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Eating an Elephant One Bite At a Time

For Leg 3 of the Volvo Ocean Race, navigators had to break the 4,500-nautical-mile run into manageable pieces

Volvo Ocean Race leader Dongfeng Race Team ­crosses Malaca to ­Singapore Straits during Leg 3 to Sanya, China. <<photo by Xaume Olleros / Power Sport Images / Volvo Ocean Race ©>>

Before leaving the dock, Brunel navigator Andrew Cape christened the 4,642-mile third leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, from Abu Dhabi to Sanya, China, the “s••••y leg.”
    “We will encounter a lot of fishing boats,” he wrote. “Everywhere along the coast of India, Vietnam and Malaysia there are fishing nets and lines in which we can become snared.”
    A Volvo navigator is a grumbling gremlin lashed to a cramped navigation station below deck under the eerie glow of a red light, trying to plot a course through a sketchy minefield that can leave a boat dead in the water or careening out of control. When the navigator gets it right, the skipper gets all the credit. Get it wrong, and they often find themselves replaced at the next stop.
    Check out the press release from the boat that ran aground in Leg 2: “Skipper Chris Nicholson has completed his review … and the decision has been made that Wouter Verbraak will no longer continue as navigator of the Vestas Wind.”
    The previous Volvo Ocean Race stopped in Abu Dhabi and Sanya. But because of the threats of pirates, racers sailed to a secret location near the Maldive Islands, where they were transported by freighter to the Gulf of Oman and off-loaded for the second stage of the leg. Pirates are no longer a factor, so this was going to be a voyage of discovery.
    The race began in light winds as the Volvos navigated the straits of Hormuz and its smorgasbord of super tankers, fishing boats, sharp rocks and the Iranian Exclusion Zone, where communications were jammed by the military.
    The navigators had to eat the elephant one bite at a time, dividing the race into manageable bits, each with its own weird and unpredictable winds and weather.
    When Brunel slowed to a crawl off the coast of Pakistan, the crew looked through the endoscope and saw something dark attached to their bottom.  Luis Balcean went over the side to determine the problem. 
    He came back up, yelling, “There’s a big dark snake wrapped around the sail drive!”
    Around Cape Comorin at the southern tip of India, the breezes came barreling down the Gulf of Manmar wind tunnel between the Indian continent and the island of Sri Lanka. Navigators had to plot the best course around the wind shadow of 9,000-foot Mt. Pedro before crossing the infamous Bay of Bengal.
    The Bay of Bengal got its name because of its ferocious tiger-like winds. But the Volvos encountered a sea as calm as glass that the sailors called it Kitty Litter Bay.
    The navigators then faced the most daunting task of all, plotting the best route through the Adaman Sea and into the 435-mile Malacca Strait. Down this narrow rabbit hole between Malaysia and Sumatra, the wrong choice could leave a boat sailing backwards with the current while dodging a million surprises.
    “I’ve seen floating refrigerators,” writes Brunel’s Jens Dolmer. “It is the rainy season so everything washes into the sea. Those wooden houses on stilts? You will see them drifting alongside our boat.”
    We hear a lot about the pollution of our oceans these days, but to read veteran Volvo skipper Bouwe Bekking’s description of the sailing conditions is an ugly glimpse into Dante’s Inferno.
    “I was feeling really sad about the amount of rubbish off the Indian coast, but now that we are sailing in the Malacca Strait I unfortunately have to report that the Indian rubbish record has been broken. It’s like sailing in a big soup of Styrofoam, plastic bags, bottles, condoms and other things … we can’t see, like human feces and the millions of bacteria.”
    The navigational nightmare got crazier still as the boats were squeezed into the 10-mile-wide Singapore Channel, a maze of islands and moving obstacles, before getting spit out into the South China Sea.
    The entire fleet opted for the 1,000-mile upwind beat along the coast of Vietnam. There thousands of tea-cup fishing vessels and their mother ships came out each night like a moving city of lights surrounded by nets. Amid them the Volvos played dodge-boat, snap-tacking for five days, with Dongfeng never surrendering her tenuous lead.
    After 23 days, Dongfeng became the first Chinese boat in the 41-year history of the race to win a leg — in its home port of Sanya, China, no less.
    Abu Dhabi and the Turkish-American boat Alvimedica followed.

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