Leg 3, Day 9: Dongfeng (still) locked in mortal combat with MAPFRE

It’s been a brutal leg and it is far from over. Dongfeng Race Team, on their ninth day at sea, are still locked in a minute-by-minute battle for supremacy with MAPFRE who has tracked them across the Southern Indian Ocean like a shadow.

During the last 12 hours, as the have boats finally eased away from the Antarctic Ice Exclusion Zone and the incessant gybing it has forced on them, MAPFRE under Xabi Fernandez finally grabbed the lead form Charles Caudrelier, but only for a few hours.

The red and white Chinese boat sponsored by Dongfeng Motor Corporation of China, which is bidding to win the Volvo Ocean Race at the second time of asking, pulled ahead again as the crews continued on an easterly heading, reaching in strong northwesterly winds.

This morning Dongfeng was travelling at over 22 knots and was 4.7 miles head of MAPFRE with Vestas 11th Hour Racing just 18 miles further back in third place. There was then a gap of 42 miles to Team Brunel in fourth place, as the fight for the podium on this double-points leg continued with 2,800 miles still to sail to Melbourne.

The next few hours look interesting for Dongfeng as she sails further east into the influence of high pressure, centred about 1,000 miles southwest of Cape Leeuwin, and lighter winds and as the dreaded Ice Zone starts to impinge again from the south, pushing her towards the centre of the high.

This has been a strange leg. The idea was that the Volvo Ocean Race would return to its roots and get south into the wilds of the Southern Ocean but in reality the boats have been trapped along the Ice Zone as the weather and the shortest routing has consistently indicated that south is faster and quicker.

Instead of free-flowing Southern Ocean sailing they have been gybing as if on an inshore course and this has taken its toll on all of the crews, destroying the rhythm of the watch system and grinding everyone down, as lack of sleep and physical exhaustion have taken their toll.

Leading the way through this test of stamina and willpower, Dongfeng Race Team successfully completed no less than 26 gybes in the space of 420 nautical miles, as the boat ran southeast from the northern tip of the Zone. Carolijn Brouwer described the routine on board during this phase.

“It’s just tough – or tiring – you get to the stage where you are tripping over your own feet which, if you don’t watch out, can be quite dangerous. Every hour taking your top off and putting back on – that’s probably the worst part.

“Sometimes you are happy – even if it’s just for 20 minutes in your own bunk - just to lie down flat. Even if you don’t sleep it makes you feel a little bit better and gives you just that little bit of energy to get back on deck again and do the next gybe, over and over again. But as long as we are making gains I am OK with it,” she added laughing, “I have no problem with it…”

Caudrelier called it a “nightmare.”

“During the next 30 hours we are going to gybe every hour,” he summarised yesterday. “So it’s just a nightmare – not very funny – but we have no choice. We have an ice limit so it’s a good rhythm for us to avoid going racing into icebergs which is, of course, very dangerous. But at the moment we are doing a gybe every hour or 30 minutes.

“You have to tack everything – you have to move 600 kilos every time and the sails are full of water and the boat is moving. You can’t manage to sleep and you have to change everything – it’s just horrible. But that’s life at the extreme and today for sure it’s life at the extreme but, on the positive side, we are ahead of MAPFRE and fighting for first place,” he added.

Latest position report at 0700 UTC:

1. Dongfeng Race Team. DTF: 2,814 nm

2. MAPFRE. DTL: 4.7nm

3. Vestas 11th Hour Racing. DTL: 23.5nm

4..Team Brunel. DTL: 65.5nm

5. Team Sun Hung Kai / Scallywag. DTL: 77.1nm

6. Turn The Tide on Plastic. 142.7nm

7. Team AkzoNobel. DTL: 221.1nm