Life at the Extreme

When we last reported on The Volvo Ocean Race, 12 days of intense racing across the Atlantic from Miami had ended in one of Volvo’s closest finishes. Despite reaching Lisbon second by six minutes, Groupama gained the overall lead.

Along the narrow Tagus River in front of the ancient, white-stoned city of Lisbon, hard-charging Groupama dominated an upwind-downwind in-port race. Telefónica recklessly fouled PUMA at the start, and the Spanish boat finished last yet again. PUMA’s wily skipper Ken Read pulled a rabbit out of his hat at the next-to-last mark, smoking the rest of the fleet and finishing second, followed by a very disappointed CAMPER.

Into the Atlantic
    As PUMA was leaving the dock in Lisbon to begin the 1,950-mile leg around the Azore Islands to Lorient, France, cagy skipper Ken Read commented on the transience of first place. “Groupama are not going to feel very secure up there. They know there’s a lot of racing left.”
    PUMA nailed the brisk downwind start and led the pack out of Lisbon, with Groupama trailing last.
    But it was a different story when the fleet entered the Atlantic. PUMA headed southeast, seeking a good angle for the turn north. By the first night, Telefónica had stormed into the lead, followed by Groupama. Both those boats took the more direct northerly route toward Sao Miguel Island, which sits in the middle of the Azores High, an area of little wind. The island functioned as a mark, and the boats packed up when they approached the rounding.
    “There’s big gains and losses to be made getting around the island,” said CAMPER skipper Chris Nicholson. “Then it’s a pretty fast trip if you keep it all in one piece.”
    He was referring to the 30-to 40-knot gale-force winds and 18-foot seas waiting around the bend once the boats cleared Sao Miguel. How hard a skipper was willing to push crew and boat in such dangerous downwind conditions could well determine victory or disaster.
    With the top three boats in sight of one another as they rounded the island and started blasting north toward some truly evil weather, Ken Read on PUMA sounded the alarm. “It’s becoming do or die for us. We really need to be more apt to taking risks at this stage in the game.”
    The first boat to break was Groupama, whose crew tried to reef the mainsail in advance of the approaching storm. It was jammed at the top, forcing Kiwi bowman Brad Marsh to climb the bucking mast three times in rough seas to fix the problem. The two-hour repair dropped Groupama from second to fourth.
    Dancing the razor’s edge between triumph and disaster, Telefónica powered into the lead by setting the Schaffhausen Speed Record Challenge with a 565-mile run over 24 hours. Then a rudder broke, dropping the Spanish boat to third.

The Dead Man’s Gybe
    Leg 8 came down to one incredibly dangerous maneuver: gybing in the dark in the middle of a roaring Atlantic storm. Timing was going to be everything.
    “This gybe is going to be super crucial. It will decide the winner,” said Andrew Cape, the navigator aboard Telefónica.
    The dead man’s gybe posed one question: How deep was a skipper prepared to take his boat into the storm to maximize the wind angle for the final screaming run into Lorient?
    “It’s pretty full on,” said PUMA’s navigator Tom Addis. “It’s a bit like playing chicken.”
    Sails were ripping on all the boats, and the crews were too wasted to eat. They would grind, then sleep for four hours, then back into wave world for more grinding.
    The lead boat, Telefónica, was the first to turn east — and into disaster. A rogue wave hit out of nowhere in the crazy seas and the boat went into a Chinese gybe. The starboard rudder snapped, crippling the boat and dashing hopes of an amazing comeback victory.
    After winning the first three legs of the Volvo Ocean Race and looking virtually unbeatable, skipper Iker Martinez sounded heartbroken. “I would like to say sorry from the bottom of my heart. I think the only thing that makes me feel better is knowing that I have given one hundred percent to this for the past two years.”

Survival Sailing
    In fire-hose conditions that made for survival-mode sailing, Groupama surged back into the lead with 200 miles to go. Battling for second were CAMPER, after regaining the 24-hour speed record with a run of 566 miles, followed closely by PUMA.
    With a hundred miles to the finish, the sun rose over the Bay of Biscay and live feeds started coming in from the boats. The sight was sobering as giant waves crashed over bows, bashing eyeballs and inundating the boats with water as the helmsmen struggled to hold the wheel. The guys on the bow looked and moved like astronauts walking on the moon. It was beyond scary.
    As a fitting end, Groupama sailed to a raucous homeport victory in Lorient, escorted by hundreds of proud local sailors blasting the French boat’s theme song, Highway To Hell.
    CAMPER edged out PUMA for a well-earned second-place finish on a rainy day along the Brittany Coast.
    Next Stop: Galway, Ireland.
    Between Carr’s reports, follow the race at