Sailing thru Storms and Doldrums

When we last checked on The Volvo Ocean Race, 13 days from Abu Dhabi to China had ended with a tacking duel that pushed the exhausted crews to their limits. Leg 4 begins in Sanya Bay, homeport last-place boat, and ends in Auckland, New Zealand.

    Race leader Telefónica had sailed to victory in the first three distance legs of the Volvo Ocean Race. But the Spanish boat stalled in the in-port races, often finishing last. This time, skipper Iker Martinez powered to a 41-second victory over America’s Team Puma. The victory earned Telefónica another six points — 18 points over second-place Camper.
    In the South China Sea, a fearsome monsoon was forming with 40-mph winds and 30-foot seas. Volvo Ocean Race meteorologists predicted “survival mode” conditions and warned of impending disaster. The Sydney Hobart race, when five boats sank and six people died, still haunted racers and race watchers.
    Race Director Jack Lloyd ended the anxiety: “Leg 4 to Auckland will be split for reasons of safety,” he said.
    The leg was sundered into two stages, the first an inshore coastal course earning no points. “The fleet will then wait,” he concluded, “until conditions are deemed safe enough for them to sail.”

Underway — for a Short Stage

    Team Puma charged to the lead during the 43-mile race to the towering three-sided statue of Guan Yin Buddha that guards the coast. But on the final run back to the Sanya Marina, the American boat hit a windless hole. Nemesis Telefónica and the rest of the fleet dodged the trap, leaving Puma to finish last almost 40 minutes behind the leader.
    The staggered start the next morning proved needless. The fleet left Sanya on its 5,000-mile odyssey in almost windless conditions, bunched together like baby ducks.
    A few hours later, as the boats rounded the cover of Hainan Island with Groupama leading Camper by two miles, the storm kicked in. It hit so hard that several sailors got seasick, a rarity amid seasoned ocean racers.
    Aboard Abu Dhabi, Nick Dana described the brutal upwind conditions. “Imagine riding a mechanical bull … It spins around unpredictable, it moves up and down, side to side and manages to heel over when you least expect it. Now imagine trying to stand on that mechanical bull.”
    The Straits of Luzon is the narrow passage between the top of the Philippines and the bottom of Japan, with a million little islands scattered about like grains of rice. In a perfect world, the boats would simply round the Philippines and head south toward New Zealand. But there’s usually no wind that way. Telefónica tried to cut the corner and came to a dead stop before tacking north and narrowly escaping. So the Volvos headed east, with Camper and Groupama trading leads.
    Ken Read and the Puma gang on Mar Mostro have had bad luck and were looking like underachievers. So in last place and pushed north by a giant header off Taiwan, the team took a gamble and sailed north to Japan. The plan was to find the strong north winds first, boomerang around the top of the light winds and come blasting in from the east with the best angle to hit the steady trade winds south.
    For almost a week, the fleet pounded east across the Pacific in search of the powerful Northwest Trade Winds.

Gambling for Home

    Once into the Trades, it was champagne sailing — close reaching in big wind — exactly what the surfboard-style, flat-bottomed Volvo boats were designed for.
    Team Puma sailed 522.14 nautical miles at an average speed of 21.7 knots.
    “Five hundred twenty-three miles in 24 hours is a lot of miles for a sailboat,” said Team Puma media crewman Amory Ross.
    Groupama had a run of 501nm, averaging 20.9 knots. Abu Dhabi posted 507nm at an average of 21.1 knots. Overall race leader Telefónica joined the 500 club with a 500.32 run.
    As the fleet hit the equator at the edge of the Solomon Islands, a third crossing of the windless Doldrums loomed. Each skipper tried to dodge the dangerous line squalls that vandalize equipment and crew — especially at night when the violent storms are hidden from view.
    Groupama and Team Puma tracked east of the Solomons. Telefónica, Camper and Sanya took the shorter but riskier western route right through the mostly uncharted island chain and wind shadows. Abu Dhabi got caught in the middle.
    In the end, after 20 grueling days, east or west didn’t matter for anyone but the winner Groupama, whose eastern gambit and timely turn to the south paid off, even after a gushing bow leak at the end. The rest of the fleet came together in a giant ball of tired confusion amidst killer 30-knot winds and 25-foot waves. Team Puma’s gamble paid off, earning second place. Telefónica finished third — with hometown favorite Camper less than 20 seconds behind.
    Next Stop: Itajai, Brazil.

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