On a perfect day for racing in Capetown, South Africa, Telefonica tightened its stranglehold on first place by winning the in-port race. But the real winners were the three boats that had made it to the starting line after withdrawing from the first leg because of equipment failures.
The following day, all six of the boats began Leg 2, a 5,000-mile slog to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Hundreds of spectator boats came out to watch that country’s boat, Abu Dhabi, lead the way out of Capetown.
The usual strategy of heading south to catch the strong northerlies was blown out the window when a giant high-pressure system parked to the south. Instead, navigators charted a course along the coast of South Africa.
The strong breeze vanished with nightfall. Drifting along at about two knots within sight of one another, the sailors wondered what they had done to anger the wind gods. Telefonica was forced to drop anchor to keep from going backward.
For the next two days, the boats took turns leading the way along the African coast. Battling a 10-knot headwind, the crews tacked and stacked toward the Indian Ocean without sleep.
Africa had one more trick up its sleeve. The Agulhas Bank, a stretch of shallow water where the warm southerly Agulhas current meets the cold Beneguela current just east of the Cape of Good Hope, stirred up a maze of boat-busting waves.
Groupama helmsman Charles Caudrelier explained the scene: “We had waves from every direction, and the boat didn’t stop slamming.”
Once free of the African pile driver, the race essentially restarted. Sailing east, the fleet split along a north-south axis to find the quickest route through a low-pressure trough of light air. Telefonica took the northern route, while the French on Groupama sailed 200 miles to the south. The other boats split the difference.
Abu Dhabi media crew member Nick Dana described near madness: “Try this on your brain: three to four knots of wind, sails brutally slapping the rig. Within seconds it shifts 60 degrees, gusts 15 to 18 knots and tips the boat over. The strong pressure lasts two minutes maximum and requires moving tons of sails. Then the breeze dies again in a matter of seconds and sends the boat upright and the sails against the rig, sending chills down everyone’s spines. Put that on repeat for 15 straight hours and see how you come out the other side.”
Torture and Misery
The teams endured four days and nights of this physical and mental torture. Finally, Sanya couldn’t take it anymore and banged a hard left due north into the jaws of a fearsome storm. The Chinese boat quickly went from last to first. Then disaster struck for a second time. The masthead rigging came apart at the spreaders, forcing the crew to suspend racing and head to the Madagascar Port of Ehoala.
Groupama’s gambit to head south paid off. On day five, as the rest of the Volvos finally punched through into fresh wind, the whole fleet turned in tandem to the northeast. Meanwhile, the French power-surfed into the lead.
Christmas Eve, the 11th day of the maddening leg, found the tight pack just north of Madagascar, with Groupama leading toward yet another sweltering windless wall. At The Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, the boats compressed together for the third restart. Now Camper and Telefonica guessed right on the shortest wind line through the doldrums. The pair spent the next two days within sight of one another match-racing.
Into the Stealth Zone
Then the fleet mysteriously vanished into the Stealth Zone.
Piracy is a major industry in the Indian Ocean. Capturing a Volvo boat would bring a pretty penny. The race hired Dryad Maritime Intelligence Service to keep the teams out of harm’s way. Their solution — a first in the race’s 38-year history — was to electronically cloak the fleet as it secretly sailed to a secure, prearranged port. There the 15-ton Volvos were loaded onto a razor-wire garlanded freighter.
After 15 days of insane racing, Telefonica reached the still top-secret safe haven first. Finishing a mere 1:57 seconds ahead of Camper, Telefonica took 80 percent of the points for the leg.
The fleet was then shipped to an undisclosed spot off the coast of the United Arab Emirates where the boats were unloaded for stage two and the mad dash to Abu Dhabi.
Groupama snagged the remaining six points by rolling Telefonica at the last mark of the wind-whipped, 98-mile sprint through the Persian Gulf, winning stage two of Leg 2 by 52 seconds.
Next Stop: Sanya, China.