On a Slow Boat to America

When we last checked on The Volvo Ocean Race, the racers had taken a wild ride from New Zealand across the South Pacific and around South America to Brazil.

On a stormy Saturday in Itajaí, Brazil, French team Groupama won its first in-port race. Telefónica led all the way — until rounding the wrong mark near the end.
    Team Puma finished third in port, but the Americans led the race to Miami on the 4,800-mile leg from Brazil. Then the fleet separated laterally over a north-south distance of about 80 miles.
    A large cold front blocked the path to the trade winds, giving the boats two options: Hug the coast and avoid the current; or head out to sea to the trades and stronger currents.
    Teams Camper and Abu Dhabi took the riskier course, sailing close to the coast. Telefónica and Groupama headed directly east toward the trades. Puma split the difference in the middle.

Easy Going

    As large schools of dolphins surfed off their boat wakes, each crew had its share of strange encounters.
    Early on in the leg, the Groupama crew thought they were closing on Puma — only to find they were stalking a large oil rig.
    Off the Brazilian coast, Camper and Abu Dhabi had to tack in the dark around a seismic vessel trailing 25,000 feet of cable.
    On Groupama, fresh-food-starved media crewman Yann Riou resorted to eating a flying fish that landed in the cockpit. “I’m not going to pretend that I enjoyed it,” he said “I don’t know how to prepare sashimi.”

Around the Bend

    The race’s first waypoint was Cabo Branco, where Brazil bulges out toward Africa. Here the boats turned the corner, pointed their bows north, hoisted their spinnakers, then rode the southeast trade winds and the Brazil Current toward the southern Caribbean.
    Puma came around the bend first, with Camper and Telefónica less than 10 miles in the rear.
    Powering up the Brazilian coast in nearly ideal conditions, they made a three-boat race.

Riding the Caribbean Current

    Puma held her lead as the boats said goodbye to South America and rode the Caribbean Current north, nearing their final equatorial crossing of the dead wind doldrums, where storm cells dot the ocean like booby traps.
    With 2,400 miles to go, Puma punched through the doldrums and into the steady trade winds, three miles ahead of Camper and five miles in front of Telefónica. Abu Dhabi and Groupama raced 75 miles behind.
    The islands of the Caribbean extend from north to south like a big comma. The southernmost Windward Isles — Grenada, the Grenadines, St. Vincent and St. Lucia — were the next destination as the boats broad-reached in 20-knot winds, zooming along at almost 30 knots and covering over 500 miles a day.
    But the free ride ended as the boats battled it out about 40 miles to the east of Martinique, where a North Atlantic low-pressure system blocked the trade winds and left the three lead boats scrambling to find the best breeze for mind-numbing days on end.
    With 1,000 miles to go, Camper tacked west toward the Virgin Islands seeking stronger winds closer to shore. Puma stayed the farthest out to sea. Telefónica hedged, sailing down the middle.
    These Volvo boys are nothing if not a bit crazy, as Hamish Cooper aboard Camper illustrates.
    “As we passed the Caribbean islands of St Bart’s and St Martin, a small window of opportunity presented itself when the breeze picked up sufficiently … to shoot through a 200-meter gap at 21 knots in six meters of water … right between Anguilla and Scrub Island.”

Into the Bermuda Triangle

    Sailing into the Bermuda Triangle, the boats were running out of food. A Super Moon worked its magic on the Frenchmen on Groupama. Trailing by 80 miles, they took a desperate flier by sailing west and cutting the corner inside the Turks and Caicos Islands. Popping out on the other side, they had slid past Telefónica into third place.
    The last 350 miles were a match between Puma and Camper. Ken Read and the lads aboard Puma’s black sea monster Mar Mostro rounded the Eleuthera Island lighthouse at the top of the Bahamas, drifted into steadier wind and pulled off a wire-to-wire victory. Read thus became the second American skipper to win a leg finishing in the U.S.

Next Stop: Lisbon, Portugal. Between Carr’s reports, follow the race at www.volvooceanrace.com/en/home.html.