves to go and have a decent leg and get this show back on the right track.
“The boat is great and the team is one of the most wonderful group that I have been involved with, I really can’t say enough good things about them. Through thick and thin they have just dug it in and done what needs to be done and some.
“I am sure we will have a nice leg and gain some momentum from there, so all the efforts can finally reap some rewards.”
With the unloading process behind them the sailors have had to scramble to get their boats race ready in less than 24 hours ahead of tomorrow’s restart scheduled for 0800 UTC (1300 local time).
The fleet is expected to finish the over 3000 nautical mile Leg 3 second stage to Sanya around February 6.