After the heroics of leg one the Dongfeng Race Team had enjoyed some well-earned rest before beginning preparations for the arduous leg two that would take the crews from Cape Town to the Gulf.
The 6,125-mile stage presented a complex generally light airs test with an opening taste of the Southern Ocean and then a race north towards another date with the Doldrums. Then there would be a fiddly beat in sweltering temperatures towards the Strait of Hormuz.
The stage began on a brisk day off Cape Town with the fleet racing around the cans in up to 40 knots. By day 2, Dongfeng was in third position and by the third day she was leading in big rolling seas. The excitement in the team returned. ‘Leg one was no flash in the pan, the boat speed is there,’ was the collective conclusion.
Gradually working their way northwards, there was nothing to choose between the leading boats, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (ADOR), Team Brunel, Dongfeng and Team Alvimedica. On Dongfeng things were going well, as she made her way between the islands of La Reunion and Mauritius, when the curse of hardware failure hit the team again.
This time it was a problem with the mast track. With a section of it coming away about halfway up the rig, there was a danger the crew might not be able to use the mainsail at all or reef it. The failure came as all the skippers and navigators were eyeing a Tropical Storm that was on course to cross their paths in a couple of days time. (In the end, it failed to materialise). Kevin Escoffier went up the rig twice to make repairs.
The fleet was zig-zagging up the edge of an exclusion zone imposed by the race director off the east coast of Africa when the single biggest drama of the race occurred behind them. In the early hours of the morning, Team Vestas Wind, skippered by Chris Nicholson, sailed onto a reef that was slap-bang in its path but had gone unnoticed by the navigator. The yacht had smashed into the rocks, ripping off its rudders and tearing the bulb off the keel fin.
Once it was clear that the stunned Vestas sailors were safe, the focus on Dongfeng returned to the racing. The next 10 days would prove as a tough a test as any they had encountered, as they contended with light winds, suffocating heat and the constant attention of either ADOR or Brunel.
By day 17 Dongfeng was starting to reach the northeasterly winds that would take them up to the Gulf but the crew was still locked in battle with Brunel. It was to prove nip and tuck all the way to the Strait of Hormuz. The two crews were fighting 24 hours a day. “They’re always there,” said Bouwe Bekking, skipper of Brunel. “Every day at daybreak, the first thing we see is Dongfeng in all her glory.”
On the last day – their 23rd at sea – the two boats were still locked together. In the end it all came down to a line of breeze off Abu Dhabi that the Dutch boat got but Dongfeng did not. It was a bitter pill to swallow. Bekking’s jubilant crew had gone from 15 miles behind to a mile in front and victory was theirs.
Despite the obvious frustration, the Dongfeng team now had a share of a three-way tie for first place overall.
CAUDRELIER AND LIU XUE (BLACK) REFLECT ON THE FATE OF TEAM VESTAS WIND
Charles Caudrelier rubbed his eyes in disbelief as he read the reports of what had happened. He admitted that the disaster that had befallen Vestas was an easy mistake to make. “You know I made this mistake once, sailing really close to the British shore, it was my stupid mistake. Offshore like this, in the middle of nowhere, it’s so difficult. On our chart there is a small blue part (that marks depth less than 200m) but honestly, if you don’t go to the maximum of the zoom you wouldn’t even know that the reef is there. It was only because I spent hours checking this two days ago that I noticed it. It had taken me a long time to find it. We don’t know what happened on board Vestas, but it would not be hard to miss this on the chart. What happened is terrible – terrible for them and for the race.”
Black was stunned by what had happened a few miles behind them in the darkness. “It’s so sad because it’s all the team,” he said. “It’s the shore team, the sponsors and the sailors. It’s everyone’s hard work and training that has been lost in just a few minutes. I feel sorry for them and all of their fans. I wish they could continue this leg.”