The Last Boat Standing
When we last checked on The Volvo Ocean Race, 20 monsoon-drenched days from China to New Zealand had ended in a bone-crushing duel. Leg 5 takes a wild ride across the South Pacific from New Zealand around South America to Brazil.
Record crowds lined Auckland Harbor and took to the sea to cheer Camper on to victory in her hometown in-port race. While the fleet battled the stiff currents of Freeman’s Bay, Skipper Chris Nicholson used local knowledge to sail along the shore, edging out Puma at the first mark and never looking back.
Luck turned in open water.
The 7,500-mile leg from New Zealand to Brazil has historically been the wildest ride of the race. Strategy has been to head east across the Bay of Plenty, then bang a hard right south at East Cape to catch the frigid roller coaster winds and seas howling north from Antarctica. This time out, a monster tropical depression blocked the eastern glide path, forcing the fleet to head north.
A Scant 40 miles into the leg, Ian Walker’s Abu Dhabi suffered damage to the J4 bulkhead and returned to port. Abu Dhabi had endured the same bad luck the first night out on Leg 1.
The five-boat fleet turned south toward the Roaring 40s, where keeping the boats in one piece and everyone safely on board became the primary mission. Camper skipper Nicholson described the conditions: On deck “you can’t stand up. If you move anywhere you are crawling around on your hands and knees,” he said. “Going over the waves is like playing Russian roulette.”
The list of accidents included a dislocated shoulder, wrenched back, broken equipment and assorted leaks.
After the first 1,000 miles, the five Volvos were all within sight of one another as they sailed south and licked their wounds in a temporary calm.
By day four, crafty Volvo skipper Mike Sanderson had miraculously sailed underdog Sanya into the lead, six miles ahead of Camper and Groupama. They were blasting along at over 20 knots when the starboard rudder post sheared off, sending water gushing into the aft compartment. The only option was to secure the ship and head back to Auckland for repairs. Leg 5 ended there for Sanya. The boat was shipped to Savannah for repairs before sailing to Miami for the start of Leg 7.
Nearing the ice exclusion area, a safety zone established at the northern edge of drifting icebergs, the other four boats sailed straight into the mighty jaws of a monstrous Antarctic storm. On the next move they turned in tandem to the northeast and rode the mighty gale.
As the boats sailed in survival mode, skirting along the edge of the ice zone and the physical limits of both boat and crew, the skippers applied the brakes. In 60-knot winds amidst 30-foot-tall, boat-breaking waves, none could risk sinking in the most isolated part of the world where no ship or plane could come to their rescue.
Camper media crew member Hamish Hooper struggled to describe the conditions on board. “It feels and sounds like you are on an out-of-control freight train, traveling through time with a conductor who gets the accelerator and brakes mixed up. Crazy just doesn’t seem to be enough to describe it.”
The next day, while in first place, Camper launched off the top of a building-sized wave, suffering major structural damage to the bow. Out of this leg, the New Zealand boat headed for Puerto Montt, off the western coast of Chile for repairs.
The next day, a double-barrel wave slammed into Telefónica, almost losing the entire deck crew and delaminating the bow. Rather than risk sinking, the crew throttled back and limped to Cape Horn. The shore crew sailed out to help repair the damage. Only 17 hours later, Telefónica was back in the race.
Next, trouble picked on Abu Dhabi. After clawing back into the race, the crew was honking along at night when they realized their hull was coming apart at the seams. The next day, they performed an amazing at-sea repair job, drilling 30 bolts through the hull. Using the canting keel to tip the boat onto its side, the sailing and repair crew lowered bowman Justin Slattery over the side to tighten the clamps fabricated from metal pieces off their bunks and storage lockers. In the end, the repairs were not enough. The boat was shipped from Chile to Brazil.
That left Groupama and Puma in a duel. Once beyond the ice exclusion zone, both boats headed back south into ferocious weather to find the best wind and wave angle to Cape Horn. From there, they match-raced through wind holes, storms and islands, within eyesight of one another and trading leads almost every four hours. With 600 miles to go, and two miles in the lead, Groupama’s mast broke at the first spreader. Forced to suspend racing, the plucky crew headed for the Uruguayan port of Punta del Este and jury-rigged the mast. Groupama sailed to a gritty but disappointing third for the leg.
Telefónica rode a fresher breeze, making up over 400 miles in a matter of a few days and closing to within a mile of victory. But American entry Puma held Telefónica off to take a first leg win by less than 12 minutes.
Next stop: Miami. Between Carr’s reports, follow the race at www.volvooceanrace.com.