LOSING OUT AT THE DEATH
The vibe amongst the Dongfeng Race Team in Newport as the leg 7 re-start day approached was confident but tinged with anxiety. The Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15 was heading for its unpredictable climax and Dongfeng was nicely placed in second position overall but Team Brunel was breathing down its neck, just four points adrift in third place.
Normally a 2,800-mile transatlantic leg could be guaranteed to offer a big downwind thrash at high speed, but adding to the nerves was a weather picture that promised uncertainty, light winds for much of the time and no clear route through the Azores High, blocking the passage to Europe.
With the highly experienced French sailor Sidney Gavignet on board for this leg, the Dongfeng crew held the early lead as the yachts ghosted along in fog off the American coast. The breeze was all over the place and a big choice was opening up: go the longer, faster southerly route through the low pressure system in the early stages of the leg, or stick to the shorter Great Circle route to the north.
In the end Dongfeng and her rivals chose the latter. By day 3, they were being propelled eastwards in the Gulf Stream in shifting winds and two knots of current. “If you go outside the Gulf Stream, you are out of the game,” remarked skipper Charles Caudrelier.
From there the leg turned into yet another roller-coaster ride as Dongfeng lost out massively on occasion under windless clouds and then – just as quickly – regained position and the lead.
After crossing the High Pressure ridge on her seventh day at sea, Caudrelier’s crew found yet another hole in the breeze and dropped behind Brunel and Mapfre, as the navigators plotted their route to the strong northerly winds that would propel them to Portugal. If the stage was proving a struggle for the exhausted team on the Chinese boat, things were even less satisfactory on Ian Walker’s race leading Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (ADOR) which was languishing in last place.
By day 9 the leaders were flying along at 20 knots, tight-reaching in wet and cold conditions as they rampaged towards Lisbon. Dongfeng was fighting to stay up with Brunel and Mapfre, as her anxious crew fretted about the overall leaderboard. One hope was the likelihood of a re-start in the sheltered waters off the Portuguese capital.
A collision with a shark that became stuck on one of the daggerboards and then a rudder, did not help matters. Morale on board was suffering. “Their faces are tired and their eyes are struggling to stay open. They do their watches, they eat, and they go to sleep,” reported Yann Riou.
The sucker punch was about to be delivered. As predicted, the breeze died in the final miles to the finish but Dongfeng got dropped again by Brunel and Mapfre who took the top two places on the podium. The Dongfeng crew were concerned that ADOR might creep up on them, but it was Team Alvimedica, skippered by Charlie Enright, who raced up from a 30-mile deficit to match-race them to the line.
With the Americans just ahead and with a few hundred metres to go, Dongfeng got the chance to overtake and secure third when the breeze shifted in their favour. But a fluffed tack, that left the red boat floundering in irons, allowed Alvimedica to snatch the final place on the podium. It was a bitter blow. Dongfeng emerged from a disappointing leg still second overall, but now just one point ahead of Brunel with two sprint legs remaining.
Caudrelier took the heat for the error. “I am really angry for the mistake we made just before the finish line but at myself, not the team,” he said. Dongfeng was subsequently docked one point by the race Jury for sailing an incorrect course through a Traffic Separation Scheme off the American coast. This left the Chinese team tied on points with Brunel but now third overall by virtue of the Dutch team’s superior in-port race ranking.
FROM THE SKIPPER ON DAY 9 OF A DIFFICULT LEG
Charles Caudrelier tells it as it is as Dongfeng, in third place, cruises at 22 knots with 160nm to go.
“We are nearly there. But there is some frustration on board Dongfeng. We escaped the anticyclone with a nice seven-mile lead on Mapfre and Brunel 48 hours ago, and we expected to get away. We should have touched the wind first, and built our lead quickly.
“But we found ourselves in a windless hole and watched our advantage melt away in six hours, with the wind still behind, and us stuck in a hole.
They passed just a few metres away from us, and Brunel disappeared with a little puff of wind.
“We have fought hard to come back, and we were nearly there, but a shark destroyed our hopes. It was stuck on our daggerboard at first and then on our rudder. It took several minutes to untangle this poor animal and we lost a lot.
“Following that we never found our speed again and ever since we’ve been suffering. This evening Brunel is 12 miles in front and Mapfre four. We hope for a difficult arrival in the Bay of Lisbon, so that we can have a final go…”